A Pink Menno case study: Tension and Nonviolent Direct Action

Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled

An energetic mix of excitement and anxiety hung in the air. It was 10 pm on July 4, the second-to-last night of the Mennonite Church USA convention in the Pink Menno space. I was sitting with 40 others as we talked through the following morning. We planned to enter the national delegate assembly of Mennonite Church USA and use our bodies to make a visible, silent witness challenging the church to repent from its treatment of LGBTQ people. We didn’t know what would happen, but we knew that we had to take a stand.

Only 24 hours earlier, seven Pink Menno planners had developed the vision for the witness. It was our third convention organizing Pink Menno hymn sings and they had become a fun, familiar presence outside the worship spaces. We had our space a block and a half from the convention center. We had hundreds of people coming to seminars we hosted. However, we were a known quantity that could be too easily ignored. It was a situation that has been faced by many social change movements over the years.

Tension and MLK

Tension is a crucial part of nonviolent social change work, whether in the church or in broader society. Here’s how Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King put it:

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. – Letter from Birmingham Jail

Likewise, Jesus understood the necessity of strategically bringing the tension of injustice to the surface. Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers is a key example of this. For me, Mark 11:11 is a crucial window into his thinking: “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” This clearly shows that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was not a spontaneous temper tantrum. It was highly strategic, nonviolent direct action. He was surfacing the hidden tension and ugliness of the economic and political oppression of the temple state. I wrote more about the symbolism and messaging of this action last week in my article for overturningtables.org.

Shaping the public witness

Which brings us back to that group of Pink Menno planners on Wednesday night, wrestling with next steps. All week, we had been joining the Overturning Tables flash mobs. How could we bring the prophetic edge to Pink Menno? We settled on the action at the delegate assembly, a representative body of the church. One by one, Pink Mennos would walk into the space and stand between the delegate tables, sending a clear message: We’re here, and we can’t be ignored. As more and more entered the space silently, it would raise the suspense: what’s going to happen next? To make sure the message was clear, LGBTQ pink mennos would carry photos from the Strangers No More project and signs with the words of Mennonite leaders in Phoenix:

Elysian Fields Photography: Convention 2013 &emdash Photo by Kerry Bush

Finally, we would prepare a statement to read in case we were offered a chance to speak to the assembly.

All day Thursday, we invited as many people as possible to a final prep session that evening. We were delighted with the turnout of 40 plus people to prepare for the following morning. After talking through the plans and answering questions, we sang a closing song and split up to make final preparations.

Action day

The following morning I arrived outside the delegate hall after Pink Mennos had already begun entering. I found my heart pounding as I walked through the doors into the hall. Anna Groff describes what happened next:

The demonstrators walked in separately over the course of about 30 minutes and spread out over the hall, standing. Allies of the LGBTQ community held black and white photos of individuals in the LGBTQ community. Some held signs.

The delegate assembly continued to proceed until Mennonite Church USA moderator Richard Thomas paused the business time to lead in a time of silence and prayer.

The moment is captured in this video at minute mark 28:00 followed by Katie Hocstedler reading Pink Menno’s statement:

You can read the entire statement here on the Pink Menno site

In the end, the action found the right balance of allowing tension to surface with gentle persistence.

“I applaud the diplomacy, professionalism and respect with which the Pink Mennos conducted themselves at the convention.” said Eric Litwiller of Hope Mennonite in Wichita, Kansas.

Here’s the photo of all the non-delegates who participated in the action in the bleachers aftewards:

Pink Menno group photoPhoto by Tim Nafziger. Click for larger version

I believe this action marks a watershed moment in the struggle of LGBTQ people and their allies for a place at the table. May the momentum continue!