Beyond our Christendom, signs of life

by Steve Kriss, Director of Leadership Cultivation
Reposted by permission from Mennonite World Review

I remember wincing when British Anabaptist Stuart Murray Williams suggested wryly in one of his trips to southeastern Pennsylvania that we had managed to create our own Mennonite Christendom.

Steve KrissMurray Williams is likely the world’s pre-eminent scholar on post-Christendom. He’s been writing about it after an encounter with Anabaptism in the U.K., delving into the conversations while believing that an unaligned Anabaptism might provide a path forward in an increasingly secular time when the church moves from the center of culture to the margins.

Murray Williams has been an important guide for me as I live in between that Mennonite Christendom and the ways of being Anabaptist and Mennonite on the margins. In my work with congregations beyond Mennonite Christendom — whether that’s been in Georgia or Vermont or in the urban centers of Philly and Allentown — I’ve come back with a message that feels similar to the dove Noah sent out that returned with an olive branch. There’s life beyond our Christendom.

On my last trip to Georgia I worshiped with the largest Mennonite Church USA congregation there, just north of Atlanta. We celebrated a housewarming for Yunus Perkasa Tjeng and Hui-Lin Kwok. Yunus is the pastor of Georgia Praise Center. He and his wife, Hui-Lin, purchased a spacious house perched at the edge of a cul-de-sac in diverse Lawrence­ville, just north of Atlanta.

It’s a community that was profiled recently in a New York Times article as representing “The New Georgia.” Their house was full of guests to honor the new space with gifts of prayers and presence. It was the biggest house party I’ve ever attended. Conversation flowed from English to Indonesian to Mandarin and Hokian.

Traveling with my colleague, Aldo Siahaan, we set off to make connections with a group of recent Burmese refugees seeking affiliation with MC USA through a network of relationships that spans the borders of the U.S. and Canada.

We went to visit this Atlanta group at the request of Virginia Mennonite Conference staffer Skip Tobin, who is relating to a sister congregation in Charlotte. This particular group of Burmese speak the Mara language, and many work in the poultry plants that ring Atlanta.

We walked into the leader’s sparse apartment, tucked into a large complex on Atlanta’s east side, close to Emory University but worlds apart from it. Entering this gated complex, we witnessed a concentrated diversity of people, many recent refugees from conflict zones.

We sat down for a conversation alongside Joseph Raltong, the key Mara Anabaptist leader on this continent. We spoke through translation between English and Mara. And then we stumbled into a conversation in Malay, which the leaders from Atlanta speak after years in refu­gee camps in Malaysia. Malay speakers can usually understand Indonesian. My colleague Aldo is Indonesian. The conversation moved forward from there easily, and we found our hearts strangely warmed.

After this fairly intense conversation, we met back up with Pastor Yunus for a quick snack at a Korean bakery in Atlanta’s Chinatown. We grabbed coffee and tasty snacks for the journey back to Pennsylvania.

These dispatches from beyond Mennonite Christendom give me life. While I work from within the institutions that make up this very thing, I’m aware our future is quite different. It requires a different fluidity and acumen.

Different leaders will help us to find life in this great beyond — leaders who understand Malay, who have the cultural gifts and skills that will help us navigate and grow. For many of us Euro-American leaders and institutional Mennonite scions, there will be a letting go of control — pleasantly or not. In that letting go is a space where God can work beyond our familiarities, the very place where I suspect we’ll find our hearts warmed by the Spirit who gives life.

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