The Mennonite World Conference (MWC) gathering in Asuncion, Paraguay, this July was wonderfully rich in its worship and learning, its human diversity, its tangible sense of being united in Christ. From morning until night, it was packed full.
Was Assembly 15 more than a collage of experience, however? More than a spiritual tourist trip, complete with interesting anecdotes, photos, and “warm fuzzies” to carry home like souvenirs? Did it have any significance beyond itself, beyond July?
I believe it did. I’d like to suggest at least four things about Assembly 15 that may be important for the future.
1. It helped us turn a corner in our history.
MWC assemblies are not decision-making events, but things sometimes happen that can legitimately be described as historically decisive. Ron Sider’s sermon in Strasbourg 25 years ago, for example, led to the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams. This year, in Asuncion, the “repentance and regret” that Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, spoke to global Mennonites marked a turn in the two groups’ centuries-long relationship. (See story, pages 9 and 13.) A process of reflection and conversation over years preceded it, of course, but it was a powerful gesture that, as MWC president Danisa ndlovu said, “will change our lives and perspectives.”
2. It gave witness to the breadth, and focus, of God’s kingdom.
A body as large and diverse as the nearly 1.5 million-member Mennonite World Conference has to embrace many languages, cultures, theological priorities, and ways of conducting church. Its assemblies are planned carefully to give voice to all the regions, people, stories, concerns that we are. They also make room for the host country to offer its particular gifts to its guests. Thus, the church of Christ is seen to be a wide and generous place.
At the same time, a body so large and diverse compels a strong focus on the centre – on that which unites rather than divides us. Our centre is Jesus Christ, and this was Assembly 15’s message, repeatedly, based on Philippians 2:1-11, that beautiful hymn to Jesus’ “continual downward movement” (as Nancy Heisey put it), and subsequent exaltation as Lord, far above all.
Breadth and focus in juxtaposition – Assembly 15’s version of it is now on the record. It stands as a reminder, as a re-orientation to what’s true and important.
3. It profoundly affected Paraguay’s Mennonites.
The Mennonite story in Paraguay, one of South America’s most impoverished nations, involves both migration and mission. Its churches are Germanic, Latino, and Indigenous: culturally different, economically disparate.
The need for these groups to work together to host the MWC gathering opened new discussions of what it means to be Mennonite, and by all reports, the engagement was significant. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out down the road, with Assembly 15 as a point of reference.
It may be youth who carry it forward. “One of the things that gave me the biggest joy is the confidence that the young people have in their capability to make a change,” wrote “Elinski” at the Young Asian Mennonites blog about the MWC Global Youth Summit. “Among the Paraguayan participants and volunteers, I see a great willingness to bridge the gap between the German, Spanish, and Indigenous groups.”
4. It poised Paraguay’s Mennonites to influence us.
Mennonites in Canada and Paraguay have long bonds. The first Mennonite settlers to Paraguay came from Canada. Then, North Americans were actively involved in Mennonite Central committee’s efforts to resettle refugees from Russia in that country. In terms of our denomination, the Mennonite Brethren of North America developed close, if somewhat paternalistic, ties with MBs in South America. A whole generation of Paraguayan leaders trained in MB institutions here. Paraguayan Mennonites immigrated to Canada, into MB congregations in Winnipeg, the Fraser Valley, and the Niagara Peninsula.
These ties still exist in myriad ways, but we’re at a new place in our relations. In the last years, it seems to me, two countries have risen as leaders within our global MB movement: DR Congo and Paraguay. Some of this leadership adheres to influential individuals, but in Congo’s case there is also the moral authority gained through suffering, and in Paraguay’s case, multi-language fluency, intellectual strength, and passion for both evangelism and social ministry in an intensely intercultural setting. By hosting Assembly 15, Paraguayan Mennonites have further increased their visibility and strength.
Paraguay’s Victor Wall is head of the International Community of Mennonite Brethren. Alfred Neufeld and Ernst Bergen hold key positions in the Mennonite World Conference. (Neufeld is also on the international council of the World Evangelical Alliance.) Other names could be mentioned, in the areas of mission, education, history, media, and development, all with so much to give into
Their gifts are relevant to Paraguay but far beyond its borders too. Through translation of their writings, teaching or preaching invitations to our schools and conventions, or our youth learning in their context perhaps, these gifts may also extend northward, to us.
—Dora Dueck, interim editor
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