By Sheldon C. Good for Mennonite Weekly Review
PITTSBURGH—Whether or not Mennonite Church USA has a convention in Phoenix in 2013, church leaders are committed to show their support for immigrants.
Though various opinions were shared Sept. 23-25 during a Leaders’ Forum—including differing statements from two church groups—leaders said they will discern God’s will together.
More than 200 leaders representing MC USA, churchwide organizations and area conferences gathered together for the first time outside a convention to worship, fellowship, tell stories and discuss topics such as whether to move the 2013 convention from Phoenix due to Arizona’s controversial immigration law.
“Our Hispanic constituency is feeling the burden of this decision,” said Glen Guyton, MC USA associate executive director for constituent resources, the staff person who relates with Racial/Ethnic groups. “The Phoenix decision is only a symbol of much bigger challenges we face as MC USA, such as viewing Racial/Ethnic congregations as missions projects and not as valuable contributors.”
Guyton is part of MC USA’s Intercultural Relations Reference Committee, or IRRC, a group that works on Racial/Ethnic issues. The IRRC includes representatives from the three official MC USA Racial/Ethnic groups—Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church), African-American Mennonite Association and Native Mennonite Ministries—as well as from churches that primarily work with immigrants from Africa and Asia.
Arizona’s SB 1070, which makes it illegal for an immigrant to be in the state without documents, has “a disproportionate impact” on Racial/Ethnic groups, the IRRC said in a statement presented by Guyton at the Leaders Forum.
The statement recommends holding the 2013 convention in Phoenix, “although we understand that some in our Racial/Ethnic constituency may not agree,” Guyton said.
The IRRC statement also references systemic issues that are problematic within Mennonite Church USA. It says that conventions and other MC USA gatherings “are not welcoming to Racial/Ethnic people as a whole because of culture, cost, travel requirements and language barriers.”
The statement calls the church to 12 steps of racial inclusion and equality. Those steps include making the churchwide priority of anti-racism a more prominent part of conventions and offering support to “recent immigrants in our communities without making judgment.”
The IRRC includes two representatives of Iglesia Menonita Hispana, which wrote a letter in April asking denominational leaders to “rethink” the Phoenix convention. Yvonne Diaz, executive director of Iglesia Menonita Hispana and an IRRC member, said the Hispanic church’s position has not changed.
“There’s a hostile environment [in Arizona],” Diaz said. “It’s very detrimental to our Latino brothers and sisters. We’ve got lots of ideas. Let’s be creative about this opportunity. We’re in pain.”
Diaz said she hopes the church can demonstrate Rev. 7:9, which describes people from every tribe and language standing before the throne of the Lord with palm branches.
Representatives from Iglesia Menonita Hispana and IRRC were not alone in their differing views.
Malinda Berry, Mennonite Education Agency board member, said the Phoenix decision is morally ambiguous.
“There is no clear right or wrong answer,” Berry said. She wondered whether MC USA would sanction acts of civil disobedience if the convention is held in Phoenix.
Chuck Neufeld, a member of the Constituency Leaders Council, said pastors in Illinois Conference came to a strong consensus. “Unless IMH is asking us to meet in Phoenix, we can’t,” he said.
Kenneth Thompson, a member of MC USA’s Executive Board and the IRRC, said there’s a difference between uniformity and unity.
“In the Scriptures, presence, not absence, makes the difference,” Thompson said. “For those who choose to go, go fully dressed in the armor of God. If you go, go with a purpose.”
Questions from Iglesia Menonita Hispana’s April letter to MC USA were discussed, including how churches have engaged with the denomination’s 2003 Statement on Immigration and how the church will demonstrate its solidarity with immigrants whether or not there is a Phoenix convention.
Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, Executive Board member, asked the Executive Board to make a decision before January, when they will meet next.
The Racial Healing Task Group, which includes representatives from the “dominant culture,” presented a skit with four vignettes on how the dominant culture experiences power and privilege in relationships.
The racial healing group is directly accountable to the Intercultural Relations Reference Committee, or IRRC.
Questions were raised after the skit, such as how race impacts where people live, where institutions are built, where meetings are held and whether there’s a gap between denominational and congregational vision for multiculturalism.
“How can we move away from something that begins and ends, to a process that is ongoing?” said D.J. McFadden, Mennonite Mutual Aid board member.
Leaders also considered a proposal regarding resolutions during conventions. The executive committee of the Executive Board proposed an “Experiment in Corporate Discernment at Pittsburgh,” suggesting a delegate assembly without resolutions adopting church statements.
Duane Oswald, MMA board member, said leaders needed to trust each other during decision-making. “That happens at the table groups,” he said. “If we are not making decisions, then why should we come?”
Thomas Kauffman, conference minister for Ohio Conference, asked, “Is this a way to avoid the difficult topics that we know are out there?”
Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MC USA, proposed a plan, “Investing in Hope,” an “effort to align our actions with our theological commitments. “Although the plan includes the “Joining Together, Investing in Hope” building campaign, it is more about planning how we will move forward as a church than finances,” he said.
“In the past, we’ve used wishful thinking instead of purposeful planning,” Stutzman said. The plan will be tested with church leaders during 2010 and with delegates at Pittsburgh 2011.
The three-day event culminated as church leaders took communion. “Oftentimes when we worship, we gather together with veiled faces,” Stutzman said, referencing God’s new covenant. “If you take the veil off, the Lord’s light penetrates your face and shines. Covenants are an investment in hope.”