Who am I? (To Mennonite Blog #1)

by Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.orgEmily Ralph

The rolling hills surrounding Harrisonburg, Virginia are beautiful this time of year.  In some ways, they remind me of the mountains and farmland back home in Pennsylvania and I’m not surprised that Mennonites migrated here in the 18th century—it must have felt like home!

It’s my first visit to the main campus of Eastern Mennonite University, and as I drove down the highway toward EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute last week, the familiarity of the mountains and grazing cows only fed my anticipation.  I was looking forward to studying with other leaders from around the world, cradled in the arms of a warm Mennonite community of scholars and practitioners.  In other words, it would be a home away from home.

I was in for a wakeup call.  As a Pennsylvania-based Mennonite pastor participating in this event on global peacebuilding, I am an oddity.   Although I recognized, in theory, that I would be surrounded by diversity, I don’t think I truly prepared myself for what I have experienced.  I have found myself floundering, trying to figure out how I fit in here, when the people around me don’t speak the same religious language, when their eyes don’t light up in recognition after I say I’m from Franconia Conference in Pennsylvania, when I struggle to express why I’m at a peacebuilding workshop as a leader in the American church and not as an activist on the front lines of war-torn Syria.

While I am cherishing new friendships with extraordinary people from around the world, I hadn’t anticipated the loneliness, the feelings of separation from my community in a place where I expected to experience that community more strongly.  And the irony of ironies?  I’m taking a class on identity.  Never did I think that I would be struggling with mine, even as I wade through the intensity of this ten-day experience.

Our identities form how we see and are seen by the world.  They are so foundational to our lives that often we are unaware of how they color everything we say and do.  And when our understandings of who we are come into friction with others’ understandings of who they are, conflict erupts.

It’s no wonder, then, that our Mennonite identity has caused so much tension in the church.  Some hold this identity as sacred, while others argue that their identity is first and foremost as a Christian, not a Mennonite.  The rhetoric gets passionate and divisive.

This time, a year ago, I was in a different class, this one at EMU’s Lancaster campus.  We were discussing change and conflict in the church and someone asked the question: What if we saw our roles as verbs instead of nouns?

So, for instance, instead of being a father, one would father.  Or instead of being a student, one would student.  As I pondered this concept, I was struck with a much deeper question: what would it mean to Mennonite?

What if we viewed our identities as followers of Jesus who Mennonite?  What if we saw Mennonite not as our identity, but as our practice?  What would the practices for the verb Mennonite be?

There is something reconciling about using Mennonite as a verb.  It allows us to form a community around these practices, regardless of how long any one of us has been in the Mennonite denomination.  It strips away any claim of ancestry and builds bridges among us, regardless of ethnicity, gender, generation, or life experiences—we can Mennonite together.

Menno Simons, who unwillingly gave his name to this verb, was passionate about the practices of Jesus-followers.  He would have defined Mennonite as doing works of love, resisting temptation, seeking and serving God, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, comforting the troubled, sheltering the miserable, aiding the oppressed, returning good for evil, serving and praying for persecutors, teaching and challenging with God’s Word, seeking what is lost, healing the sick and wounded, and rejoicing in persecution (Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing).

And so, as I struggle with being one of the few Mennonites on campus, even as I am surrounded by ninety-two other leaders who are working for peace and justice in communities around the world, I ask myself, What makes me Mennonite?  Is it my ethnicity?  My theology?  Where I live?  Or is it a certain way of understanding Christ’s call to radical discipleship, an understanding that is lived out in practice?

This summer, leaders from all over Franconia Conference and beyond will wrestle with these same questions in a new blog series: What does it mean to Mennonite?  What practices shape us as followers of Jesus who Mennonite together?  Next week, we’ll hear from Dennis Edwards, last year’s Conference Assembly speaker and the former pastor of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, DC.

How do you “Mennonite”?  Join the conversation on Facebook & Twitter (#fmclife) or by email.

Who am I?  (To Mennonite Blog #1)
Serving Christ with our heads and hands (To Mennonite Blog #2)
Quiet rebellion against the status quo (To Mennonite Blog #3)
Mennoniting my way (To Mennonite Blog #4)
Generations Mennoniting together (To Mennonite Blog #5)
Body, mind, heart … and feet (To Mennonite Blog #6)
We have much more to offer (To Mennonite Blog #7)
Mennonite community … and community that Mennonites (To Mennonite Blog #8)