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.

2. What does being a Mennonite mean to you?

Being Mennonite means many things to me. I have grown up completely immersed in the Mennonite faith, having a long line of Mennonite ancestry, being born during my parent’s term with MCC in Kentucky, regularly attending Community Mennonite Church since I was two, and attending Eastern Mennonite School since the third grade. As a child, being Mennonite meant close friends, potluck, and singing. It also meant church retreats and the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale. At an early age, I knew that those were the two places I was allowed to go around alone or with my friends, so I definitely found the sense of community there.

Today being Mennonite means the same things, but with more depth. I am still incredibly close with many of the friends I met for the first time at age two when first attending CMC. Being Mennonite means always being immersed in community with one another–not being able to go out in public without seeing someone I know. It means being surrounded by teachings that help us build bridges out into the pieces of the world that we don’t know, or may be too uncomfortable to venture into. The biggest thing to me though, is service. Being Mennonite means putting any other person above yourself. It means giving your all to anything you do, and being happy about doing it.

Many things that I believe and try to live out in my own life are summarized in Romans 12:9-21. If you would look in my Bible, that is the page with the most highlighted verses and it is definitely the page I read the most.

3. What were some of the highlights of the Mennonite convention for you?

My highlights did indeed include spending quality time with my youth group. We laughed together and we cried together. We were there as a close knit family through the ups and downs of the week.

One of my main highlights was the Pink Menno hymn sing on July 4. As I approached the music, I was just amazed at how many people were there. It is incredible–the power that is felt when a group that large comes together with one common goal. No matter what of the many beliefs represented in that hallway on an ordinary Saturday afternoon, something was present that was larger than the individual. It was a feeling that can only come with gathering together as a body, not as a group of individuals.

Another one of my highlights for my week was definitely Shane Claiborne’s worship service on Sunday morning. The way that he freely spoke about the things that had been passively mentioned throughout the rest of the week was quite refreshing. Since it was a joint service with everyone at convention, it was one of the few opportunities throughout the week that I felt connected in a tangible way to the adults.

4. What were some of the things you had concerns about the convention?

My main concern was the belittlement of the youth. I felt as if there was a strong line between the world of the delegates and the world of the youth. There was little that encouraged mingling between the two parties. I felt pushed aside–disregarded–when it came to the larger workings of the Mennonite Church. The youth part of the convention is great. We get together, worship, play games, get to know new people, and learn a lot. But, I assure you that a large percentage of the youth went home at the end of the week not knowing and understanding a single thing that happened in the delegate sessions, and I believe that to be a waste. There are too many easy ways to fix this to not do anything about it. I want the future young people in our church to feel what I did not feel. I want the youth to keep coming back to church because they feel like they’re contributing to something larger, not just observing it.

There was not a single time that the LGBTQ issue was officially brought up in the youth gatherings. There was once that someone mentioned it in their worship sermon very passively, but other than that I cannot name another instance, and I believe that to be a big mistake. We, as youth, have the right to know what is going on in our church, and we were not provided with that. I often have wondered how the votes taken by the delegates would be different if the youth took them instead of the adults. And if we did have a mock vote, how would that turn out, and how would it influence the votes of the delegates?

5. How have you followed up with your concern about youth at the convention?

One of the seminars I went to was a talkback with our speaker, Glen Guyton. Glen Guyton is the chief operating officer and director of convention planning for Mennonite Church USA. There were a number of adults as well as many youth attending this seminar. I debated with myself for a long time whether or not I should bring up the topic of youth participation in the church. After a while I decided that this was the best chance I was going to have in a long time to make some change. This was a subject that I was emotionally invested in, so I knew that if I didn’t write my question down, I would ramble for hours.

This was the question I asked:

“In the Mennonite Church, especially here at convention, I’ve felt like there are two separate worlds: the youth world and then the delegate world. I know that there are a large number of youth that feel like they don’t have a voice in the happenings of the larger church. Like, we come to conventions and get together and worship and play games and serve and get free things, and that’s all great. It’s inspiring. But I assure you that there will be a large number of youth that will go home at the end of this week not knowing about anything that has happened in the delegate sessions the past few days. What would you say to the youth that want to get more involved in the larger church decisions and happenings, and how do you think we can change the way that convention runs so that the youth are more involved and informed?”

He paused for a minute and thought. Then he asked me what my name was and I told him.

This was his response:

“Leah, that is a fantastic question and I do not have an immediate answer for you, but write your contact information on that paper and I’d love to be in contact and work with you on trying to find an answer.”

(A week after Leah returned from convention she received an invitation from Glen Guyton to be part of planning for Orlando 2017.)

6. How do you feel about Glen’s response?

I was quite pleased with Glen’s immediate response. It showed me that he really wanted to work this out with me and do it in the right way. The way that he carefully chose his words showed respect and I could tell that he really took my concern to heart. I trusted him when he said that he would get back to me, and I trusted correctly because he sent me an email within a week of returning from convention. I am very pleased with the way that he has handled this concern. He truly is great at what he does.

7. What is some of the vision you have for Orlando 2017?

I have a great vision of Orlando 2017 being a gathering of what we should be within the Mennonite Church: one big happy family. A family that is connected and progressively talking to one another, not passively engaging in only the activities individuals are summoned there to do. This means youth missing recreation time to sit in on a delegate session–even to sign up to sit in at a table. This means the delegates stepping out of their comfort zone and taking initiative to talk with the youth, if this means attending youth worship and seminars or just sitting with multi-generational tables at lunch.

I want the youth of Orlando 2017 to know what is going on in the adult world, and I want the adults to know about the youth world. I want people to inquire, to ask more questions in order to get more answers in order to form more questions, because that is how one finds belonging.

I want everyone young and old to feel like they are a significant part of the Mennonite Church USA because there is no reason that they shouldn’t be. We as a church need to really think about what we put our energy into. I believe it is absolutely necessary that our church needs to move past our differences together and focus on coming together to be the blessings to other people, to do the work that needs to be done, to connect to each other in order to connect to the world, to learn how to empathize, to sympathize, and simply to be together in what we are: one body under Christ.

And none of this will happen unless we learn to truly come together as one body at our most influential and important gathering every other year, not as a youth world and a delegate world, but as one big Mennonite world.

And even though I won’t be at Orlando 2017 as a youth, I still hope I can go and experience this wonderful change that I am helping to make. This is an exciting time to be alive because change is happening, and I love to be a part of it.

Photo by Madeline Hostetler.

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