Reflections on Mennonite Young Adult Fellowship Retreat

This past weekend I, along with a couple of other YAR writers, went to a campground outside South Bend, IN for a weekend of conversation, games and networking with about 50 other young ethnic Mennonites in their twenties. I decided to go to the gathering after reading about it in Katie Ho’s post a month ago. I figured it would be a good way to reconnect some small part of the Menno community after being out of the country for two and a half years. And in that regard, I wasn’t dissapointed. While there were a few old friends in attendance, there were also lots of new and interesting people to chat with, including the chance to meet a fellow YAR blogger for the first time in person (Brian Hamilton). There were thoughtful sessions by Ken Hawkley, former Mennonite Church USA young adult worker. The Bike Movement crew did a presentation about their trip, their conversations and their upcoming documentary. And Jason Shenk and Nicole Bauman led a discussion session on young adults and the Mennonite church as part of their new roles with AMIGOS. To balance the serious parts there was also Menno Run, a version of survival. With Anabaptist hunters instead of wolves and foxes and Anabaptist instead of rabbits and deer. All this with liberal doses of engaging conversations.

However, as I hinted in the opening sentence, there was one thing that was distinctly missing from the weekend. There was only one person of color among the sea of white faces playing the Mennonite game with each other. On Saturday afternoon a group of us chatted for an hour and a half about this and other concerns. We found out that the event was publicized largely by emailing previous participants and conference ministers. We wondered whether there might be other ways of reaching young adults who might be interested. Dave Landis shared his vision for a database of Mennonite young adults that could be used to organize events and facilitate communication. Others shared about their interest in a meet up style tool that would allow them to find others in their area who might be interested in gathering for bible studies or Dutch blitz games. We also talked about ways of deliberately building such a network in a way that included people not represented at the gathering. Jason S described his view of the difference between tokenism and genuine partnership. Moriah Hurst shared about her experience with a network of Anabaptists in Australia and her enthusiasm for non-Internet based relationship building. We asked whether we could build a network around nodes rather than a centralize system. We discussed the differences between calling such a network “Anabaptist” or “Mennonite”. We all felt lots of interest and enthusiasm. Lora volunteered to put time into the idea in the future if there was ongoing interest and discussion.

Another theme in this smaller discussion was Mennonites and power. During a large group session I suggested that in discussions between Mennonite leaders and young adults, the differences in power needed to be named more explicitly. I suggested Mennonites are especially vulnerable to this because we don’t like to admit we have power. This led into a discussion in the small group of some of the specifics of the relationships between young adults and older adults, especially church leaders. One Bike movement participant told of a pastor in a church where they visited suggesting that having children was the solution to integrating young adults into the church. Are young adults seen as a passing phase to be managed until we blossom into child-bearing adults? Are they seen as a constituency to be programmed for or as a resource for new energy, vision and ideas for changing the church and adapting to cultural shifts? How can we build intergenerational connections that don’t define us only by our age bracket? We also discuss some of the other factors that affect power dynamics in a relationship besides age and how to navagate them (esp. as white males).

That’s enough from me for now. Any of you other YAR folks out there want to chip in?

Comments (6)

  1. Amy

    Tim, I know exactly what you are talking about here. Two stories:

    This last Sunday, I participtated in a membership class at my church, as a member of the elders. One potential new member told of his experience in studying Philadelphia Mennonite churches. He felt special affinity with two particular churches, both white and middle class. The other Philly churches had theologies that he was very unomfortable with, but an energy that he could not resist. The white churches (mine included–sadly) pay alot of lip service to the desire to be inclusive and involved in the community, but I think are held back by being….well, ethnicly menno. Ugh. It’s so frustrating.

    Story #2. As an elder, part of my call is to continue to push the congregation forward–to work on the vision on the church community. Can you beleive that in one of our last meetings, we had an hour long discussion on whether this group of people was supposed to be assuming the power to move the congregation forward. That had to be one of the most frustrating meetings in all of my church life. Some on the committee could not come to grips with assuming the power/responsibility of being a church leader.

    I struggle with being a young adult and a church leader. I never feel like I am taken seriously. I know I am a leader in my congregation by default, because no one had the energy the year I was elected to contribute to leadership.

    Mennonites do not like to claim power, nor do they like to give it up. Strange paradox.

  2. TimN (Post author)

    Amy, Thanks for your thoughtful response. The stories you share are both good case studies. And both could probably be unpacked a whole lot more. Although this probably isn’t the space to do that extensively, I do have one question about the first one. What aspect of being ethnically Menno affects these churches ability to be inclusive the most? Is it a dependence on Mennonite game style connections for building relationships? Is it cultural differences? I’m interested in taking this ethnicity thing apart a bit.

    As a semi-introvert, I can identify with the leadership by default frustration. In situations like that, I find its important to remember that leadership in a vacuum is still just as real, if not more so, than leadership because of blinding charismatic ability or seniority or some other authority. I often find its an opportunity to grow into a role and challenge myself. I hope you’re finding the same thing.

  3. TimS

    I wanted to share a few, quick personal thoughts on this identity, ethnicity, inclusion issue…by sharing some stuff I’m not too proud of, I might help illuminate some of what’s at stake here.

    Part of the issue is clear to me. I love, and am very comfortable in, contexts of committed, ethnically Mennonite folk (helps, also, if they’re US American, white, educated and maybe from my hometown). I love, also, getting acquanted with unfamiliarities – people, places, concepts… but I have to admit that the change – which is inevitable in the latter – has been cause for remaining in my comfort zone. In this context in particular, it means that: if my church community really opens up to the Other (even if the Other is not that much different) it will radically change.

    So this social-religious inhibition, this fear of change via uncomfortability, is not a new concept. But maybe it would be helpful for some of us white ethnic Mennonites to start admitting our fear.

    I’ll leave it at that.

  4. Amy

    Tim, you asked “What aspect of being ethnically Menno affects these churches ability to be inclusive the most? Is it a dependence on Mennonite game style connections for building relationships? Is it cultural differences? I’m interested in taking this ethnicity thing apart a bit.”

    I’ve actually been doing a lot of talking about this with other Mennonite friends recently. Here are a couple things I’ve come up with:

    Yes, we do rely on the Mennonite game to make connections. It really gets on my knerves sometimes. Partly because I grew up as an outside in the Mennonite community (although I am ehtnicly Mennonite) and can’t play it well, and partly because I married a non-Mennonite, and he gets so frustrated with it, and partly because I play it too much. It’s like playing the “Seven Degrees” game. It’s a way to understand connections and similarities. It’s a little language we have. And, it is fun, isn’t it? But only when you are an insider.

    As a result, it contributes strongly to church culture. So, if you have people that rely on making connections to their community in this way it’s no wonder that we cannot relate to the community around us.

    I do also wonder if the experience of discrimination, oppression from the early 16th century (and from early 20th century with CO status of our young men)have somehow entered our DNA, causing us to be suspicious of outsiders. I get this visual image of Mennonites as folks that know how to circle the wagons and protect the community, but don’t know when it’s ok to let visitors in.

    I recently visited a Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, to see if it would be a good match for me. I found that the Lutherans deal with these insular issues as well. Both the Menonites and Lutherans have a cultural and denominational componant to them. This particular seminary is working to prepare pastors for ministry in these communities, giving pastors tools to move a community away from naval-gazing to relating to their community. I’m hoping, if I get in, that they will give me some tools for working in my Mennonite community.

  5. Jason

    The post from TimS has been sticking with me recently. Thanks, Tim, for taking the step to go out and admit your affection for existing ethnic Mennonite styles.

    The parallel to stuff I’ve been thinking about comes with hot showers. I just really love me a long, hot, soaking shower. This unfortunate fact (given the energy that hot showers use) came up in a conversation with a friend when we were discussing rationalizations — “I don’t buy fancy things very often, so it’s OK if treat myself to fancy cheese.” “I don’t shower very often, so it’s OK if I take really hot showers.”

    What was unsettling to me was the idea of ethical behavior as SACRIFICE. That giving up fancy cheeses or hot showers are sacrifices, of which we must make the requisite number in order to keep our “I’m an ethical person” badge. At least this is how I’ve thought about it sometimes — trying to rack up karma points (which I then cash in when I do something less ethical).

    But the exciting point about the conversation was that then I remembered one time when I needed to take a shower in a place with only a bathtub. So what I ended up doing was kneeling in the tub, giving myself a cold splash bath and then a vigorious drying. And the surprising thing was that the whole thing was invigorating — taking time to kneel and reflect in the morning is something I never do otherwise, and the cold woke me up and filled me with energized alertness I never get with a hot shower.

    So recently I’ve been trying cold showers more often, and noting that (in contrast to the warm comfort of hot showers) feeling awake, alert, and energized are a kind of slant on batheing that’s a different kind of good.

    To tie it back to Tim’s comment, I wonder if really opening up to the Other can be an invigorating shower that helps change what we value in church. And not that we have to stick to binaries (I’ve also tried the lather-up-and-just-rinse-quick-with-lukewarm-water approach a few times and that we benefit from experimentation), but a general point for me semms to be that rationalizations can be red flags to show us when we’re understanding the “ethical” choice as a sacrifice.

    Cause I don’t want my motivation for ethical behaviors to be the feeling that I SHOULD sacrifice. I want to leave unethical acts based on finding the ways that pursuing ethical ones are BETTER and more enjoyable. It feels more sustainable that way.

    For me that has looked like trying cold showers, realizing how great studying feminism is, and learning to prefer biking. How about other folks?

  6. Lora

    Jason, I’ve been thinking a bit about your question in the past several days. I guess I haven’t thought as much about it as sacrifice as intentionality. I really liked your comment about leaving unethical acts to pursue ones that are better and more enjoyable. The half-assed ascetic in me wants to insist that they wouldn’t have to be enjoyable per se, but as someone once said, you can’t say no to injustice unless you’re simultaneously saying yes to life, love, and happiness.

    On my list: learning to prefer biking (as well as walking). Deciding to give up flying for a year (which I may extend, who knows). Cooking from scratch — it’s a very Menno thing to do and yet growing your own food, knowing where it comes from and how it’s made isn’t something most people do in the U.S. Future goals: learning how to sew and knit; composting, growing a garden and canning food. I’d love to get to the point where I give up my car, but I’m not there yet.

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