“Aaaiii, Hinke!” yelled Amina as she bounded out to hug my brother and me, during a recent visit to her home. Then after many greetings she danced off to the family cucumber fields to give the news of our arrival to her mother and sisters. Amina and I had last seen each other 13 years earlier but for much of our childhoods we grew up together in Tanzania. Her father, Juma, had worked for my family and had been like a second father to me.
Quickly the entire family gathered and we caught up on 13 years of family news. Several hours later we were all sitting down to a meal of ugali (a paste made of maize meal and water) and mchicha (Tanzanian greens), as well as a few celebratory sodas bought at a nearby kiosk. We sat in the dirt yard, seated on wooden stools and ate from a communal dish.
“Hinke, my sister, why aren’t you eating?” asked Juma’s son Athumani in Swahili, after I had eaten a few handfuls of food.
I grinned at him and answered, “I am eating, but I’m also listening,” It was the same response I had given to the same question when I was a child.
He shook his head and said mischievously, “You are the same as you always were. Eat.” I gave him a look of mock annoyance and we both felt a distinct sense of home.
This past Christmas I was privileged to return to Kenya and Tanzania for my vacation. Returning to familiar childhood and adolescent haunts evoked surprising emotions as well as new self-discoveries. The voice of Africa has whispered almost inaudibly throughout my years away. African perspectives influence my principles, my decision-making, and my faith. Like that of most transient, world-travelling young adults, my faith has been shaped by various voices. It is only when I consciously stop and listen that I hear each individual cultural melodic strain that together compose the symphony of my faith.
The notes of community were given to me as a gift not only by the African people but also through the stories of the Bible and the stories of Anabaptism passed down by my grandparents and parents. All of these gifts taught me that people live out God’s purpose together as a larger family and not only as individuals. With community there is a future in faith and peace. My generation of North Americans constantly searches for community meaning in a world where individualized experiences and products are packaged to match our consumeristic whims. We cannot take the gift of community for granted. It is this community that keeps us true to ourselves and to God as we interact from a variety of backgrounds, cultural environments, and even from a variety of faiths.
In a community others call us to accountability and honesty in relationship. The musical strains of honesty, humility, and integrity are amazingly simple when they are taken at face value. Hardship and daily struggle for the most basic of needs in Africa makes simplicity a reality that cannot be avoided and should not be romanticized. The Anabaptist ancestors have handed down ethics of simplicity that demand honesty and integrity in relationship. Without this integrity, all attempts at simple living are rendered utterly fruitless. This gift of simplicity is more endangered than it seems, for we humans have the innate ability to endlessly complicate our lives and to fool ourselves into thinking we are in control at the simplest of levels. In our attempts to create efficiencies and programming, we miss those rare glimpses of genuine humility in relationship. Those are the spontaneous moments that can bring us to our knees in humble realization of our own frail humanity.
Community and humility; these are only two of a much larger collection of melodies that come together to compose my faith. A Mennonite young adult is easily and understandably overwhelmed by the many voices speaking into Anabaptist faith today. With all of these melodies running chaotically around me, I might easily give into paralysis or apathy and choose to float on the waves of whatever life brings my way. Right now, I choose to consciously study each of these melodies that has informed my faith in both negative and positive ways.
The culture of my postmodern generation tells me to value community but this same generation searches for community that brings the most meaning to self. Africa tells me to value community but African community suffers at the hands of corrupt leaders who act in their own interest. Anabaptism tells me to live simply and with honesty but Mennonites today have yet to honestly face the reality of a cultural and global paradigm that is already silently informing future Mennonite generations. The church pays the price in youth and young adults who leave. My young adult generation tells me to speak plainly and not to put faith in language and words as they often contain hidden agenda and assumed meaning. Yet here I am, using language to convey ideas that will speak plainly to some and seem gibberish to others.
It is a confusing collection of stories. Because of Christ, I can see the examples of his life, the stories of the Anabaptists, and the stories of Africa come together to form a terrible and beautiful symphony of faith. The end goal must be to live out our faiths in a way that is meaningful as a community that owes its existence and purpose to God.
In this symphony the melodies work together, some louder than others, and each becomes more beautiful as they temper each other’s rough edges. Paradoxically, the simplicity of Jesus’ way empowers us to face our own complicated experience of faith and allows those experiences to rest in tension with each other forming an integrated whole.
At last years North American Young Adult Fellowship meeting I met others who find themselves in a similar position of inundation by a diverse collection of faith melodies. These young adults spoke about how their faith interacts with the church. They spoke of church as a place for gathering, but also as a people that focus on justice and peace issues. Church is also being vulnerable, accountable, and open to the moving of God’s Spirit. Church is an everyday activity and part of our lifestyle as we empower each other to creatively transform the world around us. Church is honouring our heritage and redefining Anabaptism in today’s world in a way that allows us to relevantly engage those around us. In essence then, church is living our Christian faith, a living out of all those melodies that must somehow come together to form something meaningful.
Last summer, North American young adults took part in a bike tour that visited more than 19 congregations across the northern part of the United States. It sought to transform those many voices into one unified experience of intentional community while initiating and inviting conversation about the church. Experiences like these empower us to listen intentionally to those individual melodies that inform our faith, to take ownership of them, celebrate them, and with God’s help, to weave them into something that makes sense to our whole selves, as individuals and as community.
No one can assume that everyone is informed by the same melodies. We cannot assume that all have heard the same stories of Anabaptists or the same stories of God’s people through the Bible. In today’s world we are not all raised in one geographic location or by a distinct faith community. We do not all receive the same Mennonite lessons in ethics or principles. My generation and the generations following me receive information and values from a rich variety of geographic, philosophical, and theological sources. The internet and the accessibility of global travel are some examples of how this generation is particularly enculturated to hear many voices at once.
It is a culture that makes the real sense of home or community more rare than it once was, and it is not a culture that suddenly passes like a phase. Moments like the one with Juma’s family are valuable and humbling reminders of who we are when all pretences and busyness are stripped away.
To a large extent, the stories of previous generations define our current Mennonite church and faith culture in Canada. We have new stories and new beautiful melodies that must be written into the greater story of our Anabaptist faith history. With God’s guidance, we can filter through the many voices informing us, through the beautiful and challenging stories of our lives and those around us. Slowly and carefully we form an understanding of Anabaptism and what it means to be Mennonite in our world today. We may not be of the world, but we are definitely in it. I have faith that we as a young generation of Anabaptists will, by the grace of God, create our own symphonies of faith and give these as gifts to a world that is crying out for us to play our part.
An abridged version was published in the Canadian Mennonite Vol.11, No.9 (April 30, 2007) www.canadianmennonite.org