by Laura Carr-Pries
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.
I grew up hearing these words in Sunday school, in stories and songs, and memorizing this scripture passage. These words carry what I have come to understand as a core piece of the Christian faith, and hold particular significance in the Mennonite tradition. With strong connections to non-violence, peacebuilding and service work, if makes sense that during our workshop tour, some stated that “the name Mennonite means to be a witness to everyone.”
Engaging with our neighbours has been central for how the Mennonite church has understood itself and the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve figured out the best way to do this. Because of deep care for our neighbours, we ask questions about how to do this well, both locally and globally. Throughout the course of the tour, I heard people sharing a deep concern for what is happening in the Mennonite church regarding mission and service, particularly international witness.
The Future Directions (FD) proposal places increased emphasis on engaging the local neighbourhood, which is deeply affirmed. Whether it’s building relationships with Indigenous neighbours, responding to the current refugee crisis, and caring for the land as a neighbour, there is excitement for ways that the church can engage these topics.
The area of witness, both locally and globally, has been a lightning rod through the FD conversation. Many became involved when the Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers wrote an open letter, voicing their concern with the future of international missions. Sadly, I don’t think that the concerns about the future of these programs have eased. I find myself struggling with the proposals that are laid out by the Task Force that fit our cultural tendency to hyper-mobility, bouncing from one issue to another, rather than embracing the wisdom of stability, and the long-term relationships that emerge from that.
I have found that when we talk about neighbours, the conversation quickly turns into a question of: how do we (the church) best engage with our neighbours?
What would happen if we change the question, and asked what our neighbours would like to see from the church? Whether in international or local relationships, what would happen if we let our partners shape our relationship? Someone asked on one of the question sheets: “Do we need to redefine our outlook on missions in our neighborhood, in our world, a fresh sense of ownership?”
These past few weeks I had the privilege to be involved in the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, which was a 600 km walk from Kitchener to Ottawa, co-organized by Mennonite Church Canada and Christian Peacemaker teams. The walk advocated for Canada—including churches—to fully adopt and implement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). We also aimed to engage churches in dialogue about UNDRIP along the way. This public action was developed as a direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action, specifically number 48.
The TRC provides 94 Calls to Action that are addressed to the government, to various institutions, and to churches. The TRC has called the churches to action, so the pilgrimage emerged from listening to the requests from our Indigenous neighbours.
Over the course of the walk, we were constantly reminded about the importance of relationships; without relationships, reconciliation is a re-making of a (white) saviour complex without care for the neighbour. And that work of building relationships takes time, because there has been harm done. Specifically, in conversations about the Church and Indigenous neighbours, there is little reason to trust the church after our dark history with residential schools. But, this history shouldn’t stop the conversation, but give us a more profound recognition of the importance of developing relationships with neighbours. During the pilgrimage, I was struck when Sylvia McAdam, one of the Co-Founders of Idle No More, shared how she didn’t care about the church, but that through this walk, she was seeing a different spirit of church.
The work that was done to build the relationships necessary for the pilgrimage to take place, took time and effort. It took a commitment to listening to stories, to stepping back, and allowing the church to be led by our neighbours. The pilgrimage was not done because it was an exciting issue, or a hot topic, but because it was time for people to walk the talk of reconciliation.
The work of reconciliation is hard, but it is necessary if we claim to be a peace church.
This call to build relationships of trust and reciprocity is necessary in how we relate to national and international neighbours. It is only when we take the time to listen that we can figure out how to best love our neighbour and then develop a programmatic vision, after we have taken the time to develop a relationship.
Across the country, I heard that we need a “robust [vision] of peace and social justice,” as this is integral to who the Mennonite church claims to be. We cannot isolate our spirituality from justice, as one feeds the other. Our love of God must feed our love of neighbour, and our love of neighbour cannot be something that makes the church an all-knowing saviour.
Our commitment to reconciliation and service demands that we, as a national church, congregations and individuals, dedicate ourselves to building relationships, serving one another and loving our neighbour, which requires that we stop talking, and listen.
This reflection continues our post-tour series. As always, you can find the summary of themes we’re working with right here.
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