Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mennonite World Conference: Reasons to Celebrate

Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, Pa., is history. I only had the privilege of attending for one day, but through that minimal exposure and speaking with friends from around the world who attended for the full week, I found many reasons to celebrate.

1.     Thousands of “cradle” Mennonites do not have Swiss/German/Dutch surnames. Second and third generations of Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups are from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and bring new meaning and vitality to what being an “ethnic” Mennonite is.
2.     The epicenter of the Mennonite world is moving farther and farther to the south. 66% of those claiming Anabaptist connections are from the global south. Nearly 40% from Africa, 20% from Asia and 16% from Latin America. This might be disconcerting for those of us with European roots, but it makes our World Conference a rainbow of diversity and a piece of heaven on earth.
3.     There are thousands of people joining the Anabaptist fold here in North America who are not “cradle/ethnic” Mennonites. While our own children are abandoning the faith of their fathers/mothers in droves, a new stream of Neo-Anabaptists are discovering the genius of an alternative to the extremes of both ends of the Christian spectrum in US America. Christendom is falling apart, and Anabaptism has been articulating an alternative to Christendom for 500 years.
4.     New theologies based on Anabaptist thought are emerging from the margins to minister to people in their places of oppression/need. In Guatemala, SEMILLA, an Anabaptist seminary, is training pastors and lay people throughout Central America on how the church can be a witness and an answer in an extremely violent context. Out of Philadelphia, Drew Hart is espousing a Christ-centered response to structural racism with a theology/discipleship he calls Anablacktivism. I am sure there are many more in other contexts.

All of these elements were evident at World Conference, and I celebrate them. Jesus’ Kingdom in its Anabaptist/Mennonite expression is alive and well and growing. Let’s not grovel in the negativity of the splintering of factions in our own context (USA), but celebrate God’s liberating, redeeming work around the world.

Monday, July 6, 2015

MCUSA Convention 2015: Perspective

I will begin by admitting that I couldn’t be more in the center of power when it comes to the make up of delegates who attended the convention. I am a middle-aged (okay, some would say old) white male from ethnic roots that extend back over 300 years in the USA alone. Some people quake when I say I am a professor and others squirm when the discover that I am a published author. I am not marginalized by any stretch of the imagination, unless my two artificial knees qualify for some sort of handicap.

Kansas City skyline from my perspective.
So I just got home from my first-ever national convention of the Mennonite Church. The experience was pretty awesome. That four thousand people, only 800 of whom were voting delegates, thought it worth spending beaucoup bucks (okay, maybe here I would have a critique) speaks volumes.

The first night I attended the combined worship service. Now I confess that the attempt to be relevant to people jaded by the bells and whistles of popular culture was a little over the top. I wouldn’t have needed the hype, the volume, the multi-colored floodlights and the smoke, but there were many worshipful moments and great teaching. In fact, the teaching at each worship session I attended was first rate. I was especially challenged by Dale Schrag’s message about certitude.

Let me mention walking in the halls between all the sessions. I met friends from all across the nation, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years—from places I’d lived and from former students. And they weren’t all pale faces, either. Hugs, smiles and pictures from Latino and African-American friends livened up my encounters. True, there weren’t enough of them in the halls and at the tables, but I can only imagine there were more than 20 years ago, and the number continues to grow.

Not only did I get to meet old friends, I met many new ones. I had some significant conversations with numerous people during meals or over coffee. We didn’t solve the world’s problems, but we came close.

Table group No. 4. 
Then we get to those delegate (delicate?) sessions. Over 800 of us crammed in the hall. I was at table number four. Apparently there were some substantial issues at stake for us to discuss, so I viewed those around the table with quite a bit of skepticism. I only knew one of them. Our table leader, Earl Kellog, a member of the Executive Board, was such a sweet, non-threatening presence, that we were put at ease before we started.

As we progressed through the agenda of the week, it became obvious that we differed substantially on nearly all the issues. But we discussed everything civilly, learned to trust each other, and to deeply respect each other’s point of view. Could I even say we “loved” each other? It sure differed from the way people tend to express their views on social media.

Being a delegate, I couldn’t attend all the seminars that were available (although I did play hooky from one delegate session in order to present a seminar of my own). Wow! What a plethora of offerings! When we had free time I was able to attend a very useful and provocative panel discussion on the post-Ferguson effects on the Mennonite church.

It was impossible to attend everything. There were special services for particular issues, times to meet in prayer and contemplation for the soul and times to exercise for the body. Kudos to the planners for all the work that went into this event.

I realize that there was pain and exclusion at the conference. I realize that not everyone has the same perspective as I. However, I have become rather weary of all the negative stuff posted on social media about the conference, and the echoes from their friends who hadn’t even attended. It was not perfect, but there were a lot of things to celebrate at this gathering of God’s people at this particular time in our history.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Things I learned on my recent cross-cultural sojourn

I always challenge the students who accompany me on their cross-cultural program to be alert to how much they learn/change during their stay abroad. I contend that by living abroad, we feel more dependent on others, more vulnerable because of the risky nature of such a study, and more open to hearing the voice of God. The result of all this is learning about self, others and God, is far beyond what would happen if we stayed in the comfort of our own home.

I have been a student of intercultural learning for many years. In fact, I have an intercultural marriage. But I learned a few things in my recent six-week stay in Mexico that I normally would not associate with intercultural learning.

1.     I can be without a car for a significant amount of time. I did not get behind the wheel of a vehicle for six weeks. Mostly I walked where I wanted to go or took public bus. If I were in a city that had decent public transportation, I am certain I would use it more to get around. I can’t say that I missed having a car at my beck and call 24/7. I learned to negotiate where I was going by other means.
2.     Walking takes time but it is worth it. I averaged over 12,000 steps per day according to my pedometer. I never walked under 10,000, and one day I walked 20,000. That’s averaging 6 miles per day with a high of 10 miles. Granted, most of the places that I wanted to visit, or where I had business to attend to were located relatively near to where I was staying. When we had to go farther away, we negotiated the bus system or took a cab. We only resorted to a cab four times in six weeks. I did not walk at a rapid pace so I’m sure I didn’t get a lot of aerobic benefit, but I still lost weight.
3.     Following the Mexican pattern of eating seems to be healthier. We ate a normal breakfast, then had a Mexican buffet at 1:00 pm. We helped ourselves to a large meal every day from the buffet, then had little to eat thereafter. Some evenings we didn’t anything; other days we at a light snack. We seldom felt hungry after eating the big meal shortly after noon. The typical Mexican pattern is to eat their main meal between 2 and 3pm and eat a very light supper. Eating like this coupled with walking everywhere we went helped me to lose over 10 lbs.
4.     I can live without a cell phone. I knew this before I left, but the trip helped reinforce the idea. I was dependent on land lines and email for the whole six weeks. I really have difficult understanding people on a cell phone, and when it isn’t in my native language it is even more difficult.
5.     I never thought I would resort to texting to communicate with my students, but many no longer read or answer emails. I couldn’t understand why I would get texts from students asking me to check my email because I normally had already read the email by the time I got the text. Then I realized that this is the way to alert someone to something important in their inbox that would otherwise be ignored. I don’t like texting because it reveals my cell phone number, and I do NOT want to be available 24/7 with a phone I can’t understand. However, most students would text before they would call. It’s those people my age . . .
      6.     A city of 2.5 million people can still have a small town feel. We spent our weekends in the Central Square of the town called the “Z√≥calo.” People were there to see and be seen. Many were there with their families. We were approached by numerous people who wanted to strike up a conversation with us. They wanted to know where we were from and to practice their English or German. Many were surprised that we spoke Spanish and wanted to know where we had learned it.

These things I learned do not fit the objectives I had for my students during their stay in Mexico. Nevertheless, being out of our normal context can allow us to learn something on many levels. Not to fear. My students learned all the traditional cross-cultural objectives.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Peanut Butter

When my wife and I were being interviewed for a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) many years ago, I jokingly remarked that “I would go anywhere in the world so long as they had peanut butter and baseball available.” They sent us to Mexico.

Indeed, Mexico had both available, although peanut butter was a little more difficult to manage than baseball. We had to travel nearly 80 miles to Guadalajara where the larger supermarkets carried it; it was unavailable in our “smaller” town of 250,000. Between trips to the Gigante supermarket, we pureed readily available peanuts in our blender. Don’t remember how many blender motors we blew out in the process.

Of course, with the advent of the Internet, I would no longer need to request baseball being available. I remember watching the first spring training game of my favorite team on my iPod from Guatemala one year, then the first regular season game from Mexico the same year. But this post is not about baseball.

Peanut butter is unquestionably a main staple of the US American diet. However, not everyone in the world has the taste for it like we do. I remember finding a teeny jar of peanut butter in a grocery store in Switzerland and forcing some on my Swiss mother-in-law, hoping that she would like one of my most beloved foods. She smacked her tongue trying to unglue it from the roof of her mouth while being a good sport and trying what I had described as so tasty. She managed a polite, “Yes, it’s pretty good,” in her Swiss German dialect, but never asked for any more when I delightfully placed it on the breakfast table in the future.

In some ways I was glad she didn’t especially care for it. That left me with more to savor on her delightful homemade Swiss farmer’s bread. Combined with their special forest honey, I could think of few better ways to enjoy a breakfast in Switzerland—or anywhere else in the world. 

So that brings me to the present. I am leading a group of 24 students in Mexico.
Recently we were visiting a Mennonite church in Mexico City, and they were to provide us with a packed lunch to eat while we spent the afternoon and evening in downtown Mexico City. They wanted to give us their best, so they offered to make us the famous Mexican sandwich called a “torta.” They make them with ham and cheese, with leftover “chicken and mole,” scrambled eggs, or anything else you can imagine except peanut butter. They doctor them up with hot peppers, slices of avocado, tomatoes, lettuce and whatever else is available.

When they told me this, I thought of my students. Some didn’t eat meat, some didn’t eat dairy products, some didn’t like avocado, and the list went on and on. To satisfy 24 different tastes and dietary needs was nearly an impossibility. So I suggested that they make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We took orders. Every student ordered one or two. The only variation on the theme was one student who only wanted peanut butter, and another who only wanted the jelly.

Beyond the various tastes in food our student group was quite diverse. We had various ethnic groups along, kids from very rural areas as well as others from large metropolitan areas. There were various faith groups and some with no faith at all. But the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches united us. Is there any kid (or adult) in the United States who doesn’t eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

I have traveled the world. I have acquired tastes for many different exotic and traditional foods from many different countries. But I have never lost my taste for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It still remains one of my favorite ways to satisfy my hunger when there is little time to prepare something more substantial.

As a student of intercultural relationships, I often say: “There is no perfect culture. All cultures both reflect and distort the image of God.” As such, I try to take the best values from each culture and try to include them in my own life, and try to downplay the less than perfect values from each culture. This integration of various cultural values helps to make us more whole.

I use peanut butter as part of a symbol of my cultural integration. The majority of my experience overseas has been in Mexico and Switzerland. So I take wonderful Swiss bread, spread a layer of US American peanut butter on it, then top it off with a layer of Mexican cajeta ( ). The combination is a world-class taste that helps to keep in check my ego- and ethnocentrism.  

What is your favorite use of peanut butter?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Christian Hospitality in Mexico

“Where are my students?” the lady calling my friend asked with a bit of desperation in her voice. “I saw them walking down the street with their suitcases and you haven’t sent any to me yet.”

I was leading a group of 24 Eastern Mennonite University students on a cross-cultural program to Mexico. We were going to spend the weekend with some dear friends of ours belonging to a Mennonite church in Mexico City. This was the third such group of mine to appear on the streets of this working-class neighborhood on the north side of this sprawling, largest city in the world.

My friend seemed undaunted when I told him we were bringing 24 students to spend two nights with them. Their houses or apartments were small by our standards and most of them were full of family members. My friend, who had helped to arrange housing for us on our previous visits, found seven families to host our students. Most took two, but several took four and my friend took eight.

As we were assigning students to the number of beds available, we came up two beds short. When I told him 24, he thought that included my wife and me. But I had meant to say 24 students plus the two of us. He was in the middle of convincing a family to take two extra students, to which they quite willingly agreed, when the phone rang. It was the family around the corner who wondered where their students were. Two extra beds needed, two extra beds found. My friend had forgotten about them, even though they were one of the first families in the neighborhood to offer their home. They REALLY wanted to host our students.

“I was in heaven,” wrote a student about her host family. “Both the mother’s and the daughter’s selflessness overwhelmed me.” Their children gave up their beds so that our students would have a place to sleep. Similar sentiments were expressed over and over again by my students. “I felt like they genuinely wanted to get to know me, they asked many questions about my life in the States,” wrote another student. “I felt authentic Christian love and hospitality.”

This kind of hospitality is very evident in the Mexican culture. When the Mexicans are followers of Jesus, this hospitality takes on an even deeper meaning. They long for fellowship across the border, they long for relationships with the young people in our churches. Whenever we bring a group, they go way out of their way to host us, to go way beyond the call of duty to make us comfortable. In spite of the fact that some of our students were crowded, slept on a mattress on the floor, or experienced cold showers, the majority of them sensed their family’s warmth and hospitality. The experience left a deep impression on them.

I recall the past number of years that our congregation of over three hundred members in the USA was asked to host a group of students from China for a week. The coordinator of finding housing for these students had to beg people to host them. After several years of pleading, she finally decided not to be the coordinator. It was just too much of a hassle to find people willing to host these students.
What a tragedy. These Chinese students were not Christian. This would be an incredible way to practice Christians hospitality, to live the Gospel while having them in our homes.

We are called to offer hospitality to the stranger because of what God has done for us. In turn, the hospitality we offer is from God. “When faced by a stranger, those who extend the embrace of hospitality have a keen awareness of God’s hospitality toward them,” writes David Buschart (Buschart 2006).  “Furthermore, this hospitality includes not only a sense of who they are (namely strangers) and what God has done (embraced them), but also an awareness that what they have to offer in hospitality is ultimately from God.” Hospitality reaffirms our relationship to others and to God.

The Mexicans offered us this kind of hospitality. Should we, especially Christians, not offer the same to strangers who visit us? “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,” states Hebrews 13:2, “for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”