by Julie Derksen (photo from cmu.ca)
This piece originally appeared in The Grapevine newsletter at Charleswood Mennonite Church, Winnipeg. It is posted here with the author’s permission.
I come from a town called Wymark in Southern Saskatchewan. It is located in the heart of the Mennonite Reserve first populated by Old Colony Mennonites. The Old Colony left for Mexico in the mid-1920s, leaving a handful of parishioners and no ordained minister behind. My people were Sommerfelder, who came from southern Manitoba and emigrated to Saskatchewan in the early 1900s. In the late 1920s the Old Colony villages were filled up with the newly arrived Russlander. At that time there were about 15 Mennonite churches in the area. By the time I was growing up in the 1980s there were four General Conference churches in the area. Today there are two – with approximately 70 worshippers between the two congregations. In my community, there are many people with Mennonite names; however, they are attending charismatic evangelical churches, or they are not attending church at all.
I grew up in a strongly Mennonite family. My dad was a Conscientious Objector during World War II and the experience of going before the judge in defence of his faith affected him profoundly. As a child, and as a teenager, I often felt that my faith didn’t fit the boxes that existed in my community. I felt uncomfortable with the charismatic evangelical and mainstream groups who didn’t understand the importance of pacifism for me. Growing up, our family regularly attended MC Canada Conferences, and I attended camp. These occasions were a revelation to me. I felt at home and a sense of belonging that I didn’t in the church community at home. I met other young people who shared a faith that felt familiar to me and during those times I grew in my understanding of the corporate nature of faith and of God. I remember as a fourteen year old in 1986 attending the Saskatoon MC Canada and MC USA assembly and being amazed at the sheer number of Mennonite youth playing and worshipping together. I also remember that the entire church was gathered to discuss and discern sexuality in the church. I was amazed at that age that everyone could speak to the issue and as a group discern a way forward.
Moving to Winnipeg and CMBC, I marvelled at the number of Mennonite living in this area. It seemed luxurious to be surrounded by people of shared faith and experience. CMBC gave me the theological language to give to my experience of corporate theology. It solidified my feeling of homecoming. Conferences, camp, RJC and CMBC also created for me relationships with Mennonite outside of my congregation and geographic area. Between Kenton and I – wherever we travel in Canada, and sometimes abroad – we connect with our friends who in many cases are part of churches in their own areas. Those relationships built long ago, continue to draw us into the larger church and the wider perspectives of churches across the country. I am deeply grateful for those relationships.
I find it ironic that as our experience of the world grows and becomes more global, our experience of the church has shrunk and is more immediate. What I hope for my children and the children of our church is:
- That they offer themselves, their time and their passion, to a congregation that will invite them in, care for them, and discern with then God’s will.
- That they understand “the church” is not just Charleswood Mennonite Church. That they have a responsibility to participate in something larger than our congregation.
- That they experience the church in other places – Saskatchewan, Ontario, India and the United States for example – so that they appreciate the diversity and richness of the church.
- That they continue to build, and work in, a church that is less about structure but continues to actively engage questions of faith.
In the years before my dad died he was very concerned about the future of the Mennonite Church. He would say “In ten years there won’t be a Mennonite church in the Swift Current area.” We would always assure him that it may look different but where there are people of faith – there is the church. My hope for the future comes from those young passionate voices I heard at Mennonite Church Manitoba delegate sessions and who I hear at CMU. That they will continue to engage and discern difficult issues, draw the church together me and care for those congregations who stand alone in places far away from Winnipeg or Kitchener. That those seeking a larger church home will find it.
Julie Derksen is a research assistant at Canadian Mennonite University and attends Charleswood Mennonite Church. We are grateful for her writing, and share her hopes for the future.