MennoCon21 was the first Mennonite convention I attended. I had heard stories about my church's past youth groups basking in worship. I had heard colleagues tell of the experiences of connecting people with service opportunities. As always, a lived experience brings a greater understanding.
The lived nature of peace became the focus for me this convention. The theme of Bring the Peace was demonstrated in messages from the stage that advocated each person's responsibility to act for peace in the way God calls them to, either by naming when it is not present or naming when one's own actions cause lack of right relationship, and then enacting justice to meet the needs that are there. This is a dynamic peace that requires an ongoing conversation built on relationship.
Finding creative ways to gather for MennoCon21 during the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized relationship. Virtually or in-person, making space for people became a way to Bring the Peace. For many who have been to previous conventions, it did feel different. I talked with people who missed the volume of people that they were used to in the worship space. Yet, they also noted appreciation that with a smaller crowd people were able to connect more easily with friends new and old. Where some people in the past may have rushed from one scheduled event to the next, there was more space to rest and reflect. There was more time to make peace with neighbors even as we were communing during convention with God.
Unable to compare MennoCon21 to other conventions, I still sensed how among the learning opportunities this convention allowed for relationship building and reconnection. As a quiet, bookish person, it was nice to find moments to spend time with other people with similar interests and then do something different, like following the lead of Cyneatha Millsaps, executive director of Mennonite Women USA, who led line dances at a Mennonite Women USA evening reception. There was space for us to be ourselves. This was also apparent in the music. There was a mix of hymns in four-part harmony, contemporary music and gospel songs sung in multiple languages. I felt I was acknowledging that it was possible for many relationships to be at peace with one another and with God because there was acknowledgement right there as we worshipped.
The embodiment of peace continued when I took a walk. In the space where past conventions would have held service projects, there was a free afternoon. I broke in new shoes on my trek to the Ohio River, only 10-15 minutes away from the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the convention was held. Walking the river and then visiting the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, I recalled the actions people took to escape slavery, crossing Kentucky to Ohio across a body of water that surprised me at not being as wide as I expected. From the books I read I had envisioned the river to be a staggering distance. Yet, standing there on an overcast Thursday, I could easily see details across the river. It was very clear to me that people could see what was needed to get to the place where there was more opportunity for justice and right relationship.
Near the bank of the Ohio River, MennoCon21 connected messages of lament, repentance with rejoicing in reconciliation and commitment to peace. At the end of the convention, when the new theme of Be Transformed was introduced, I was moved by the invitation to allow the Holy Spirit to take the lived experience of working towards peace to be continually be more ever present within me. Like people crossing a river to get closer to abundant life, I can always look for ways God is leading me to act in ways that lead towards peace, forever changing me and those around me.
People from Mississippi and Pennsylvania, in between and farther afield, look forward to learning together at MennoCon23. There will be enjoyment in the familiar larger experience. There will also be continued looking for how the Holy Spirit is leading us to be present to one another in new ways.