It is strange that I live in Pennsylvania, a state with a strong Anabaptist population and history, but in my county (Allegheny) there was very little presence. Part of the problem is that I live in western Pennsylvania, while the historic Anabaptist populations primarily settled in the east, on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains. Until the 1960′s, there were no Mennonite congregations in my county—the nearest Mennonite community was in the next county. There were a couple Brethren congregations, but it was still mostly the same.
It was in the late sixties, when a small community from various backgrounds and denominations began to meet that things started to change. This small community admired the Anabaptist—specifically Mennonite—vision, and the called themselves “Pittsburgh Mennonite Church,” even though they did not belong to a Mennonite denomination at this point. A little while later, they decided to join the Allegheny Mennonite Conference of the Mennonite Church, and it was with them that an Anabaptist movement started in my area.
For the last couple decades, the Pittsburgh Mennonite community was pretty isolated, and people like me (an Anabaptist currently without a denomination), were even more isolated. When I first showed interest in Anabaptism, I was disappointed with how little there was, and I thought I would have to find some other way to express the faith that I admired. Then, I started to reach out to the few Mennonites I could, and I found some very important seeds being planted.
In the last few years, two more Mennonite churches have been added to my county, both in the city of Pittsburgh. One is a church plant by Nepalese and Bhutanese immigrants. My friend, the pastor of Scottdale Mennonite Church, regularly works with them. They call themselves the Bhutanese-Nepali Church of Pittsburgh. Another is Shalom, a recent church plant in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which seems to be mostly college students.
For awhile now, I have been trying to do the same. I have been working on starting a church/intentional community in my town, which is south of Pittsburgh. We are deeply inspired by Anabaptism and the broader radical Christian heritage, and I have been working with those who church plant in the area’s few Mennonite congregations. It is just like what happened forty years ago with Pittsburgh Mennonite, and what happened a couple years ago with Shalom. Like them, we are outsiders and revivalists. We fell in love with the peace of Jesus Christ, and we want to see that expressed in community.
What is the most interesting about it all is that most of the Anabaptists in my area do not come from an “ethnic Mennonite” environment. We are Christians who became disillusioned with the denominations we were formerly a part of, and we embraced an Anabaptist vision instead. For us, Anabaptism is a radical Christian tradition, and being an Anabaptist is different than being a Mennonite. Being an Anabaptist means an embrace of the radical, peace and justice making trends in the church, while being Mennonite is simply a denomination. As Ken Zeleny, the administrator of Pittsburgh Mennonite Church, told me yesterday, “I do make a distinction between Anabaptist and Mennonite because in my humble opinion some Mennonites have watered down the faith.”
I think there is a small Neo-Anabaptist revival taking place in western Pennsylvania, and I think it is part of a much larger movement. Across the globe—and across the Internet—communities, churches, and networks are forming that express an Anabaptist faith, but without the cultural and denominational baggage that was picked up during the 18th and 19th centuries. Like the radical pietist and evangelical revivals that gave rise to the River Brethren (in America) and Schwarzenau Brethren (in Germany), I think we are seeing another wave of Neue Täufer forming.