People’s Summit in Winnipeg — Why is it we gather?

After attending the “People’s Summit for Faithful Living,” in Winnipeg a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about the reasons we gather.

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Some fine reports were written on the summit, here and here. The only things I would add or highlight would be…

In addition to Canadians, white people were also over-represented. (Out of 570 participants, I’d estimate around 550 were white.) Not to say that such numbers preclude valuable interactions or prove tokenism — I greatly appreciated some the learning tracks that connected indigenous traditions with relating to our creator and caring for creation — but I think it’s important to notice.

I also had a notable conversation with a young pastor who’s drawn to working with suburban youth — creating vibrant alternatives to our destructive culture and showing them there can be more to life than what we consume. I’m glad to know those conversations are happening.

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So as a participant I got some ideas and resources, met some cool folks, and ate off compostable plates. But I’m still not sure that conferences like this are justifiable in their current form.

For me, three big factors stand out as troubling:

Impractical. I realize theology is important, but I get frustrated when I leave a gathering without much of practical value for living more faithfully. (The PAPA meet-up seems like a refreshing change.) Are my expectations too high?

Over-representation of white people. This gathering isn’t unique. (For example, before I attended the Mennonite Church USA Delegate Assembly in San Jose 2007, a friend encouraged me to count how many of the 150 Hispanic Mennonite churches had sent their youth groups. Looking for the whole week, I saw two. Also the conference theme was translated in Spanish on all the promotion materials, but when I was ushering for a worship service, no one could find any translators.) From what I can tell, these gatherings basically serve white people who speak English.

Use of environmental resources. The Mennonite Creation Care Network’s “Nonference” — deciding not to hold a long-anticipated conference — spells out a lot of the specifics.

Learning from one another is certainly valuable. But I think many people like me (educated middle-class white Mennonites) know what’s right and healthy to do, and the challenge is learning how to implement it. And focus our energies locally. Or maybe we should have criteria about when to hold a conference and when not to?

~ How will this gathering advance liberation with marginalized people? (i.e. build anti-racist institutions, resist imperialism, challenge homophobia and promote healthy sexuality, support the poor in ending poverty, etc.) What is the accountability so that this will happen?
~ Understanding that most long-term and sustainable work is based in communities from which participants would come, to what extent will this gathering enrich the work of these communities?
~ Would this gathering still be “worth it” to us if we were traveling by more sustainable transport to attend? (bike, train, cargo ship, etc.)

I believe that gathering can be enriching, delightfully complex, and holistic. What gatherings would stack up the best?

How can we have less tiring, status quo gatherings and more joyful, liberatory ones?

Photo by Anna Groff/The Mennonite

Comments (6)

  1. folknotions


    I think these are great observations and questions. I, too, wondered what was to be gained from the San Jose 2007 conference when I attended. Since I had not really been a Christian that long – and didn’t grow up in a Mennonite church – the conference was very helpful for me. Yet, I wasn’t sure if it would have been helpful for others; I wondered if it was useful for those who had been in the church for a while. I wondered if the gathering was just for the sake of gathering, for the sake of showing that we are doing something as a church/denomination.

    I think the criteria for meeting that you have established are the first step in challenging traditional conference models.

  2. Darren

    Thanks for bringing this up Jason. I too am wondering the valuing of our gatherings, especially after this one. I was especially disappointed with the lack of practicality. None of the formally-planned sessions better equipped me for doing ministry in my congregation and community.

    However, the great sharing of ideas and dreams that happened informally was invaluable. As we work locally, it is comforting to know their is a wider church we are a part of.

    How do we make our gatherings less tiring and more liberating? I’ve begun conversations with our leadership in Canada on just that. What will be essential is less theology that isn’t rooted in practical living. Plus, if the church’s role is to bless the marginalized, then it’s high time we start inviting the marginalized into the planning! I suspect we would have our criteria for when to hold conferences pretty quickly if the poor were given a say.

    I suspect the frequency of our national gatherings will decrease in the future. The question is whether that’s a conscious decision to build something better…or simply because oil prices make it too expensive to fly.

  3. Jean

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for this helpful post. It raises essential questions without simiply “meeting bashing.”

    My (white person) understanding, based on anti-racism work and experience serving alongside people of color in Menn Church organization groups, is that people of color often prefer face-to-face interaction rather than other, more distant forms of connection. I grant all your points but would want to hear from Anabaptist people of color before suggesting that gathering at all is an ill-conceived idea.

    Clearly current gatherings are not serving as vital foundations for practical, at-home ministry/activism or relationship building across color lines. What might change that?

  4. Jason


    Glad to hear you’re in conversation with leadership on the Canadian side about making more ties to practical living and connections with folks on the margins. I’d love to hear more about how that discussion goes and what emerges — perhaps a future post on YAR?

    I’m not sure I follow you where you said, “I suspect we would have our criteria for when to hold conferences pretty quickly if the poor were given a say.”

    Are you suggesting that the poor would prioritize basic needs above holding conferences? That we should hold practical conferences with more urgency? Could you clarify?

  5. Jason


    Thanks for adding the perspective on the value of face-to-face interactions. I didn’t mean to suggest that gathering at all is ill-conceived, but rather that we might do well to avoid assuming that gathering is wise regardless of who attends, what the topic is, or if what benefits are planned for the sending communities.

    As for what might improve some current shortcomings, one idea would be for a diverse planning group to consider criteria like those above when considering a gathering.

    We might decide to focus energy on more local or conference-level gatherings…

    hold national gatherings only every six years…

    do more accountable caucus work for historically oppressing groups (white people, affluent churches)…

    encourage white people to attend open sessions and learn at people of color gatherings…

    suggest that church members get to know and learn from poor people in their home community…

    What do you think?

  6. Naik

    Hi, Nathan & Subeida Great job today. It’s amazing to see the dirnfeefce in the room compared to when I first started attending. In addition to more participants, it’s great to see a much more diverse crowd. I think this is due to your efforts in creating an inviting place and authentic conversation.FYI, most of the local emergency food providers will be attending the Washington Food Coalition annual conference in Chelan next week and won’t be here for the King County budget feedback session. Any suggestions on ways we should still try to provide input?Thanks so much!Barb

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