Young Anabaptist Radicals

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Redefining a Historic Peace Church Against Whiteness and White Supremacy

Photo: Participants at the February 2017 Hope for the Future gatherings. From left to right: Rafael Barahona, Calenthia Dowdy, Ann Jacobs, Evelin Gonzalez and Colleen Whigham-Brockington. Photo by Jenny Perez Castro.

This piece was originally published in June 2017 in The Mennonite magazine.

It’s been seven months since I last wrote in this space about the results of the U.S. presidential election. Since then the broader shape of Trumpism has become clearer: there is a growing wave of misogynist and openly white supremacist groups in the United States that are emboldened to target women, Muslims, immigrants, black people and many others.

For many of us who are white, this feels new and different, but for peoples indigenous to this continent and for people of color, this is simply a highly visible form of what they’ve faced for a long time. My friend Dr. Joe Pruitt recently told me the story of his father, a black man, who fled the south after he received lynching threats due to his friendliness with white women. Closer to home and more recently, my friend Raul Lopez talked about visiting the Ojai valley in California, where I live. As a young man (10 years ago), he and his friends were followed around by white men in white pickup trucks who made it very clear he that he and his friends were not welcome. That hatred is invisible to me as a white person.

Vigilance and dealing with the fear of white violence has been the reality in this country since 1492, but we live in a moment where the whitelash is unmistakable.

Mennonites and the blind spot of whiteness

In a recent interview with Jenny Castro for The Mennonite’s Peacelab podcast, Calenthia Dowdy looked at the history of how Mennonites have understood themselves as a peace church:

“This historic peace church, the Mennonite church, is also a white church and so when they created this document about a historic peace church, they weren’t thinking about people of color, they weren’t thinking about poor people, they weren’t thinking about women, they weren’t thinking about violence on urban streets, they just wanted to be people who didn’t sanction one country going to war against another country.”

Understanding the relationship between Mennonites and whiteness is key. I took a deeper look at this history in an essay I recently wrote for Mennonite Life that looks at how Mennonites have dramatically assimilated into white culture in the United States, especially over the last 100 years. Dowdy, along with Sue Hur and Regina Shands Stoltzfus, who are also part of the podcast, share personally about what it is like for them to operate in Mennonite institutions in which there are only a handful of people of color. Whiteness has deeply warped the imaginations of our institutions in ways that we are only beginning to understand with the help of leaders like these four women.

What does treating Trumpism look like?

In her article in March for the Menno Snapshots blog in March, Iris de León-Hartshorn writes about her grief at “who chose to side with the proud, powerful and wealthy through their vote in the November 2016 presidential election.” She points out that this is the opposite side chosen in the “Magnificat,” the song Mary sings after she learns she is pregnant with Jesus.

Mary’s song points back to the tradition of Jubilee, of a regular redistribution of wealth accumulated over 7 years and then more dramatically over 50 years. Ched Myers and Elaine Enns refer to these Jubilee practices as Sabbath Economics.

A group of us have been meeting here in the Ojai valley recently, led by local fisherman and car mechanic Eric Hodge, to talk more about how the values of Sabbath economics apply to our lives. In a recent discussion we talked about how these practices are not about charity or an individual change of heart, but about communal practices and traditions woven into community life that require redistribution. They are designed to treat the illnesses of greed and domination that have plagued human communities for tens of thousands of years.

Jubilee draws on ancient communal practices among human societies that pushed back against the tendency of humans to accumulate power and wealth. Anthropologists call these patterns “reverse dominance hierarchies.”

Those spreading civilization have understood the importance of stamping out such traditions as with the 1881 Potlatch ban in Canada. The Potlatch was a redistributive practice of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest of this continent. In communal ceremonies, high status leaders would redistribute their wealth to guests, sometimes including competitions among leaders to see who could give away and destroy the most wealth. Colonial authorities saw the practice “as wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to ‘civilized values’ of accumulation.” Those colonial authorities were articulating the values of whiteness that are antithetical to the practices of Sabbath economics that Jesus calls us to.

A New Definition of Peace Church

With this lens, I see Jesus’ sending out of the disciples to make more disciples as a call to join the collective project of treating the disease of accumulation of power and wealth and challenging violence.

The idea that Jesus’ invitation was simply about an individual change of heart is one of the greatest lies of white evangelical Christianity. The fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump tells us that the emperor has no clothes. White Christianity in the U.S. is still deeply in the grip of what Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas calls “slaveholder Christianity”, which I explored further in this blog post.

The whole concept of repentance (Metanoia in Greek) was about turning away from the patterns of this world and the powers and principalities that focused on accumulation.

In The Mennonite’s Peacelab podcast, Dowdy, Hur and Shands Stotlzfus describe the process that led the Black Lives Matter track of the recent Hope for the Future gathering (facilitated by Shands Stoltzfus) to propose a new definition of Peace Church:

“A peace church recognizes the imago dei in all humanity. It not only prays, it takes action. A peace church responds to violence inside and outside its doors. A peace church stands with Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, LGBTQ people, immigrants and against all forms of violence. A peace church empowers disenfranchised and marginalized people. It understands multi-faceted forms of violence — systemic, educational and environmental. It is more than the absence of war or the protesting of war.”

Dowdy talked about the importance of defining violence beyond simply war to include violence by police, violence against women, educational violence and other forms of systemic violence.

“The new definition of peace church has to center other lives. I was thinking about people who I talk to everyday who live lives of violence. I was thinking about trans prostitutes I talk to on a daily who live their lives in fear,” Dowdy said. “I think we [as Mennonites] can be so much more, so much better, so I want to add my voice to the mix. I am trying to remain hopeful. I’ve been hanging out [with Mennonites] for 20 years.”

The three of them talked about the remarkable silence from white people in the room after this proposed definition was read.

“When we ended the circle of people of color with that framework of a definition, woven into the conversation was the question: what is at stake for us and that is the question that we wanted to bring to the wider group once the white leaders joined us,” Shands Stoltzfus said. “And it was disconcerting to be met with such silence.”

She acknowledged that some of that silence was simply because people were joining the conversation midway. “But I guess what I would have hoped for would have been more willingness to process with us what this means. I still sit with that circle of silence that got to be more uncomfortable the longer it went on… In that moment it felt devastating to be met with that silence when asked the question what is at stake for you and how can you join us in this conversation.”

In the years of Trumpism that lie ahead, Mennonites have a choice. Are we going to embrace Sabbath economics and this new definition of Peace Church or will continue to see ourselves as sitting on the sidelines?

The sidelines position was articulated to Vincent Harding in 1961 by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) leader Edgar Stoesz: “As we refrained from participating in its annihilation, but helped later to reconstruct Germany, so we decline to participate in the interracial conflict but seek rather to bring reconciliation and goodwill.”

For too many of our white Mennonite leaders, a variation on Stoesz’s reflections is still a central message. They see themselves as moderates caught in the middle whose job is to advocate for balance.

For too many of our white Mennonite leaders, a variation on Stoesz’s reflections is still a central message. They see themselves as moderates caught in the middle whose job is to advocate for balance.

The complicity of nonviolence with white supremacy amidst the fires in Minneapolis

Hundreds took to the streets in South #Minneapolis last night to show their disapproval for the recent killing of an unarmed Black man. Many gathered in front of a burning #3rdPrecinct building — the former place of employment of the MPD officers who killed #GeorgeFloyd.

This post was co-written by Tim Nafziger and Mark van Steenwyk in 2017 (see original) in response to the backlash against anti-fascists actions in Charlottesville, Virginian in August 2017. We’re reposting it with a new title because it feels even more relevant today as we watch the white liberal response to the burning of the police precinct building in Minneapolis last night. If you’re not a pacifist, see what happens when you substitute the word “liberal” for “pacifist.” If you aren’t Mennonite, consider what our message might look like to your own community.

This is the second in a series of pieces we’ve co-written. This article builds on our first together in 2010: Oppression analysis on its own isn’t enough: Becoming an Ally

In the last two months, in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, we’ve read many white people in my Mennonite community and others committed to nonviolence reiterating their commitment to peace. In a recent article for Anabaptist historians, Tobin Miller-Sherer describes these “smug and satisfied declarations about the superiority of nonviolence” as “bumptious.” This is a good word because Mennonites are extremely skilled at being proud in a humble way.

Why? Let’s take a closer look.

White Mennonites are eager to love their Neo-Nazi enemies who showed up in Charlottesville on August 12, but Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas calls us to be more honest about who their enemies are:

Last week a sweet, white woman asked me to pray for her because she was struggling to love her enemies, the ethno-nationalists who paraded through the University of Virginia campus. “Your enemies? I doubt they think of themselves as your enemy,” I replied. “They are your defenders, marching to protect the dominance of your race—of your life and your children’s lives.”

One article we saw being shared frequently in the weeks after August 12, was the story of Daryl Davis, a blues musician who has used his music as a bridge to connect with klan members. Davis has done remarkable and admirable work. However, white Mennonites holding up an individual black man who approached Klan members is problematic because it puts the responsibility back on people of color rather than the white community. In general, focusing on conversion of individual white supremacists focuses on the comfortable individual conversion narrative that is familiar from Mennonite books like Coals of Fire which Tim grew up being read from, rather than looking at the broader social change work we have to do as communities and as society as a whole. This call to the conversion of individual fascists and bigots was a key part of pastor Hillary Watson’s article, “Before you punch a Nazi: A new Anabaptist response to white supremacy.”

An exemplar of this framing and perspective from outside the Mennonite church comes from Harry Boyte’s essay, “Nonviolence after Charlottesville” which makes no attempt to look at the broader issues of systemic racism at work in Charlottesville (let alone in the United States). Instead, Boye complains that activists today are too polarizing. He refuses to acknowledge social location, offer any analysis of oppression or privilege and seems to reject the idea that one might have enemies at all: “One way power leads to polarization is based on the notion that opponents are enemies who must be defeated.”

The problem is that the starting point for these narratives is convincing audience of value of nonviolence, rather than challenging the white moderate, which Martin Luther King identified as the a key need in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963. The intransigence of white moderates continues to be a major barrier to undermining white supremacy today. As Chantelle Todman Moore put it in an article in The Mennonite in July:

“When we neglect those existing on the margins of our churches, communities and country instead of centering them in the life of the church, our claim to being a peace church becomes simply an intellectual exercise. We can tell you the tenets of nonviolent resistance, pacifism, avoiding war taxes and even why the idea of “just war” is just wrong. But when you take a closer look at our lives, congregations and church structures, you see cycles of physical, social and psychological violence being played out that mostly impact the “least of these” among us.”

Todman Moore highlights the proposed new definition of a peace church that came out of the Hope for the Future gathering. What if white Mennonites used that new definition as a starting point when talking about Charlottesville and the rising visibility of white supremacy for white US Americans?

Being a pacifist shouldn’t be like playing a game of violence whack-a-mole, where we react to every expression of violence as though it were the same. Such a posture usually ends up reinforcing the status quo, because structural oppression almost always “appears” less violent than revolutionary violence.

Instead, being a pacifist should cause us to invest time learning nonviolent ways of responding to oppression and committing ourselves to direct action and fiercely loving acts of solidarity. (more…)

Learning from Bernie’s mistakes: an analysis of “How It All Came Apart for Bernie Sanders”

Fires set by police burn on Backwater Bridge, November 20, 2016

This morning’s NY Times piece, “How It All Came Apart for Bernie Sanders” is a must read for every supporter of the Sanders campaign. It’s not a pleasant article, but learning from mistakes is critical collective work, even when it happens in a painful public way. While the focus of my political work has not been electoral campaigns, I think we have to recognize that the Bernie movement is inextricably tied to electoral politics. So it must, to some extent, submit to measuring itself by that framework, which is the focus on the NY Times piece. It must also grapple with a grasroots movement measuring stick as well given that the campaign claimed that mantle. Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin do not speak that language and so I will try to do some extrapolation work from their journalism. (more…)

A poem for Michael J Sharp

This poem was written two and a half years ago when I heard of the assasination of Michael J Sharp in the Congo. This poem previously published here. MJ was a contributor here on YAR for a few years. You can read his blog posts here.

Lima Bean Eulogy

We planted lima beans the morning after
villagers found MJ’s body.

The rotund little green dumplings
nestling to the damp earth

He nestled in a shallow grave with Zaida and Betu
along the road from from Bukonde to Tshimbulu in Kasai.

In a few weeks those dumplings will bust up, burst out
and wind their way above our highest hedges.

So this is what it feels like when a friend

(smiling smart blackjack shark, wisecracking lark, goofball genius, fingernail biting adventurer, rainbow vacuum salesman, globe-trotting strategist, adorable hunk, creative critical mind, mass grave documenter, consummate UN professional, Johnny Walker philosopher, lock picking ninja, Mennonite golden boy, rebel leader networker (at church), slightly bespectacled gadget nerd (according to the New York Times if you trust them), loyal comrade, Hot Doug’s line-waiter, burnt out social justice warrior, charismatic conversationalist, noble old soul, pugnacious puppy trainer, binge watching Netflix enthusiast, reconciliator, frequent flier, subversive prankster punk, bright brave peace worker, canny researcher, francophone fish, dummie teller, smooth talking soccer jock, sarcastic lover, humble impresario, fast talking militia deserter recruiter, board game geek, persistent investigator, fiercely independent expert, earnest-really-doing-that-swords-to-plowshares-thing-we-all-talk-about-doing-in-a-way-that-makes-us-feel-a-little-awkward-but-we’d-never-admit-it type, tuxedoed porsche driver, cherry eating long-distance trekker, bantering buddy, authoritarian undermining report writer, box free thinker, charming diplomat, cool calm calculated political operator, lovable troublemaker and texas hold-em chip supplier)*

becomes a seed.

*Thanks to all of you who have contributed to this compilation of memories of MJ on social media and elsewhere over the past two days. Each story shines new light on his life for the rest of us. This poem is expandable. Feel free to leave your own alliterative adjective and noun pairs in the footer.

An invitation to Mennonites to the 2019 Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute

BCM staff member Chris Wight speaks on the opening night of the Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute 2019

Two years after the election of Donald Trump as the next president in the U.S. it is easy to feel like there’s nothing left to say. However, I want to engage with my family of faith: Mennonites stretched across this country and far beyond who are committed to living out Jesus’ call to shalom: peace with justice.

Understanding where we are

One way of understanding the transition we are in is that we have moved to a higher awareness of the structural injustice we have in the U.S. over the last two years. For some of us, this is very scary. For others of us, it might be energizing to realize that now everyone can clearly and unmistakably see the power of white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism and homophobia in our country. At the same time, it’s clear that LGBTQ people, women, immigrants, people of color, and those with high health care needs are bearing the brunt of the Trump presidency.

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Poem: Advent’s Eve, 2005

I was a reservist with Christian Peacemaker Teams living in London in 2005 during the kidnapping of Norman Kember, Harmeet Singh Sooden, Jim Loney and Tom Fox. Today is the 13th anniversary of the date they were taken.

On that last day of ordinary time
Norman, Harmeet, Jim and Tom walk across a parking lot
in Baghdad and get into a van.
Years later, Jim can’t remember “those last, unremarkable motions.”

The next morning (the first Sunday of Advent)
The BBC called me at noon.
The voice at the other end of the line was chasing rumors:
We heard that four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams were kidnapped.
What do you know?

What if Christians took the same risks for peace…

The van exits the lot, abruptly stops;
Men with big guns open the door,
shove the four to the floor
and into the tomb.

(more…)

Mennonites and #MeToo: 4 Ways to Challenge Rape Culture

Three boxes of tea on the window sill with flowers

This post was originally published on my blog for The Mennonite two years ago

This week we’ve seen audio of Donald Trump’s bragging about sexual assault open up a nationwide conversation about rape culture, which is the set of beliefs and ideologies which blame victims of sexualized violence and normalize sexualized violence, often by men (for more, see this series of definitions).

U.S. Presidential elections are like conversations around a giant water cooler. For a brief time the themes in the elections shape our conversations in the U.S. (and beyond) for better or for worse. These spaces are an opportunity for us.

In the last day, three more women have stepped forward to describe Trump groping, assaulting and kissing them without consent. These accounts join a long list of existing allegations against Trump by women. Two of these stories were reported in The New York Times and one in People magazine.

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Divisiveness and nonviolent direct action

Note: This piece was first published two years ago on my blog for The Mennonite. It was written in response to the 2016 shooting of police offers in Dallas by Michael Xavier Johnson.

In the wake of the shootings of police and civilians in Dallas, many voices are blaming the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing opposition to police violence and white supremacy. But now more than ever we need movements of committed, militant nonviolence.

Shootings like the one in Dallas grow out of what scholar Ron Mock calls corrosive grievance. These are grievances that build up over time around injustice that is not addressed: the injustice of the mass incarceration of black men in our country, racial inequality in of the U.S. education system and the healthcare system and many other layers of systemic racism. For more, watch this 2 minute video from Mennonite training organization Roots of Justice:

Grievances about these injustices become corrosive when people feel powerless and unheard. In his blog post yesterday Mennonite activist theologian Ched Myers reminded us of John F. Kennedy’s observation along these lines 55 years ago: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

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Social Media as a tool for holding those with power accountable

Grashopper on a blade of grass

This blog post was originally published on my blog for The Mennonite two years ago.

In his address to graduating students at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) on May 2, President Loren Swartzendruber complained about social media. On May 2, the Daily News-Record quoted him:

“Here’s the challenge we face,” he said, “namely the question of how we engage in meaningful, life-changing, civil conversations in a world that’s impatient for quick answers … and is all-too ready to vilify those who disagree.”

He said important discussions “are extremely difficult to conduct via social media,” and require intra-personal relationships.

There’s plenty of reasons to be concerned about social media, but there’s a story and a pattern behind this complaint that needs a closer look. Swartzendruber’s critique comes after months of pressure on his administration around its handling of Luke Hartman’s employment at EMU. Social media played an important role in that pressure.

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The silencing of Mennonite women and feminists who speak up

Burned Tree on Dennison Grade

This post was originally published on my blog for The Mennonite two years ago.

On Sunday, March 6, 2016, Ruth Krall wrote “A Considered Response to Lambelet and Hamilton: Vis-à-vis the topic of being made invisible…one more time” on her repeated experience of invisibilization by male Mennonite colleagues who pigeonhole her as a “very angry woman who hates the church.” She outlines a series of other ways in which both male and female scholars perpetuate male supremacy from ignoring feminist work to ridiculing it.

Krall isn’t alone in this experiencing this silencing. In the comments on Krall’s article, Mennonite pastor Sylvia Krauser describers her own experience of having her academic career buried by male scholars. Last year George Dupuy wrote for this publication about his experience of silencing by the Virginia Conference of Mennonite Church USA. There are many many stories of silencing of queer folks by Mennonite leaders, most recently Mennonite Central Committee worker Wendi O’Neal. I wrote in October about the way Moderate Mennonite Male Managers seek to control and manage marginalized people. Carol Wise, director of Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, names this dynamic as a “deep resistance to including the experience and voices of those most impacted by harmful exercises of power.”

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Towards an Anabaptist Response to Terrorism?

I originally published this review in with the Anabaptist Network in November of 2005 while working with them in London, England. I’ve been surprised how often the themes in this book have come back to me over the years and its one of the few books that made its way with me all the way from London to Chicago and then to Oak View.

Loving without Giving in: Christian Responses to Terrorism and Tyranny
Ron Mock (Telford: Cascadia Publishing House, 2004) £14.50

In the wake of the 7 July bombings and the response of the British Government, Christians in the United Kingdom would do well to consider this book. Ron Mock begins by working through five aspects of terrorism: violence, lawlessness, political motivation, targeting of civilians and operation through fear. In each area he looks at examples of terrorism that fall within his criteria and case studies that do not.

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What if we let subversive play leak into our lives?

Carnival de Resistance spread in Geez Magazine December 2015

This article was originally published two years ago today in Geez Magazine two years ago today. The photos in the spread above and the slideshows below are from my role in the the Carnival de Resistance as resident clown and constantly conflicted documentarian. The Carnival is coming to Philadelphia, PA in July and August 2018!

If life is a broken record and the only tune we play is the song of the empire, this past September I jumped out of the groove for 10 days when I joined a theatre troupe called the Carnival de Resistance.

See a big version of the Carnival spread above here.

The Carnival is a project that has been experimenting in re-wilding in the way of Jesus since 2013, with month-long residencies in Virginia and a shorter presence at the Wild Goose Festival in 2014.

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Holding sexual predators and those who protect them accountable in Mennonite Church USA

This article was originally published two years ago on my blog for The Mennonite here.

On December 1st, Mennonite Church USA’s (MCUSA) Executive Board staff cabinet announced the members of a new sexual abuse prevention panel. This panel is a direct response to the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse passed by the delegate assembly this summer at the MCUSA convention in Kansas City. Here’s its conclusion:

“We resolve to tell the truth about sexual abuse; hold abusers accountable; acknowledge the seriousness of their sin; listen with care to those who have been wounded; protect vulnerable persons from injury; work restoratively for justice; and hold out hope that wounds will be healed…”

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Transformationist Anabaptism: the missing fourth stream from the Mennonite Church USA imagination

Arbor Day 2012 tree planting in Camden, New Jersey with community members and Word and World participants

This post was originally published two years ago as MMMMs: Expanding our Churchly imagination in my blog for The Mennonite. Thanks to Hannah Heinzekehr for adding photos to illustrate this piece.

In the wake of this summer’s Mennonite Church USA convention and the pending departure of Lancaster Conference, I am reflecting on the role of “Moderate Mennonite Male Managers” (MMMM’s) in our institutions. This recent essay by John Rempel inspired me to look specifically at a blind spot common among the the “Moderate Mennonite Male Managers” (MMMM’s) of our institutions. For those of you who haven’t read it, this quote summarizes Rempel’s thesis well:

Each type of church brings different gifts to the table. Moderates bring the willingness and capacity for meaningful compromise. Liberals bring the capacity to live with ambiguity and with matters that are presently incapable of solution. Conservatives bring a deep trust in the Bible and the Holy Spirit as sources of clear positions in matters of faith and life.

I resonate with Rempel’s 1 Corinthians 12 inspired vision of the different gifts of the body of Christ that he outlines. However, Rempel’s paradigm, focused around liberals, moderates and conservatives, misses a whole swath of our community and Anabaptist tradition.

To understand more about this missing community, I turn to the model of four streams of Anabaptism that Rodney Sawatsky outlined in 1992. In summary, he traces four contemporary streams of Anabaptism back to our 15th century origins: Separationist, Establishment, Reformist and Transformationist. I will focus in this article on the transformationist, but you can see Sawatsky’s table with all four in my 2007 blog post. These streams do not map perfectly onto Rempel’s model of liberals, moderates and conservatives, but however you slice the cantaloupe, the transformationist stream is glaringly absent.

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The interview with Leah Wenger that helped launch the MCUSA Step Up program

Leah Wenger portrait by Photo by Madeline Hostetler

I published this interview with Leah Wenger two years ago today on my blog for The Mennonite under the title Moving beyond the belittlement of the youth: An interview with Leah Wenger. Glen Guyton and other Mennonite Church USA convention staff rose to Leah’s challenge and worked with Leah and others to launch the Step Up program at the convention in Orlando this past summer that invited 3 youth from each Mennonite conference to the delegate assembly.

1. What led you to attend the Mennonite convention in Kansas City?

I have always loved spending time with my youth group, and that was one of the main things I was looking forward to in going to Kansas City 2015. I love spending time with this group of people that I would not hang out with normally. We are truly a group with no judgment, and always have been, so I never feel like I have to be someone else. We have such a strong connection as youth at CMC, and I was looking forward to building that connection throughout the week.

I was also looking forward to simply being in the Mennonite realm for a week. I was excited to be together with all these people as so many different parts of the same body of Christ. I wanted to be there to renew my faith in God and in the Mennonite church, and to remind myself about how incredible of a privilege it is to be a part of a family of faith such as this. I wanted to find a place where I felt the spirit moving in a large way.

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