There is only one Mennonite church here in the United Kingdom, which I have yet to attend. Not surprisingly, then, I’ve recently been trying to explain my Mennonite faith identity to some very curious and sometimes very confused Brits. Somewhere near the beginning of those conversations, I often mention the strong emphasis that Mennonites place on community. It’s this sense of community that I miss here in London. I miss gathered congregations singing deeply rooted convictions of discipleship and peacemaking in effortless four-part harmony, familiar pie and bread recipes handed from one generational table to the next, rich farmland evoking memories of a strong agrarian history, and long lines of families and neighbors who quietly seek to serve God and one another. I do try to offer the general disclaimer that Mennonite communities are rapidly changing and diversifying, and that these rather cliche descriptions would fail to describe many contemporary Mennonite churches. But as a young Mennonite woman growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, they are traditions and associations that are undeniably embedded in my experience of Mennonite community.
Community is a word that is also frequently used in the neighborhood where I’m now living in East London, but it takes a much different shape than I’m accustomed to experience. I’m currently part of a tiny church called E1 Community Church, a church that was planted here 10 years ago by a group of people who had the neighborhood community at the heart of their mission. Knowing that this area tends to be comparatively poor, under-churched, diverse and transient, they slowly sought to find ways of forming a church community that would be relevant and would meet the needs of this context. Several people in the church also take part in a local group called the Geoff Ashcroft Community, where I’ve been spending a few days a week. True to its name, this group is also centered around community, seeking to provide a sense of community and support for those in the area who are isolated and who struggle with mental health issues.
Given this common emphasis on community, then, it seems almost ironic that many of the people I now interact with on a daily basis have no way of comprehending the form of community that I grew up with and often take for granted. Although I perhaps would not have always said this, I am realizing that much of my sense of community is linked with sharing things in common with a tightly knit group of people: a shared history, shared traditions, shared political views, shared core values, a shared understanding of faith and belief in God. Yes, Mennonites of course struggle with disagreements and divisions over theological and political differences, but it seems that there are many places of commonality and shared faith at our core.
There is something beautiful about our strong communal identities, and I think it is one of the gifts that Mennonites can bring to a far too individualized and fragmented world. But it does beg the question of how and whether we can create communities without the presence of shared worldviews and core values. At E1 Community Church and at the Geoff Ashcroft Community, small groups of people come together from radically different worldviews and backgrounds. There is a man who spent most of his adult life in the military, and whose identity is still largely defined by those military experiences; a man who spent 17 years in prison and who is estranged from his family; a woman who has such intense social anxiety that she only ventures outside her home for a few hours each week; another woman who struggles with drug and alcohol addiction while trying raise three kids and to get herself a decent education. Relationships are downright tough in this context, not only because I am interacting with people who have quite traumatic pasts, but also because our lives have simply been so different. I cannot assume anything, let alone assume that people will share my pacifist stance or the approach I take to studying scripture.
There are, however, also incredible blessings that come from this struggle to form community in the midst of diversity. A few days ago, a group of us gathered at Geoff Ashcroft for a Christmas celebration lunch. As we sat together, laughing and sharing food and genuinely enjoying each others’ company, I was moved by what felt like a true sense of gathered community; by what I imagined as being a bit like the meals that Jesus shared throughout his ministry. In such moments, I am consistently amazed by how vulnerable people are with one another, and with the honest transparency with which they enter those spaces. Out of that transparency and vulnerability comes the opportunity to serve and support one another, and to become stronger as a community of faith.
There are blessings in both the shared community and the more radically diverse community, just as there are ways that both need to be challenged. I am just beginning to realize the extent of the difficulties that face the church community here in London, in its quest to form an authentic, common Christian identity while still embracing those with such varied personal identities and experiences. And back home in Pennsylvania, I have a feeling that many churches are struggling to reach beyond narrowly defined identities, to find ways of sharing the blessings of their communities with wider circles of people. I keep wondering how we might find ways to learn from one another. And how we might discover ways to authentically express our Christ-centered, communal identities, while remaining ever attuned to how the Spirit might be stirring new paths in our midst.
Krista Ehst is spending several months learning, serving and visiting among communities connected with the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom. She’s a recent graduate of Goshen College and a 2004 graduate of Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. She’s supported by a network of Franconia Conference congregations and individuals while on site across the pond.