I have been identifying with Anabaptist Christianity since some point last year. There was so much I loved about that particular approach to Christianity, and that is still the case. When I first found out what Anabaptism was, and I seriously wanted to identify with it, I quickly realized that I was in a black hole of the Anabaptist tradition. The Brethren churches formed a circle around my area, but there was not one in my area. When it came to the Mennonites, there were a few churches, but they were not close enough for me to attend regularly. At first, I thought I was stuck, but recently I was finally able to get in touch with some of the Mennonites in the area. Today was particularly special in that I was able to visit one of the Mennonite churches.
At first, I thought that I would not be able to visit because of my limited access to transportation, but then I started talking to one of the members of the church. First, they got me in touch with some Mennonites who are operating closer to me than I thought, and I have made plans to work with them in the near future. I still, however, wanted to visit a Mennonite church beforehand. I have heard a stereotype that Mennonites are supposed to be hospitable people. Well in this case, the stereotype proved correct, because my friend offered to take me to visit his church, even though it would mean an hour drive. So, we arranged for me to visit.The day did not start out well because I ended up sleeping in, but I was able to get ready in time to make it. On our way to Scottdale Mennonite Church, we talked about various aspects of the Mennonite tradition. We especially talked about Mennonite publishing since my friend used to work with them, and this Mennonite church used to have a publishing house, which was then closed and sold off during the merger of the (old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church.
When we got there, I honestly expected to be disappointed. I am someone who comes from outside the Mennonite community, and someone who’s experience of Anabaptism comes from groups like Young Anabaptist Radicals, Jesus Radicals, neo-Anabaptists, and the first few generations of Anabaptists. Because of this, I figured that this church would just be something like a conservative, mainline Protestant church, rather than something with the beauty that I see in the first Anabaptists and modern radicals. Well, it turns out that I was horribly wrong, and that my first real world experience with the Mennonites could not have been better.
I think the reason that my first experience seemed to agree with me so well was due to the context that I am coming from. Where I live, there are very few historical, or “ethnic,” Mennonite communities. Even though Pennsylvania has a very high Mennonite population, the church mostly resides in the eastern portion of the state. On the other hand, I reside in the western half. Most of the Mennonite churches here are not nearly as historically rooted as the ones in the other side of the state. Many of the Mennonite churches here date to the 1960s or later. One such example is a Mennonite church plant called Shalom that I have plans to work with, which is emerging, postmodern, and run by millennials. This fact drastically changes the context of these churches, giving them some neo-Anabaptist or “progressive” flavor.
When we arrived at the church, we walked into the sanctuary because the service was about to begin. The first thing I noticed was that there was not an American flag on the altar like so many American churches do. This was very important to me, since as Christians, our nation is the Kingdom of God, not some temporal empire. Then, the service began, and I noticed something very different from what I experience in my evangelical and Presbyterian past — the hymns had drastically different messages. In the Calvinist tradition that I came from, hymns often talked about the cross, the blood of Christ, sacrifice, and personal salvation. The Mennonite hymns were different — they made use of concepts such as peace, love, caring for the lame and poor, as well as salvation. The implications within the hymns were very different, and very refreshing.
What really interesting was the sermon, which was on Revelation chapter seven. In the tradition I came from, Revelation was meant to be seen as some sort of literal, “End Times” future, but the pastor did not do that. He explained that the book of Revelation is a metaphor explaining hope and community in the face of imperial oppression. In addition to that, he used the passage to show how the different tribes of Israel, and countless others, were all of equal standing before God. The reason he mentioned this was to tie it into the Mennonite convention in Arizona, and the issues with immigration there. He wanted to show that American and Mexican, native and alien are of equal value, even if secular laws say otherwise. He then tied this all into the issues of racism, which race is something that needs to be mentioned here.
In my old church, every single member was white, and things like racism would have never been preached against. Such issues were simply ignored as if they did not exist. In this Mennonite congregation, however, race was directly preached about in the sermon, and it was mentioned in the time of sharing afterward. What was also really refreshing was that this church had African American members, where my former church was composed of a completely white membership.
After the service, we had about an hour or two to just talk, and this time was also very interesting for me. I talked with the pastor for awhile, which we talked about Anabaptism a bit, and we discussed the possibility of me working with them, and maybe being baptized by them, in the future. We also talked about things like Christian Peacemaker Teams, Christian anarchism, and other things. He even knew who the Jesus Radicals were, and had heard of Young Anabaptist Radicals before. It also turned out that we often read the same theologians. Also, he recommended that I talk to some members of the congregation, and this was when some really interesting conversations took place.
One of the people I was recommended to talk with was a Roman Catholic member of the church. He is actually a theology professor at a nearby Catholic university. We discussed the Catholic Worker Movement, Ekklesia, and theologians like Stanley Hauerwas. Another interesting discussion I had was with another academic who attended this church. What I found particularly interesting was the fact that he studied under Bruce Metzger. We also talked about the Jesus Seminar and Bart Ehrman for a bit, of which we were both critical. I also had the chance to talk with the new pastoral intern about the Anabaptist tradition. He was not much older than me, and we definitely had some similarities in thought. We got to discussing the history of Anabaptism a bit before he had to leave.
After meeting some of the members of the church, my friend who brought me to visit took me out to lunch, where we got to talking about some interesting things. We discussed American imperialism and figures such as Oscar Romero. I learned that my friend has a past with conscientious objection and even protested the School of the Americas back in the day. Now, he is a photographer with a degree in journalism. Then, after eating lunch and talking, he dropped me off at my home.
I do not think my first real world experience with the Mennonites could have turned out any better. While I am still somewhat geographically isolated from many of the Mennonites here, I certainly plan on visiting again, and hopefully getting more involved in some way. For now, however, I can easily consider myself in the broader Anabaptist tradition, and on the fringe of the Mennonite tradition.