Monday, March 18, 2013


I became a Mennonite the summer I turned 27, and people tend to have a lot of questions about why and how my anabaptist “conversion” came about. Sometimes I just tell this truth: my divinity school boyfriend was Mennonite, and he was doing his internship at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. I started going to church with him once in a while because I wanted to be a supportive girlfriend. I didn’t expect to fall in love with the church. Later on, as the Mennonite boyfriend and I broke up and moved on in our lives, I kept showing up to CHMF on Sunday evenings.

“So, I guess you’ll stop going to that church now?” my roommate asked me, a week or so after the break-up.

“No,” I said. “It’s not his church.” He knew that, I knew that, and I guess we figured that the body of Christ was big enough for the both of us.

This is how I found my way to the Mennonites initially, and telling it this way matters to me because I think it's important that it wasn't a book or a class that led me to the church. So much else in my life is academic, you would be excused for thinking I must have read John Howard Yoder and had my life changed. I did not, at least not until later. In any case, after wandering into this community, what made me decide to stick with them? Was it the historic peace church tradition? The emphasis on communal interpretation of scripture? The commitment to the priesthood of all believers? Decision making by consensus? Did I just like the people?

Well, sure. Truthfully though, I think it was the potlucks that got me.

First, I experienced church-wide potlucks on Communion Sundays, but later on I learned about CHMF's bi-weekly small groups. In my experience in college, bible studies, sharing time, and all of that had felt a little fluffy, a little contrived. I’d rather go to the bar with some friends on Wednesday night than sit around and talk about “what God is doing in my life.” But CHMF small groups met for the sole purpose of sharing a potluck meal and hanging out. They just got together to eat. I live alone so I don’t go to the trouble to cook much during the week. I eat by myself a lot. Sharing good food with other people appealed to me.

While in some ways this was about food, plain and simple, it wasn’t just about food. It was also in these meals that I came to know these people as family. Every few months when it’s my turn to host the small group I’m now part of, twelve people or so squeeze into my studio apartment. It overflows with good food, with singing, with laughter, with love. I get out crayons and paper for the kids; the kids chase my cat. People sit next to me on my bed, and on the floor, and anywhere we can cram another folding chair. When everyone has arrived some impatient person may pipe up, “Can we pray and eat please?” if I am slow to get things started. If I’m lucky one of the better singers -- some life-long Mennonite -- is with us, and will start us on the doxology as a sung blessing for the meal.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise God all creatures here below,
Praise God above ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
I don’t think of myself as a very spiritual person, despite my commitment to religion and the sincerity of my theological beliefs, but when those fourteen voices fill my tiny garage apartment, I am lost in them. Sometimes I just listen, letting them transport me to a heaven I struggle to believe in but cling to nonetheless. All the doubts of every other moment of my day fade into those harmonies.

Recently I heard Stanley Hauerwas say that the “great problem” is that people want to turn Christianity into a set of beliefs rather than membership to a people. I guess what I am saying is that these shared meals are a representation of this people, a people that sustain me with spiritual food, a church that is the body of Christ. When we gather for dinner I might bring a loaf of bread, cupcakes, or guacamole. When we gather for worship, I might bring a bible to read scripture, a prayer I have written, or a sermon. The meal is something that we do together, and the life of the church is, too. Perhaps I am inclined to frame things this way right now, especially, because a lot of people are talking about why twenty-somethings do or don’t go to church. I wonder sometimes if we forget that church is not a place we go to passively receive something. It is a community where we gather as a people, a community that, while it is not about us, is shaped by each of us and our gifts. If twenty-somethings want the church to look different, we need to be part of it. That isn’t easy, but loving and living with people who are different from us never is.

When people ask me why I became Mennonite, perhaps I ought to simply say that I found a church that seemed like it was willing to try to love me as I am, a church willing to receive the meager gifts I bring, and to offer back an abundance of love. I have been to enough churches to know that is more rare than it ought to be. I would go on to say that though I didn’t know this would happen, in loving me they have taught me how to love them, which turns out to be both more difficult and more beautiful than I could have known.