Dr. Lawrence Ressler has spent nearly four decades as a social work professor and academic administrator in Christian higher education including time at Eastern Mennonite […]
Melissa Florer-Bixler is Pastor of Raleigh (North Carolina) Mennonite Church.
In 1940, Virginia Mennonite Conference racially segregated the rituals of the church. As backlash against the ministry of Rowena Lark, an African-American Mennonite minister, the bishops mandated that people of color and white people drink from different Communion cups, clean feet at different basins and wash at different baptismal fonts.
It has been this way for women as we have worked for our gifts to be recognized in church leadership. And it has been this way for people of color, Latina/os, African-Americans, Asians, and American Indians whose bodies were the subject of exclusion, the subject of church polity and the subject of theological pondering.
At the Future Church Summit, there was significant talk in code. It happened at my table, in private conversations, from open mic times, and in writing. The difference between LGBTQ people and heterosexuals was coded not as a real difference but as a difference of perception based on divergent theologies. There was ambivalence to name that distinction explicitly because, perhaps for the first time, LGBTQ people were intentionally brought into an official space of church discernment. For the first time, straight people were required to talk “with” rather than “about” LGBTQ Mennonites.
I suspect that felt vulnerable to many people, particularly for those who have not done the work of building relationships with queer people, of reading Scriptural interpretation that gives fresh insight into the text—biblical reasons for questioning their own cultural reflex to reject our LGBTQ siblings.
This anxiety was felt most acutely when it came time to present the collective wisdom of the discerning body as a resolution, a directive to which the delegate body would hold the Executive Board accountable. A handful of voices, all older adults, hedged. They asked for more time, more process, claimed they hadn’t been heard, claimed that entering into a space of difference made them “unsafe.”
It is exhausting for young people to continuously find ourselves in a church that pits people of color against LGBTQ people. We know better. We have seen for ourselves the alliances and commonalities happening at the intersections. We draw strength from the places where our work overlaps and in the places where our differences require patience, repentance and reconciliation.
This was no more apparent than in the hand-wringing at the Future Church Summit that resulted from the attention drawn to unnamed histories and histories of oppression woven into the fabric of the Mennonite Church. Stitched through our week was the desire of white Mennonites to protect legacies, to soften oppressions and to forget about the uncomfortable realities of our story.
Throughout it all, my mind returned to a picture of Roberta Webb, a community organizer who came to the Mennonite church through Rowena Lark. In the picture Ms Webb sits, smiling among black sisters of faith, wearing a prayer-covering.
It’s a complicated symbol for me when I see this image of her head, covered in pure white. I am reminded that this was the way Lark and Webb laid claim to the Mennonite Church. They dismantled the walls erected by white, male bishops while wearing the dominant culture’s religious clothes. Through their bold sense of belonging, the Mennonite church became the church of Webb and Lark.
As I looked around the landscape of tables at Future Church Summit, I saw these two women multiplied over and over again, their image in the people who were insisting that the Mennonite church is their church.
That’s what I saw in the female pastor who sat at the table with a man who believed she should not be allowed to preach. And in the young gender-queer person who was told by a man at her table that God created her for destruction. That’s what I saw in the black woman who was told by a man at her table how he was tired of “the blacks” getting all the attention.
I saw Lark and Webb in my tablemate, a man from Ohio Conference who believes that marriage is only between a man and a woman, yet who came to listen. We talked and discerned. I told him my story and he told me his.
We are not working to get into the church, to earn acceptance or validation. Many of our local churches are already the places God is preparing, the places God is welcoming the Mennonite Church into. This is our church, the church of the present. We, too, have laid claims.
Did you attend the Future Church Summit? Do you have a reflection to share? E-mail us your thoughts about this gathering: Editor@TheMennonite.org.
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