An invitation to Mennonites to the 2019 Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute

BCM staff member Chris Wight speaks on the opening night of the Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute 2019

Two years after the election of Donald Trump as the next president in the U.S. it is easy to feel like there’s nothing left to say. However, I want to engage with my family of faith: Mennonites stretched across this country and far beyond who are committed to living out Jesus’ call to shalom: peace with justice.

Understanding where we are

One way of understanding the transition we are in is that we have moved to a higher awareness of the structural injustice we have in the U.S. over the last two years. For some of us, this is very scary. For others of us, it might be energizing to realize that now everyone can clearly and unmistakably see the power of white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism and homophobia in our country. At the same time, it’s clear that LGBTQ people, women, immigrants, people of color, and those with high health care needs are bearing the brunt of the Trump presidency.

This diagram by English peacemaker and Quaker Adam Curle has been a useful framework for me for understanding many situation of conflict where there is a power imbalance. It can also be used at many different scales, from a conflict within a family to conflict in Mennonite Church USA to conflict at a national level as I think we are seeing right now.


Image from

We can understand this time as moving from quadrant 1 to quadrant 2 as more and more of us become aware of how unbalanced power is.

In some ways, this has been a gradual process over the last four years through the work of movements like Black Lives Matter and the water protectors at Standing Rock. I wrote a post here about this dynamic after a sniper shot the police officers in Dallas in 2016. I again come back to the quote I used from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail in which he used metaphor of a boil. What better image to describe the ugly grassroots hate that Trump has made visible? In the following paragraph, King writes:

We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood [and sisterhood]. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Modern day prophet Cornel West offered a similar sentiment in the Guardian,

For 40 years, neoliberals lived in a world of denial and indifference to the suffering of poor and working people and obsessed with the spectacle of success…

As one whose great family and people survived and thrived through slavery, Jim Crow and lynching, Trump’s neofascist rhetoric and predictable authoritarian reign is just another ugly moment that calls forth the best of who we are and what we can do.”

At the same time, I recognize that it is important to not move to quickly through the grief that many of us may feel. My wife, Charletta Erb, does a good job of exploring this further here.

So what do we do now that everyone can see the boil?

In the last two years, I’ve found lots of opportunities to connect with people here in my community who are standing up for justice in a wide variety of ways. There is no replacement for this face to face work. We are in a moment when many people are ready to get involved. The key is: how to engage people for the long haul, whether that be in your church or community organization?

Along with local mobilization, reaching out to others face to face to study and plan together is crucial. I want to focus on one opportunity to do that in a few months.

On February 18 to 22, 2019 for the seventh year in a row, I will spend four days with scholars, farmers, activists, and pastors from around the U.S. and Canada at the Kinsler Bartimaeus Institute. They all gather in the mountain valley where I live in southern California along the Ventura River for organizing, art, small groups, hiking and preaching rooted in the bedrock of the gospels. Elaine Enns and Ched Myers host the space as part of their work with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (BCM), the community that my wife and I moved here to connect with six and a half years ago.

The Institute this year is titled Indigenous Justice and Christian Faith: Land, Law, Language and it will be an important space to hear from indigenous leaders on themes of justice and faith. Speakers include: Edith Woodley (Shoshone), Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee), Julie Tumamait-Stenslie (Chumash), Rev. Robert Two Bulls (Lakota), Jonathan Cordero (Chumash/Ohlone), Brooke Prentis (Waka Waka), Jim Bear Jacobs (Mohican). You can read more about each of these speakers on the BKI site here.

The most Mennonite conference Mennonites haven’t heard of

The heart and soul of the Bartimaeus Institute are the personal relational network that Ched and Elaine have built up over many years. Ched has spent more than 30 years on the road speaking and organizing in faith communities committed to peace and justice. The two of them stand in the Mennonite and Anabaptist tradition facing outward. The Institute is not an ecumenical conversation for the sake of ecumenism, but is different streams of a movement centered around the work of radical discipleship.

Catholics and evangelicals rub shoulders with people from many mainline denominations brought together by our commitment to the way of Jesus. In a series of interviews with Institute participants that I created four and a half years ago, Chrissy Stonebraker-Martínez, co-director of the InterReligious Task Force on Central America (IRTF) described why she came to the Institute:

My community has found Bartimaeus and the work of Ched and Elain really helpful in understanding repression, systems of economic justice, environmental issues and looking at restorative theology and reconciliation. I knew that it was something that would be helpful to my work in Central America and in Cleveland. And I knew it would be life giving.

You can watch more of what Chrissy has to say here:

Now more than ever, it is crucial to ground our work in the shared vocabulary of Scripture. During the week, Ched leads rousing bible studies that use the socio-political context of the Jesus movement to bring gospel stories alive in new and powerful ways to highlight the way Jesus centered justice and peace in his public acts and parables.

In her blog post the day after the election, Hannah Heinzekehr, listed 10 things we can do to together. None of us can do all of them, but at the Institute you will meet people doing everything on that list and more. It is an intimate gathering of radical practitioners drawn to Anabaptist values, but from many other traditions. The informal slogan of the institute is about being at the intersection of seminary, sanctuary, streets and soil.

I’m a deep believer in the kind of cross-pollination that can come when we learn from each other. I’ve spent my whole adult life since college in cities and towns where Mennonites are a tiny, tiny minority and I deeply believe that this is where we can do the most good and thrive.

Here’s how Stacey Jones, the senior pastor at Urban Jerusalem, a Pentecostal Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, describes the importance of these varied perspectives:

As Mennonites, we have to learn from other movements within Christianity and outside of it. Over the years, Mennonite attendance at the Institute has increased. Last February there were 20 or so Mennonites (out of around 100 attendees). It could be that California in February is just too warm and sunny for Mennonites. Perhaps it is just too indulgent. But more likely is something a bit more complex: our tendency towards insularity.

I’ve done many interviews with a group of people that Levi Miller refers to as Anabaptist Camp followers (read them here) and again and again I heard their frustration with the lack of welcome they felt. Mennonites who are born into the faith and spend their lives in Goshen/Elkhart, Lancaster, Harrisonburg and Newton often struggle to show interest beyond their boundaries. Provincialism is the downside of being a tight knit community: when your relationship bucket is filled up, you don’t need to go elsewhere.

Another important part of the Institute is its intergenerational nature. What most impressed me about Ched and Elaine when I first got to know them 10 years ago was their commitment to connecting with generations of radical Christians both older and younger than themselves.

Finally, one of the powerful elements of the Institute is its consistency: year after year you see new people, but also familiar faces. This mix of alumni and new people each year is quite fruitful for learning together. Hyun and Sue Hur, co-founders of ReconciliAsian, are examples of the handful of other Mennonites who are part of those who return again and again. They are now part of the committee that helps plan the Institutes each year.

The kind of change our system needs doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes decades of training and building our metaphorical muscles. The Kinsler Bartimaeus Institute is just the place to do that. I hope you will join me.

This article was adapted from an article I wrote two years ago for The Mennonite

Photo: BCM staff member Chris Wight speaks on the opening night of the Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute 2019. Photo by me