A couple weeks ago I took the train to Pennsylvania to visit my friend Jill, a fellow Mennonite who used to live here in North Carolina and attend Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, where I am a member. It is always a joy to visit a far-away friend on her home turf, but doubly so when such a visit is to a fellow menno nerd with similarly odd taste in “tourism” to my own. Thus, within a span of two days we toured the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, visited Ephrata Cloister in Ephrata, PA, and -- best of all -- went to Germantown, to see the first Mennonite Church in North America.
After we’d exhausted our interest in slogging around Philly in soggy shoes, Jill and I made our way to Germantown, which we had looked forward to since I started planning my visit this past winter. We entered our destination into Jill’s GPS and followed the directions it provided, eventually pulling into the parking lot of the building used by the current Germantown Mennonite Church. A sweet older brick building, it was worth visiting, despite the fact that we’d intended for the GPS to take us to the historic site rather than the newer one. We pulled out our umbrellas, attempted to pick our way around the puddles, and went inside. Looking around, I don’t think either of us was quite sure what to do next. I mean, it’s a church. Not a museum. I realized at that point how ridiculous we were. This is not to say that I have any desire to change my ways, however.
I spotted a guest book, probably meant for Sunday mornings more so than random menno tourists, and for lack of a more suitable activity I grabbed the pen and began to write down my name and contact info.
“Can I help you?” a friendly voice asked. I looked up and saw a woman I took to be the pastor.
Jill and I looked at each other, then at her. Neither one of us seemed ready to volunteer the real reason we were there -- simply that we’re Mennonites, and that we’re just that nerdy. I said something vague about how we just wanted to check out the church, and Amy, the pastor, introduced herself and offered to show us the sanctuary. I expressed my admiration for the worship space, and saw an opportunity to begin my confession, telling her that my own church has been growing and trying to find new ways to make room in our worship space, so I like to check out other church’s approaches to space. I name dropped Chapel Hill Mennonite, hoping maybe she’d have heard of it and we’d have some friends in common. I was successful.
All three of us started to laugh as Amy seemed to realize that we weren’t just random tourists or spiritual seekers who wandered through the Germantown Mennonite door by accident, but rather Mennonite church nerds who actually made a point to seek out this particular church because that is simply who we are. “This is totally the sort of thing I would do,” Amy said. Our nerd secret revealed, the conversation started to flow more easily as we played the “Mennonite game” -- one I’m not usually very good at, seeing how I’ve only been Mennonite for a few years, though I’m getting better (and hope to meet even more of you fine Mennonite folks in Phoenix next week!).
Amy offered to walk us down the street to the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust so that we could see the original building, so we took her up on the offer. Umbrellas in hand in as the rain continued to fall, we talked as we walked and Amy told us about the history of the church we were about to visit, begun by Dutch immigrants who arrived in 1683. In 1688 they wrote the first protest against slavery in America. As a group who came here for religious freedom, they did not want to turn around and enslave their fellow human beings. It was a long time before our country and religious communities came around to this point of view, of course, but there is something both moving and challenging to me about this early statement, regardless of how little impact it had in the bigger picture.
As I’ve written about before, people often ask me what drew me to the Mennonite church. History like this is a big part of it. When I look at anabaptist history I come across stories like this, stories of Christians whose faith compelled them to speak in opposition to the accepted norms of the time -- norms that go against God’s call to love one another, to care for one another as fellow creatures, imago dei.
Are we on the forefront of such issues today? Do we wait around for other churches, or the government, to set the tone? Or, when it comes to those issues often categorized as “human rights issues,” is our faith moving us to speak out for those who are affected by dehumanizing laws and practices?
Are we the ones leading the way -- not because of who the U.S. constitution says does or doesn’t deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but because we understand how wide and how deep is the love of God in Christ, and because we seek to see a foretaste of God’s good future here on earth? Will we say that whether or not the United States welcomes you, we welcome you? Will we blur the line between “you” and “us” as well?
This week two big supreme court decisions were made about the Voting Rights Act and the Defense of Marriage Act. I lament and will continue to lament the first until there is change, and shed tears of joy whenever I think of the second. We have both restricted and increased freedoms in the U.S. this week. As someone so aptly put it on twitter this week, now two black men could get married -- but they might have trouble voting.
How long, O Lord, how long?
It is never about just one issue, but the intersections that make us who we are. As I contemplate our relationship to government policies, I know that the bit of Mennonite history above will be present in my mind as we discuss immigration next week in Phoenix. I hope, too, that beyond that immediate conversation, this memory might lead us to feel conviction for how slow we seem to be to address other kinds of discrimination -- such as that based on sexual orientation. On this issue, we have not been the first to speak. And, while living into the gospel is not a race toward the finish line, as someone who was drawn to the Mennonite church in part because she has been a church not afraid to speak truth to power, however small her voice, it hurts to see the U.S. government agree to marry same-sex couples before we do.
My prayer these days? On those issues about which we are already speaking, let us raise our voices higher.
And on those about which we have remained silent? Let us speak now if ever.