by Stephen Kriss, Executive Minister
Jesus is the center of our faith. Community is the center of our life. Reconciliation is the center of our work.—Palmer Becker from Anabaptist Essentials
“Your people shall become my people.”—Ruth 1:15
The Facebook post from retired Lancaster Conference Bishop Freeman Miller showed a photo of the former First Mennonite Church in Philadelphia with missing windows, a high wire fence and a notice of building violations and possible demolition. While this building hasn’t been inhabited by the First Mennonite Church of Philadelphia for generations, I felt the pain of the possible loss. This building had been the meetinghouse of what had been one of the largest Mennonite congregations on the East Coast, though they had relocated to the suburbs long ago. It was the home church of Ann Allebach, the first Mennonite woman ordained for ministry in the country. The Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania worked to add the building to the city’s historic register. For Eastern District, it represents a key historic spot and story.
When I came to Franconia Conference from the western half of the state over a decade ago, I learned quickly that to lead in our community meant learning our history. I have also learned that it means learning to listen to those who are sometimes just outside of the narrative, as well as those whose stories we have not told. For over 150 years, the stories of Franconia Conference and Eastern District Conference have been stories told in contrast: General Conference/Mennonite Church (GC/MC) across the street, down the road, more worldly, more conservative. The challenge for us in reconciliation will be to learn to tell our stories together in a fragmenting time.
As we move this fall toward the possibilities of reconciliation, I believe we are moving toward what is the essence of the Spirit’s work of healing and hope in our time. The project of honestly assessing the wounds of the past and recognizing the possibilities that are unleashed through reconciliation and forgiveness gives us a strong posture for the future.
How do we honor our experiences learned through our years alongside each other but apart? How we do hear the stories told and untold? How do we let our brokenness heal so that we are stronger and postured uniquely for the work and witness of God for our time?
For me, this means learning the stories of Eastern District Conference and honoring those places and spaces that are significant in their history, as well as the history of Franconia Conference. It means emphasizing the role of God as is often de-emphasized in the story of the Prodigal Son, the one who welcomes home, who celebrates a return to family, who welcomes repentance and challenges arrogance even in faithfulness. In the history of our story together as Conferences, at times we have both squandered our inheritance, distracted by the things of this world rather than the way of Christ’s peace.
I believe that reconciliation will make us stronger as a community. Not because this bolsters numbers or helps with efficiencies, but because reconciliation further transforms us into the image of God revealed in Christ, who lays down privilege, who embraces incarnation, who recognizes the God who creates all things new — even 300-year-old communities of Mennonites separated for over a century.