Thoughts from a Hike on the Appalachian Trail

September 20th, 2011 – by Randy Keener

In March 2010, Hugo, a close friend from Goshen College, and I attempted a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail.  Roughly 5 months and 2,179 miles later, we finished that long walk in the woods. We were immensely tired, amazed, and pondering.  There were a number of reasons for embarking on this journey from Georgia to Maine. For us, two important ones were the sense of adventure it held and the escape from the busyness of life and all of its demands.  Neither of us expected the great hospitality, kindness, and care that we each experienced among the trail community.  We found ourselves in awe of that slice of people who exist in a very counter-cultural way.  We were honored to be a part of that community.

Even a year later, I am still reflecting on that time and in many ways I deeply miss it. I think about the wonderful people that we hiked with, the strong sense of community and shared experience of trying to get to Maine.  And yet an irony remains in all this.  Much of the Appalachian Trail community really wants little to do with God, much less the church.  Many of them operated out of some form of secular humanism or vague spirituality.  For them, it simply made sense to treat people and the earth with kindness, justice, and love, because those are basic human rights. Every person deserves to experience those things and should practice them.   Hugo and I realized that we cared about many of the same things that the trail community did, but where these things were rooted was very different.  When fellow hikers heard how our particular beliefs and practices, rooted in the Christian-Anabaptist story, emphasized the same things as their own stories, we no longer talked past each other.

So what did mission, in this context, look like for us?  It looked like two friends choosing to hike the entire trail together, in the good times and the very hard times. Most friends that start together on the trail end up splitting after the first month or so for a number of different reasons.  It meant that when we enjoyed the cool breeze, the picturesque mountain top views, or the delicacies of creation’s wonders, we gave thanks to God, the creator of all good things.  When we shared food mutually among the trail community- we remembered what Christ has done for us in the cross and resurrection, and that we are invited to participate in that same resurrection hope.  It meant getting to know a fellow hiker, not much older than us, who had lost his wife just 6 months earlier to cancer. For him the trail was a place of healing as he escaped the busyness and materialism of society.  And yet in our relationship and trust with him, we were able to share the hope and healing that we knew and had experienced. We shared that for us this was greater than any walking footpath could offer.  Mission happened in relationships, and in conversations.  It happened in stereotypes being shattered, and mutual trust and care being nurtured.  It happened when our stories connected with theirs, and in those Spirit engagements, we saw something of a larger reality. 

Sometimes I think I see glimpses of the Kingdom of God when I reflect on that small slice of culture called the trail community.  And sometimes I become frustrated with the church because I wonder if I see the Kingdom more on the trail than I do in mainstream Christianity.  I am thankful to the trail community for a lot of things.  No doubt, it has changed my life and the way I think about certain people groups.  I may always live in the uneasy tension of how a secular community could embody the Kingdom more faithfully than much of the church has.  Maybe it is a reminder that the Kingdom of God shows up in places that we didn’t think to look. Yet I am also reminded that as followers of Jesus we live with a greater hope and calling than many on the trail have ever known.  The church does not live in ways that are sustainable, righteous, loving and justice minded simply because it makes sense, or is the right thing to do. Rather, the church, rooted in a larger story, is to embody these things because they are our very act of worship to God and is our witness to the power of the resurrection in the world.  For this reminder, I thank the trail community.

Randy Keener lives, works and studies in Harrisonburg, VA.  He is a residence director at Eastern Mennonite University, and a 2nd year graduate student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in the Masters of Divinity program.   In his spare time he enjoys running, hiking in the Shenandoah Valley, and watching baseball. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Deconstruction and Rebuilding in Community: Mission in the 21st Century

September 12th, 2011 – by Hannah Heinzekehr

This post is part of a series on mission/evangelism. Email the editors at workandhope @emu.edu if you would like to contribute to the series.

Since moving to Southern California, my husband Justin and I have had a problem: we can’t keep plants alive. Our outdoor porch plants slowly withered and died –from overwatering, or conversely dehydration or for reasons unknown. Our first attempt at community gardening failed when our small plot was eaten alive by California critters that we didn’t know existed. Now, as we’ve started to grow some small potted herbs on our porch, we are watching with fear and trepidation, like worried parents, hoping that somehow, against all odds, these new plants will grow into fruition. We’ve had to deconstruct the ideas about gardening we learned in Indiana. We’ve had adapt and re-learn gardening here: what plants to grow, fertilizers to use, where pots should be placed, how to keep lizards off our “crops” and how much water to use.

Similarly, our ideas about mission have been deconstructed in Los Angeles. When we moved to California, I had already been working for Mennonite Mission Network for two years. I spent a lot of time talking with people about mission, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it meant. But moving to an area as cosmopolitan and diverse as Los Angeles County meant that my ideas about what mission meant had to change. I couldn’t make the same assumptions about what church looked like, how theology impacted mission, what language we worship in etc. This is a gift! But it also meant that some of the assumptions that I brought with me, as a European, middle-class, English-speaking, Mennonite from Indiana , were called into question simply by virtue of the place I was living.

Just like we had to reshape our models for gardening, our models for mission needed to be re-shaped. Some of the needs were the same. Just like our plants still needed water, fertilizer and soil (just different types and amounts), there is still a hunger here for church planting, church revitalization, and peace and conflict training, theological education and community outreach, but the ways that these needs are expressed and responses to them needed to change. Sometimes, it was little things that made me aware of these assumptions. The Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale here features Nigerian puff-puff (delicious) and kimchee instead of apple fritters and funnel cakes. “International mission” doesn’t feel very far away. In fact, many church leaders are actively involved in mission in their home towns in Nigeria, Belize and Indonesia.  Four-part harmony was not as familiar, and worship services are often conducted in two or three languages. Building space, which is highly expensive and limited in crowded Los Angeles County, was hard to come by, and many congregations share space and/or meet in homes or parks. And the list could go on…

I realized that I would need to sit at the feet of new teachers and people who had been involved in mission in Los Angeles for many years. I would need to be willing to stay still, listen and learn, instead of being in the middle of the action.  Mission Network has been working for a long time to cultivate radical and “post-colonial” ways of thinking about mission. But it took actually moving to a new and different space before my own structures about mission and church could be re-formed. So, when I think about mission in the 21st century, I think our first challenge is to examine our own assumptions about mission and expand our ideas.

The second piece of this process is to re-build a concept of mission in collaboration with the communities and people where we live, work and minister.  If we believe that mission involves finding the places and spaces where God is already at work in the world, and finding ways to join in that work, then what better way to discern this than in community? As Anabaptists, we are wrapped in a lineage and historical theology that emphasizes the role of the community: in interpreting the Bible, in prayer together, in hospitality and in a myriad of other ways.

As the Mennonite Church continues to receive the gift of increasing levels of diversity, it will be our challenge to find ways to sit down at the table together: to discuss, to argue, to pray, to discern and to laugh together. I believe that this act of coming together is an act of mission.

Hannah Heinzekehr lives, works and studies in Claremont, California. She is a Church Relations associate for Mennonite Mission Network, and a graduate student at Claremont Lincoln University, studying the intersections between community development and theology. In her spare time, she enjoys visiting the beaches in southern California, hiking in the San Gabriel mountains, and reading something that hasn’t been assigned for class!

Read the rest of this entry »

Rethinking Church and its Mission in the 21st Century

September 2nd, 2011 – by Nelson Okanya

This post is the first in a series on mission/evangelism. Email the editors at workandhope @emu.edu if you would like to contribute to the series.

On Thursday July 21, NASA ended the shuttle program after more than 30 years. That Thursday morning I drove 2 hours away to meet with a committee to explore the possibility of serving as the next president of Eastern Mennonite Missions.  That same weekend a new nation was to be born in Southern Sudan.  I could not help but see the emerging theme.

As a person born and raised in Africa, once considered the mission field for Europe and North America, I could not help but think about the new reality I was living in.  The fact that I was being considered to lead a mission agency in the United States was a new frontier for the mission agency and for me.  Southern Sudanese for the very first time had their own brand new country and the shuttle had served its purpose and something new was being envisioned.  These stories convinced me that a new era has dawned and with it new ways of living and being the church in the world.

I was moved by one reporter’s description of the space shuttle.  He said,

“The shuttle is an amazing machine. It takes off like a rocket, but lands like a plane, so it’s re-usable. It’s had some spectacular successes. It carried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. And the shuttle built the International Space Station. It launched the first American female astronaut into space, and the first black astronauts. But the space shuttle has also developed a reputation for technical problems. Originally, it was supposed to fly dozens of times a year, and cheaply.”

This reporter’s next statement has parallels to mission agencies and the church.  “But NASA’s William Gerstenmaier says the shuttle isn’t ending because we’ve lost our mojo. It’s because the next missions require different designs to go into deeper space ….We need a smaller, more compact vehicle than the winged vehicle we have today.”

I believe this story is relevant for the church as it engages God’s mission in the 21st century.  We are living in exciting, as well as scary, times.  These times are characterized by great opportunities to innovate and think outside the box.  As NASA continues to research and envision the new frontier of space exploration, the church must likewise envision the new mission frontier.

I envision a new generation of missionaries being raised as the church once again rediscovers God’s mission in a fresh and new way.  We cannot live as if everyone understands what it means to be a Christian, even those who have been part of the church family for years.  The Christendom era where we assumed that everybody knew the Bible is long gone. And I think we should celebrate that reality!  Even though the era of Christendom has ended, as we look back we must acknowledge the successes, as well as the failures, of that era. Like NASA, we must do some self reflection and dream about new ways to be relevant, go to places where the witness of the Gospel has not yet reached, and discover fresh ways to embody faithful Christian discipleship in our own communities.

Missiologist Craig Van Gelda of Luther Seminary, in his book, The Ministry of the Missional Church argues that the church must reflect and self define in order to understand its relevance.  He writes,

“The key premise is that understanding the nature of the church is foundational for being able to clarify the purpose of the church, and for developing any strategies related to that purpose.  And understanding the nature of the church is also seen as being foundational for discerning how to address changing cultural contexts.” (p 13).

Taking Van Gelda seriously, I looked at Acts chapter 2. In this chapter, I see the church growing exponentially as the Holy Spirit descended in a fresh way.  Numerically, it grew from 120 people to 3,120.  As the Holy Spirit took charge, it was transformed and empowered to become an authentic Christian community that ministered to others. It became a community that continually experienced the Lord’s hand at work, God’s Spirit continued to shape and act in powerful ways. It is no wonder that the author reports, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47). This Christian community experienced phenomenal growth as the Holy Spirit descended and the community took seriously their new identity and mission.

Is the Acts 2 experience possible again? I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes”! What would the church look like if we were to live as Holy Spirit filled communities of Jesus? What kind of impact would we have in our immediate neighborhoods and around the world, as we become authentic communities of disciples? We must actively engage our changing cultural realities with the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In order to do this, as Christians we must once again cultivate the virtues that continue to form us and helps us to embody the Christian narrative, for in the same way Jesus was sent, Jesus has sent us (John 20:21).

Nelson Okanya was appointed as president of Eastern Mennonite Missions in July 2011. He will begin his term of service in October.  He has served as associate pastor and lead pastor of Capital Christian Fellowship since 2006. He is a 2003 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate.

Read the rest of this entry »