Urban Church

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!

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Why I’m [Still] Mennonite – Hope and Peace

July 19th, 2010 – by Laura Church

Laura ChurchI am still a Mennonite because of the Presbyterians.

On a daily basis, I am surrounded by gun shots, drug deals on my front stoop, and questions from the police over whether my husband and I are lost as we pull up outside of our row home in Baltimore.  The adjustment to life in my neighborhood was difficult for me. Just a few months after moving there, I felt frustrated with my neighbors, sad that anyone had to live in this situation, and tired of seeing people make destructive life choices. I saw little hope for those around me, and wasn’t sure what “peace” was anymore. I wanted to move, and often retreated into my house to avoid my neighbors. However, both my husband and I felt a deep sense of call to live in this neighborhood. We realized that we needed a community with a similar sense of call in order for this to work.

We began looking for this community at church. I was surprised to find myself drawn to a Presbyterian community near where we live. I was raised in the Mennonite Church, and as an adult, I continue to hold to its values and commitments. I felt skeptical that I would find what I looked for in this community. However, on the first Sunday we visited, I knew I had found a place that truly sought and followed the footsteps of Christ. We found a rainbow of people worshiping together. The pastor talked extensively about core values of the church: Reconciliation, Redistribution, and Relocation. He spoke on the importance of living among those you serve, share resources, and bringing together groups of people who would not normally interact. I realized everyone in that service lived in the neighborhood and came from a variety of backgrounds. Some had grown up locally, and some were transplants. Some continued to struggle with their daily needs, while others had never known poverty. However, they all were committed to loving each other and providing for each other’s needs. They knew each other, loved each other, and lived their lives together as one body. I found hope in their commitment to each other and discipleship to Christ. While they would not consider themselves a “peace church,” I saw persons working for peace more clearly than ever before.

I no longer desire to move. I learned that in order to love my neighbors, I must know my neighbors. Instead of watching my neighbors from my house and feeling frustrated, I now spend my time sitting on my front stoop talking to them, helping people apply for social security or unemployment, pumping up balls and tires for the children, or having a family over for dinner. I still have some of the same frustrations that I did before, but I see my neighbors differently. They are now my family, people I love, and the idea of leaving them breaks my heart. I learned that to provide hope and peace for those around me, I must know them, live with them, and share in their daily life struggles. I also learned that not only do I have something to offer them, but they have something to offer me. I am regularly loved, called family, and looked after by my neighbors. I no longer work for hope and peace for my neighbors — we now work together to find hope and peace for the neighborhood. Ω

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Why I’m [Finally] Mennonite

July 19th, 2010 – by Adam M. L. Tice

Adam M. L. TiceThe strange thing about saying I am “still a Mennonite” is that I haven’t officially been a Mennonite all that long. For my first three years of life, I attended a Mennonite church. After that, my family lived outside of Mennonite enclaves. We were generally Anabaptist in orientation at home, but on Sunday we were just plain Baptist.

By the time we moved to Elkhart, Ind. when I was 15, I felt detached from the Mennonite world and didn’t regard it as a priority to attend a Mennonite Church. My older brother and I began attending a Missionary Church. I continued there for 11 years, through college at Goshen, and during my time at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Through higher education, I did discover a deep resonance with Mennonite theology. And yet education and personal theology did not really make me Mennonite. I had not committed myself to a local body of believers.

My baptism at age 13 did not entail church membership. For theological reasons, I never became a member of my Missionary church. So by the time I finished seminary, I was neither a Mennonite nor a member of any church. My identity was finally solidified within community when I became the Associate Pastor at Hyattsville Mennonite Church, just outside of Washington, DC. In fact, I was licensed as pastor a full week before officially joining the church.

My choice of a Mennonite identity was by no means inevitable. I was not nurtured (or indoctrinated) through Mennonite Youth Fellowship. Even Mennonite higher education couldn’t shake the hold of another church, although it ultimately led me to ministry within MCUSA. I am Mennonite, first and foremost, by conviction and choice. I have (finally!) committed myself to a local body of believers; I have also committed myself to a conference and MCUSA as a denomination through the process of credentialing.

And so the answer to the question, “Why am I still a Mennonite,” is that I’ve only really been a Mennonite for three years! I have chosen to be Mennonite because of my convictions about what God is doing in the world. Through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is bringing about a new creation, and we as Christians take part in that work. Mennonites articulate and live out this work in a way that I have not seen in any other faith tradition.

There are substantial issues that make my relationship to MCUSA tenuous. The minute I became an official Mennonite (and as a credentialed minister, I even have a card to prove it), I also became a marginal Mennonite. My conference placed my congregation “under discipline” several years ago for a long-standing practice of welcoming members upon confession of faith without regard to sexual orientation. By accepting their call, I also accepted the discipline.

I take comfort in the fact that growth occurs at margins; creativity flourishes and new ways of understanding emerge. At the same time, growing edges need to be fed and maintained by a healthy core. I wish that more of the church would have the opportunity to see God’s work of new creation as I do—alive, active, expansive, and inclusive, at the urban edge of the Mennonite world. I worry that we might be pruned away—that the denomination will lose the gifts that we bring, and that we will lose our connection to the denomination’s deep, strong roots. Ω

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