Taking time for justice: learning from Samantha Lioi

Samantha Lioiby John Tyson, summer writing team

In a recent book, Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman noted that the peace rhetoric of the Mennonite church has shifted focus away from nonresistance and toward justice. This significant change in language suggests that urban, suburban, and rural congregations are undergoing an attitude adjustment toward the neighborhood. Unlike nonresistance, the work of justice is naturally outward-oriented, concerned with the common good and the overall health of the local community.

One reason that congregations have altered their posture toward their local contexts is the influence of missional theology. It has birthed a generation of Christians ready to join what God is already doing in neighborhood, beyond the church walls. Finding ways to merge living the Gospel (justice) and spreading the Good News (mission), though, requires more than an attitude adjustment: it requires time.

This is the humbling lesson that I learn over coffee with Samantha Lioi, minister of peace and justice for both Franconia and Eastern District conferences. Among other things, Lioi’s role includes preaching and teaching and organizing congregational peace representatives, but the essence of her time is spent broadening our common conceptions of the complicated relationship between living out Anabaptist Christianity and seeking justice.

Lioi is passionate about helping congregations see justice in less abstract terms. For Lioi, justice is less about the business of law and politics and more about creating spaces in our busyness to share our lives with unexpected people. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, justice can be as ordinary as sharing mutual food and fellowship across socially-constructed lines of race, religious, or class divisions. A member of the Allentown intentional community known as Zume House, Lioi has seen these practices slowly begin to have a transformational impact on the community. “We’re all so busy that we sometimes lack the attentiveness that is critical to entering mutual relationships with others. It’s important to be reminded that doing justice can’t only be seen as ‘doing for others’ but ‘doing with others’ too,” says Lioi.

Transitioning from ‘doing for’ to ‘doing with’ often proves to be a challenging paradigm shift for congregations in affluent contexts. One reason is due to the reality that injustice and inequality is murkier and less dramatic in suburban, affluent settings. But the bigger reason involves a paradox, one that has to do with time. Affluent congregations are often so busy working to maintain a well-oiled church that they miss opportunities to vulnerably be with their neighbors, to sit among them with Jesus. “Being with others, learning from others, openness to being changed by real human encounters,” Lioi says, “is time consuming and outside our comfort zones.”

For Lioi, Christian faith from an Anabaptist perspective is patiently cultivated in the presence of others. Only from within diverse relationships do we begin to grasp a better sense of our own shortcomings and need for spiritual transformation. Lioi is hopeful that congregations in Eastern District and Franconia Conferences continue to seek encounters which lead us to “become more honest with ourselves, cultivate courage to face our fears, and display a greater willingness to be changed by our neighbors.”

Growing in honesty, courage, and openness is a long journey. It leads toward outbreaks and glimmers of what life in God’s kingdom looks like, what justice in all its fullest is, but it takes time. As the Mennonite church continues conversion about becoming a missional community, seeking to find ways to merge mission and justice, Lioi’s work of shepherding congregations is a true gift.