All posts by Stephen Kriss

A scouting report: Looking into a mestizo Mennonite present and future

I came to work with Franconia Conference with the understanding that I was going to be scouting into the future and working into it. That role for these last 18 months has included a lot of conversations and travel and has evolved beyond scouting in many ways. However, after listening, engaging, traveling and writing, I believe that I am glimpsing into our shared future. In many ways what I have come to understand came through clearly in snapshots of a weekend visit in Washington, DC and Harrisonburg, VA in February.

img_2536.jpgThese snapshots have literally kept me awake at night for the last weeks, wondering and imagining how we might get there and yet knowing that we’re already on the road whether we admit it or not. It’s a future that excites me and forces me to think and rethink, to struggle and embrace the moments of hope that manifest along the way. It’s a future that in many ways is already here.

The future is all about the connections. This isn’t new information to me, but its live and active now in a way that I haven’t felt or known before. It’s the live connections of running into an Eastern Mennonite University student who attended the youth group at my home church in DC’s Union Station. And knowing from what she’s been up to that week. It’s meeting her friend from India who’s visiting Washington for a month while I am talking with a pastor who leads a primarily African-American community that is incarnating a new Anabaptism in the city’s hardscrabble Anacostia neighborhood. These encounters are no longer anomalies and my colleagues who are a decade younger than me are unimpressed by them. They expect these connections to span geography and ethnicity in ways that I am still sometimes stunned by or enthralled. These global connections are no longer surprising and offer unending catalytic possibilities while at the same time altering the expectations of such encounters. The exoticism of connecting with persons from across the globe that has characterized much of our mission relationships in the past is slowly fading into an expectation of global connectiveness that simultaneously privileges and trivializes that same connectivity. We’ll expect to run into friends in random places and to have transformative conversations with persons quite different from us from around the world. These connections will be held together through a wide array of technologies as well as increased international exposure and travel.

img_2824.jpgThe future will include a struggle for traditional EuroAmerican Mennonites to embrace possibilities, responsibilities and roles. It’s an ongoing struggle for me and for many young EuroAmerican leaders to understand what to do with power and privilege and how to consider empowerment and solidarity. Who are we in this global age if we are anything more than an ethnicity? What does it mean to live Anabaptist Mennonite values in urban contexts with extreme disparities? Why is it that our orientation toward justice and peacemaking is pacified by suburban lifestyles and wealth? What does it mean to have the ability to speak to the powers and to shape decisions that affect not only those in our own country but the globe? What happens when the majority of Mennonites no longer represent my own cultural preferences or biases? These were the kind of questions that are emerging for young adults who are serving with Mennonite Voluntary Service in Washington and studying and seeking at EMU. What does it mean to be a daughter or son of privilege? The future will require EuroAmericans to navigate a new way that blends what we know of the past into current and yet unfolding realities. The future will likely require EuroAmericans to ask more questions and to offer fewer quick answers or solutions.

The future will include congregations and individuals who find themselves to be Anabaptist. In my visit with the pastor at Union Station, I spent time listening to someone who is firmly Anabaptist, committed and dedicated, but serving in a church that might include relatively few persons who would own a Mennonite identity. Can our practices of seeking justice, building community, working toward peace and actively engaged worship serve to connect us where beliefs may not quite yet be concordant? Will actions move us toward a shared perspective that’s more harmonization rather than a unified set of beliefs? And what happens when that harmonization is frequently sort of off-key and tonal rather than our modernist embrace of four-parts?

At New Hope Fellowship (a Franconia Conference Partner in Mission), I met a Georgetown law student who began to read John Howard Yoder’s writing and felt compelled to search for a Mennonite congregation in his area. He showed up at New Hope via Were we what he expected that day? I am not sure. On that same Sunday, Ruben who works at Chic-fil-a also returned for his third visit. He’s coming back Sunday after Sunday because he’s learning something that he can apply to his life—and because his friend Matt who works at Chic-fil-a too invited him.

The future will be multilingual, interactive and require translation.

img_2271.jpgThe music at New Hope was sung in English and Spanish that was led by a multiethnic team that included a French speaking African. There was translation. There was back and forth discussion between the congregation and Pastor Kirk Hanger, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. The sermon featured interpretation of the Good News and the difference between good history and good news is its relevancy for the day. Pastor Kirk serves essentially to translate in many ways between the cultures and between the text and the time. The future will include translation sometimes by headset, sometime by incarnation, sometimes by words. We’ll learn to speak in ways that bridge cultures and work past presumptions.

Nuestro futuro como Menonitas es mestizo. Our future as Mennonites is mestizo. It’s a mixing of cultures and values. It’s a chaotic sense of connectivity that will lead us forward around creatively shared questions and hopes rather than shared beliefs and standards. Our future will require EuroAmerican Mennonites who know the faith as tradition to find ways to connect around shared Anabaptist values rather than shared cultural practice. It will include seekers of all racial/ethnic traditions who stumble into Anabaptist perspectives whether through relationships, reading or the web.

On a CD (that was burned for me by a friend from Blooming Glen congregation) that I listened to on the drive down to DC, a song by an Irish group suggested that there’s something beautiful out there that we are waiting to see. In these few days inside and beyond the beltway, I have seen snapshots of our mestizo future. I have scouted into the future and I believe it may well be something quite beautiful to behold and live. May we have the courage, grace, fortitude and wisdom to be on the path to get there and to live into it now.


Ministering with, to, and as a young adult: Honest questions of nuture, angst, and hope

Stephen Kriss,
Director of Communication and Leadership Cultivation

German wanderlust poet Rainer Maria Rilke advocates in Letters to a Young Poet to live life’s questions so that in living them we might find both ourselves and potential answers. This has been an important assertion for me as I have ministered with, among and to young adults. Now that I am approaching my mid 30’s, having more or less survived my own young adulthood, I am beginning to be able to say something from my own experiences and responses. I am probably too postmodern to be comfortable calling them answers, but I’m ready to suggest that there’s something significant in the questions.

The significance of leading, living and ministering as a young adult is rooted somewhere in a pull between nurture and encouragement; frustration and angst. Young leaders are formed in that crucible of experience, between the kind and gracious words of persons in the generations before them while yet often being compelled by frustration and the unfulfilled visions within the community of those very same faithful people. I find myself still struggling between that tension of not knowing if I can even call myself a person of faith, because I am also a person of doubt and cynicism.

The tension between nurture and honest angst is essential for a new generation of leaders. Nurture alone might allow us to settle into status quo. Angst suggests that there is still discomfort that compels levels of response, energy, and creativity. We surely need nurturing communities and words of encouragement. But frustration and angst enables us to beckon those faith-rooted communities to the yet unseen, unfulfilled, unrealized possibilities of living the reign of God.

As Mennonites, unfortunately, we have managed to tame our history and our communities in a way that makes it difficult to bring up those yet unfulfilled possibilities without suggesting a kind of disloyalty. The massive institution-building of the 20th century has left much for the next generations to maintain in a time that privileges fluidity over staticity. Questioning the institutions and directions of our heritage or seeking new paths and venues for faithfulness can quickly be viewed as disrespect or lack of appreciation.

At a meeting for emerging leaders in Philadelphia, Fuller Seminary Professor Eddie Gibbs suggested that these are tough days to lead. He said that he’s seen many frustrated and tired young leaders. In that recognition he begged young leaders to continue the difficult work ahead for the sake of the Good News in a new day. His quick assertion brought tears to my eyes. I know from my peers and from those who are a decade younger than me that this is not an easy time to care deeply about faith. Or to live your questions and doubts.

I was 24 when my home church in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania invited me to become one of its pastors. These days that call seems like craziness and my willingness to take on the task seems like a combination of blind faith and naivete. But it was also amazing to be able to live out a sense of hope that emerged in the space between angst and nurture with a congregation that called me their own. I pastored with the congregation for six years and in those years the congregation grew, I believe, because we were learning to live questions of faith and doubt, angst and encouragement.

The struggle in ministering with, learning from and calling forth young adults is to learn a sense of living in
the tension of angst and nurture. It’s a significant space that Jesus must have known, calling disciples with strong and sometimes abrasive personalities toward a goal that wasn’t always clear and had yet to unfold. In between there’s a recognition of the present good that hopes and lives toward what is yet unseen. It’s ultimately a step of faith, calling young leaders with questions and dreams different from our own generation, embracing hope and waiting for things yet to come.

There’s a fragile hope that emerges between gracious nurture and angst-inspired questioning. Theologian Miroslav Volf recently suggested that “Christians should be our own most rigorous critics—and be that precisely out of a deep sense of the beauty and goodness of our faith.” For those of us who believe in the beauty and goodness of the faith, we need not fear the doubts and questions of a new generation
of seekers and leaders. In fact, the faith requires it to be relevant both today and in the unfolding days ahead.

In these times of rapid cultural change, hope is a rare commodity. In a time where relationships are quickly and easily severed because of disagreement and change, living with hope is a radical act. Encouragement and nurture require a posture of open-handedness with young adults who may or may not receive it to the ends that might be our own preference.

Living with the angst of young leaders about the current situation requires a level of confidence in the value of the work that we’ve done in the past and a willingness to change when confronted with contemporary realities.

Ministering with, working with and calling forth young adult leaders is not for the faint-hearted, easily winded or precariously perfect. It requires a willingness to enter into the confusing and questions of discipleship and dissonance. It requires us to live our individual and shared questions to discover a deeper sense of the beauty of the faith we say we know and trust.

Franconia Conference Leadership Cultivation Team: Aldo Siahaan, David Landis, Stephen Kriss, and Jessica Walter

When immigrants (whether legal or not) become our sisters, brothers and friends

steve1.jpgI’m working with the fourth immigration case that has taken me to an office in a building overlooking the mall between the National Constitution Museum and Independence Hall. On my last visit, the receptionist remembered that I had been in the office on my birthday. We went back to the counsel office and I listened as another immigrant who is part of a Franconia Conference congregation tell her story. I promised the lawyer that I accompany only complicated cases. He agreed.

This has been an unexpected portion of my work in leadership cultivation and building intercultural relationships within Franconia Conference. It’s a role I readily embrace for the most part. I interned with an immigration lawyer who worked with Mennonite Central Committee in New York. I have a photo of New York City hanging in my hallway taken from Ellis Island to remind myself of the first view of the city that my own great-grandparents likely had at the turn of the 20th Century when they got off the ship from Hamburg, Germany.

These visits to the immigration lawyer are increasingly frustrating. Our economy demands and thrives on the work of immigrants, documented and undocumented. Meanwhile, we have constructed a complex system of laws and rules that make the system nearly impossible to navigate for both employers and immigrants. Initially, I would concede that the laws are simply complex. But more and more I believe that they are at the very least ridiculous but more likely unjust.

I believe that it’s best to work within the law rather than against it. I acknowledge that at least Paul and probably Jesus required submission to the law of the empire to a point. However, as our global economy moves at lightning speed, we’ve got to figure a way to at least respect the “alien” who lives among us, whether he’s pumping our gas or performing heart surgeries, whether she’s cleaning our toilets or running a multinational business.

Last spring, I attended a Philadelphia rally around the Day without Immigrants. I encountered brothers and sisters there from more than one Franconia Conference congregation. I saw Latino men wearing hats that suggested they’d worked with Mennonite-owned companies. Our hands are not entirely clean. If it wasn’t possible for an undocumented immigrant to land a job in Philadelphia within 48 hours of arriving, they’d stop coming.

steve2.jpgA Mennonite Central Committee worker recently suggested that Mennonites are good at cleaning up after messes, but less willing to figure out why we keep getting into them. Now into my fourth accompaniment situation for immigrants who are part of our congregations, I am compelled to respond differently to this situation. Sure, I can keep sitting in on these interviews and spend all of the birthdays of the rest of my life listening to the awkward situations and quagmires of process that are immigration realities. However, I am not content to continue accompanying our sisters and brothers to Center City law offices or to suggest that the situation is so complex that we can’t begin to address it in real ways either.

My great-grandparents left Austria-Hungary sometime before World War I in search of a better life in Pennsylvania. They brought their faith, their hopes and their fears from the hills of what is now Slovakia. They found work quickly as a construction worker and a maid. They helped start churches. They built a simple home. They made ends meet by selling vegetables and garlic from the garden. I believe in the possibilities of multi-ethnic US America as did they, as do the immigrants who are finding their way to our cities and small towns and our congregations.

The situation in our communities is changing quickly. Who would have ever guessed that a sign in front of Franconia Mennonite Church would invite persons to Spanish language Sunday School? We are in this together with the toil of immigrants and the dreams of our own immigrant forebearers. These days, the alien is both among us and is us. While we respect the laws of the land, the words of Christ provoke us to embrace immigrants whether documented or not as brothers, sisters, friends.

In that embrace, may we gain the courage to address the ridiculousness of our immigration system and to call for reform that will allow our sisters, brothers and friends to be treated respectfully here in our own land that still claims to be ready to receive “the tired and the poor and the huddled masses yearning to be free.”


Getting beyond tooting our own horn

I honked to stop the war again tonight as I was driving with the rush hour traffic on Lincoln Drive. Horns were echoing up and down the drive, reverberating like they had a few weeks ago when I first joined in the action of horn-honking to stop the war. It’s been my only real action that has manifested anything to react to the war in Iraq.

Earlier today while I was at Barnes and Noble I noticed that there was an overwhelming number of books, calling for a halt to the war and for reconsideration of US American actions and responses in the War on Terror. Honking to stop the war on Lincoln Drive feels so safe and even trendy these pre-election days.

Last Friday, while sitting in a lecture with Eddie Gibbs, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Dean Trulear, a professor at Howard University, we discussed the US American tendency to favor what works over what is true. I think that principle applies to our current situation. Initially it seemed like the war on terror that includes the foray into conflict with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would work. It would solve some lingering problems, enlarge the field for emerging Asian democracies and make US Americans feel safer post 9-11. Now it seems that we’re ready to say that what we were doing isn’t or wasn’t really working and we’re starting to say that across party lines and in mixed company.

I don’t really count myself as an anti-war activist. I am committed to nonviolence, not because I believe it is always what works, but because I believe it is what is true (and lovely and beautiful and holy and all those things that early church leader Paul suggested in one of his letters). And what is true is not always easy and doesn’t always “work.”

Contemporary European philosophers would suggest that there’s some sort of disconnect then with what is real, what is true and what works.

What is real these days is that I have to take off my shoes and keep only trial size bottles of liquids with me in my carry-on. And while I was in the airport the loudspeaker reminded me that we were in code orange for terror potentiality. What is real is that a high school friend named Tristan who I played soccer with was killed in the field in Iraq.

None of these things really “work” for me. I don’t feel any safer now that I can’t take mouthwash with me onto an aircraft. I don’t even know what to make of the terror alert colors and how I’d behave differently whether it’s green, yellow or orange. Though I haven’t talked to Tristan for years, I feel mostly just sad that he was killed in the midst of a conflict and cause that’s losing its nobility.

Honking to end the war is easy. I can do it every night. We honk for lesser things in Philly. But I feel like I join a bandwagon, those who know that the war isn’t working, rather than those who would choose nonviolence even when its hard, not because it works but because its true and beautiful and reveals the Creator. In the Broadway musical, Rent, there is a line that suggests, “the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” I wonder what those of us who want to incarnate Jesus-inspired nonviolence might be prepared to create?

This week many of us will go to the polls with the war on terror and in Iraq on our mind. And next weekend, Franconia Mennonite Conference will gather as well, affirming its leaders and again affirming the tradition of nonresistant faith that we’ve confessed for decades. Both of these acts whether polling levers or using touch screens or standing to say decades old words of commitments to nonresistance are in this time and setting as easy as honking our horns. They don’t require much reflective action or thought and we can join with others who are doing the same.

As peace-loving Mennonites, it’s easy to get caught up in saying that we knew a war wouldn’t work; that violence never solves anything. I don’t think that’s a sufficient response these days. For those of us who believe that peacemakers are blessed, there’s an invitation to consider what it means to do more than honk horns, go to the polls and affirm confessions of faith that remind us of a nonresistant history. What might (or already does) manifest if and when we embrace the blessed calling from the Sermon on the Mount to be known as the sons and daughters of God? What is it that might take us beyond this reality into at least a glimpse of what is true and lovely and might even be stunningly beautiful?

Just another day in Paradise (or Philadelphia)?

Last week, after students returned to clean out their desks and men from the community dismantled everything from the ballfield backstops to the roadside fence, an early morning crew with heavy equipment dismantled the boarded-up West Nickel Mines School in Bart Township, Lancaster County. It was carefully hauled away by truck to a landfill with no trace left behind or left along the way to be sold later by some strange entrepreneurial thrill-seeker on E-bay.

And last week, there was a series of murders in West Philadelphia’s Kingsessing neighborhood with no way to remove the memories or bulldoze the buildings. The city’s tally of murders went past 300 in the same week the Amish girls were killed by Charles Carl Roberts. The same week that Roberts’ pastor at Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church suggested that this kind of thing, these kind of murders, this kind of senseless death doesn’t happen in Lancaster County. It happens instead, she suggested 75 miles east in Philadelphia.

For the last year, I have made Philadelphia my home. I have heard the tales of how the city feels slighted, forsaken and feared by its suburban neighbors. I have grown to understand that fear somewhat, having more locks on my house than ever and even this week altered an evening walk after reading the crime report for my zipcode. And I read this week about how Philadelphia is poor, uneducated and violent in an article from the Inquirer. These are the sorts of things that happen in Philadelphia—an infant is the 300th murder; a five year old dies when a bullet finds her inside of her mother’s car; two senior citizens are killed in Kingsessing accidentally; two 17-year olds die. It’s just another week or two in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Sunday after the shootings, I went to hear my pastor at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, in one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. He spoke of the Amish and the power of forgiveness. He dared us not to beatify the Amish, but beckoned us to live that same life of powerful forgiveness in this city of violence and fear. All many of us can think of is how sad it is that these innocent Amish girls died in Bart Township, that they didn’t deserve it. Pastor Leonard suggested that maybe this is a tipping point, maybe people will pay attention to gun violence now.

But it’ll be two weeks tomorrow and the death count in Philadelphia continues to tally at an alarming rate. And no one, anywhere, seems to care or to even have any sort of clue about what to do. As a staff member of the Mennonite Church, for one of its Philadelphia region entities (Franconia Conference), I am stunned by our ability to coordinate efforts; of my credit union, Mennonite Financial, to disburse funds to help the families; of Blooming Glen Mennonite Church to organize a prayer gathering; of Penn Foundation to compile a list of websites and resources for dealing with trauma and of Mennonite Disaster Service’s ability to corral counselors and set up funds. I am stunned by the outpouring of compassion, of the willingness of hospitals to write off the care for the Amish girls; of the rapid collection of what will likely end up over a million dollars. I don’t begrudge any of it. In fact I am proud (at least as proud as Mennonite clergy should be) about how quickly we organized and helped and processed.

But I wonder, here, in my Mt. Airy carriage house what it would take for us to mobilize in any way at all in response to the violence that’s escalating in this city. Mennonite Central Committee along with leaders from Anabaptist churches here in Philly are hosting a Packing for Peace Conference just up the road in a few weeks. It’s an admirable event, a first step towards equipping to be peacemakers. I am grateful for that.

But I am still so uncomfortable with how we don’t seem to care for this city that lies at our communal doorsteps, lodged between the pristine farmland of Lancaster and the burgeoning suburbs of Bucks and Montgomery Counties. An old book that I’ve been reading about Quaker Philadelphia suggested that the peace church folks who helped establish this city emphasized inner piety rather than outward care beyond their own communities. It was an environment of religious tolerance and grace that led to a lack of responsibility and care that eventually let the fabric of the city not only come apart at the seams, but actually (and continually) be ripped asunder.

So here I am living just blocks away from the historic Germantown Mennonite meetinghouse, within walking distance of Rittenhouse Town, the home of Willliam Rittenhouse, the first North American Mennonite bishop whose legacy of meshing communication and church leadership I live within centuries later. And I am provoked by my pastor’s sermon, his stirring assertion that what happened in Lancaster County might affect what happens to us here.

I hope Pastor Leonard is right. I hope we can find a way to responsibly care for this city that provides the impetus for high land values for those of us who live just beyond its boundaries. And I hope we do it soon. I am not sure I can bear too many more readings of the crime report, of guns being pulled on persons walking a couple of blocks from my house in mid-day and before sunset. I’ve already ventured a look at housing beyond the city’s limits. It’s not that I don’t think a bit of fear and frustration about what has and is happening here is appropriate. I just hope that we can find ways to not only care, but to have some of the powerfully mobilized compassion that I saw two weeks ago that brought forth embodied grace in a situation that seemed only to be hopeless.

More than 100 attend symposium resulting in new vision boldly opening doors to Christ-centered Mennonite education

Over 100 people joined together to consider the future possibilities for Quakertown and Penn View Christian schools and Christopher Dock Mennonite High School on September 16 at Penn View’s Godshall Road campus in Souderton, PA. Out of this day of listening and hearing the steering team for the school’s GPS 2012 strategic plan initiative has adopted a vision statement, “Boldly opening doors to Christ-centered Mennonite education.” The vision emerges from the conversations and input of the symposium participants.

According to Sarah Bergin of Perkasie Mennonite Church, “It’s so great to be a part of a community that cares about our students, not just academically but spiritually. It was wonderful to be together as a group.” Parents, students, alumni, teachers, staff, pastors, conference leaders and community leaders were part of the day-long discernment that led up to the new collaborate vision for the schools. Noel Santiago, Franconia Conference Executive Minister, remarked “There was a lot of energy here with good focus and clarity. We still have the tough part of making it a reality.”

The ongoing work of GPS (Globally Positioned Students) 2012 will focus around four goals derived from the September 15 meeting. These goals include:
• Mission driven, action-oriented collaboration among schools, families, congregations and conferences
• Accessibility to Christ-centered Mennonite education in the tri-school area
• Exemplary Christ-centered teaching and learning within an Anabaptist/Mennonite worldview
• Cultivating a community recognizable by their impact as Christ-centered pilgrim servants building God’s kingdom locally and globally