Neighborhood v. Conference?

A friend and I were invited to be respondants at the upcoming conference — “At the Crossroads: Promise and Peril 2008″ in Winnipeg. I feel like our household is involved in kingdom work and has plenty of connections/theological grounding for the work. And it sounds like some solid folks are already going to be there, representing much of what I would be saying. So I’ve been wrestling with whether to leave life-giving work in my neighborhood for a conference I’m unsure about.

Why does God work through people-hood even when that people is not deserving?
What does covenant mean and how does that inform our questions of faithfulness?
What are the temptations of God’s people in the land in which they live?
Where do God’s people find security as they live in the land and are tempted by wealth, power and ownership?

I have my working answers to these questions. We’re working to live them out in the neighborhood.

The core gospel message is not difficult to understand. It’s difficult to live. Anyone who’s paying attention knows what needs to happen, how we need to live. (use less oil, fight militarism, reduce consumption, learn how to love the earth, build relationships with people on the margins of empire — both within and without this nation, for staters)

I want to be exploring ways of living in solidarity, and sometimes it tires me out to have to explain, convince. I feel like they’re asking, “What does our peace witness mean in the context of the Iraq War?” — and then asking us to take a break from our anti-war organizing to come discuss the question of what a peace position means in a time of war.

I want to be asking tactical questions about how to organize — and we’re doing that here in Elkhart. I don’t want to argue that the gospel means we should drive less, consume less, etc.

The gathering “will focus on the theme of ‘the church living faithfully as a contrast community in our global reality.'” The gospel message is not to be a “contrast community” because it makes us feel good and become free of the world’s impurities. Rather, the point is that what we’re called to is relationship with the marginalized and a platform of liberation.

I see how my living and working in this neighborhood supports liberation of marginalized peoples. Through reading the promotional material, I haven’t been able to see that this conference does it. And when I can, I try to avoid devoting significant energy to things that aren’t supporting liberation.

Am I missing something?

Is our attending a way of giving back to the church in gratitude for the simultaneously valuable and flawed support that its members and institutions have given us over the years? Does that obligation to give back make up for the fact that I’d be using lots of energy to go there instead of working in this neighborhood where I do feel called?

Comments (6)

  1. DavidD

    I’m not sure why this is an either/or question. I am relatively new to the Mennonite Church and wish I could be attending the conference to hear of and fellowship with those doing work in the larger church context.

  2. JeremyY

    I agree with DavidD that I’m not sure why this is an either/or question.

    I think you should go to the conference because you are part of the broader community of Christ. Why is your household affiliated to the Mennonite Church if the institution is irrelevant to the work that you are doing there?

    I understand that you feel the conference is asking the wrong questions — I certainly feel the same frustration at my seminary. The Church moves sooo slow. But it won’t move at all without voices prodding it from inside. This is a moment for you to evangelize the Church and I think you should take it.

  3. TimN

    On Thursday I spent the afternoon visiting with a Spanish speaking Mennonite pastor. I thought of your blog post when he talked about he felt frustrated with these “big” Mennonite gatherings. At first I didn’t understand what he meant by big, but he explained that he was frustrated that he felt he that what he was hearing wasn’t relevant to his church. It was too focused on international issues and things that he felt really didn’t matter to his church members. He said felt the Mennonite church was running when his church wasn’t ready to walk. He’s trying to understand how the Mennonite church can be relevant to them.

    So what are the arguments for going? Big Mennonite gatherings are opportunities to meet other Mennonites and learn from them. At San Jose last summer I got to met JasonE and Folknotions for the first time along with lots of other interesting people.

    Jason, as you say it’s certainly frustrating to feel like we have to keep on convincing people of basic biblical values and their relevance to our lives. But on the other hand stories are one of the best ways of doing that. And you’ve got a great story to tell. And if we’re following Jesus, we’ve got to admit he spent a lot of time story telling. Maybe even more then he did feeding the poor and turning over tables.

    In the end, I think it’s a balance. To much traveling and you lose your connection. It’s really a matter of weighing the costs and benefits of a given trip and cumulative travel as a whole.

  4. Skylark

    A Spanish-speaking pastor with a church not dealing with international issues? Did I understand you correctly, Tim? I’m finding it just a little hard to believe that if this pastor speaks Spanish with native Spanish speakers in the congregation, that the topic of undocumented immigration, if no other international issues, has not come up.

  5. TimN

    Skylark, interesting point, although for them I suppose it’s not an international issue, it’s a fairly immediate and personal one. They may not see it in the same light as we do.

    I also don’t know how much discussion Illinois Mennonite conference has done about immigration issues. I imagine there’d be some differing opinions between conservative rural congregations and congregations like the one I visited.

    Regardless, it’d definitely be a good point to discuss further.

  6. Jason (Post author)

    Thanks all for your responses.

    David and Jeremy,
    You’re right, it isn’t an either/or question on its own. But part of the picture for me is that this is one of a dozen Mennonite-related conferences/gatherings I’ve heard about for the rest of 2008.

    And that’s not counting the worker’s rights conferences, anti-imperialism conferences, and immersion programs for the movement to end poverty led by the poor.

    As for affiliation — I also consider myself affiliated with a number of these other movements/institutions promoting justice and liberation, so it’s not automatic that seeking justice means that these big Mennonite gatherings are the best place to do that.

    I appreciate your reminder about story-telling as a key to Jesus’ model — and the idea of sharing stories with one another is certainly more appealing to me than an abstract explication of biblical texts that seem to me already pretty clear. And I should remember too that these gatherings are much richer than can be captured by any “conference questions,” no matter how they’re formulated.

    As I reflect on this situation more, I wonder if part of my hesitancy to attend arises from my difficulties in finding practices to sustain myself in this work we’re doing.

    It’s work I deeply believe in — neighborhood baby showers in the church, grassroots work to address public transit and immigration realities around here, inviting neighborhood kids to our house to plant and learn about veggies — and I worry that if I leave too much, I won’t be grounded or sustainable in doing it. Some days I feel melancholy and lonely and it’s hard to get out of bed — regardless of how much I believe in what we’re doing.

    So hopefully I can find ways to be grounded and nurtured here. And maybe hearing some stories at Winnipeg can help in imagining what that might look like.

Comments are closed.