Aaron Kauffman (Virginia Mennonite Missions), Nelson Okanya (Eastern Mennonite Missions), Tim Dyck (Evangelical Mennonite Conference) and Tim Froese (Mennonite Church Canada) continue Council of International Anabaptist Ministries discussion over a meal. Photo by James Krabill. Download full-resolution image.
Lynda Hollinger-Janzen
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

CHICAGO (Mennonite Mission Network) – A mission leader cried out to God to grant desperation to the North American Mennonite Church when more than 60 administrators and scholars from 14 North American mission and service agencies  gathered in Chicago for the annual Council of International Anabaptist Ministries, Jan. 16-21.

“Make us desperate to bear children of God. Give us the desperation of street children jumping into dumpsters to find something to eat,” prayed Nelson Okanya, president of Eastern Mennonite Missions.

Okanya’s plea came in response to a meditation by Randy Friesen of MB Mission (formerly Mennonite Brethren Mission and Service International). Friesen opened the plenary worship session with the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, drawing out themes of barrenness, desperation and hope.

Tamar’s barrenness meant she was without an identity in her culture, Friesen said. However, her inability to bear children had nothing to do with her own bodily dysfunction, but was rooted in the selfishness of Onan and Judah, two men who reneged on their responsibilities to protect the vulnerable individuals in their family. Tamar risked death by burning in her desperate, and successful, attempt to fulfill her mission in life.

Friesen encouraged churches and missions to recognize their areas of barrenness and respond with the innovative and risk-all desperation that Tamar demonstrated, so that hope can break into the world.

The barrenness of North American Anabaptists was illustrated through statistical studies, showing that Anabaptist congregations are losing their children. Matthew Krabill, a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and Jamie Ross, a graduate student at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., reported their findings on the current generation of Anabaptist youths’ inability to articulate their own faith, much less share it with others.

Download full-resolution image.
Conrad Kanagy, professor at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, shared results of a survey he led for Eastern Mennonite Missions showing a negative growth rate in Lancaster County churches and exploding expansion in mission-planted churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Most of the gathered mission experts agreed that this study accurately represented the larger global picture, and grieved the failure of their generations to pass on the message of Jesus as good news within the North American context. They also mourned the complicity of mission with colonialism and imperialism.

Two agency leaders born in Africa – Okanya, and Hippolyto Tshimanga, Mennonite Church Canada Witness mission partnership facilitator for Africa, Europe and Latin America – took a compassionate and forgiving stance, urging council participants to remember that early missionaries never heard of global citizenship and should not be held to today’s standards of awareness.

“I wouldn’t be here today without those missionaries,” Okanya said. “Mission has been good for my people.”

Tshimanga issued a plea that resonated deeply with many of those in attendance and continued to be a topic of mealtime conversations and impromptu groups in the halls.

“We need to heal the memory of missions,” Tshimanga said. “It is a disease among North American Mennonites. The reality is that in Asia and Africa, people have moved on, but in North America we live with the guilt of memory.”

Later, Tshimanga elaborated on his statement by saying that the healing would begin by remembering the whole picture of what mission has been, the good with the negative aspects. An unbiased look at mission must go hand-in-hand with deep study of biblical mission, Tshimanga said.

“We must stop blindly repeating the criticism of anthropologists who accuse missionaries of destroying culture,” Tshimanga said.

Two women, Sara Wenger Shenk and Martini Janz, offered “whole picture” stories of their missionary lives, telling of both beneficial and detrimental aspects of mission practice. Wenger Shenk anecdotally narrated trends and attitudes toward mission through her own experience. Janz spoke at an evening banquet honoring three Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission couples who served for a total of 98 years.

Wenger Shenk grew up as a missionary kid in Ethiopia, ministered in Eastern Europe, helped to plant churches in the United States, and is now president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

“There is that about mission that brings out something of the wild side in all of us,” Wenger Shenk said. “We’re ecstatic to be part of God’s grand work in the world, which isn’t confined to one culture – a wild mission of the vast mind-blowing God of the cosmos who came near to us in Jesus, the Christ.”

Janz spoke poignantly of her mission career that began 61 years ago on a steamer chugging out of New York’s harbor, sharing with vulnerability about her shortcomings as well as her deep love for the Congolese people for whom she continues to pray daily. She told about ways she had judged and wounded the girls and women she worked with because she didn’t understand the cultural motivations for their actions. Janz also confided that during her ministry in Congo, she had been, at times, moved to anger, tears and despair.

Not having attended the sessions describing the declining youth population in North American congregations, Janz unknowingly offered healing balm for the angst experienced by many council participants when she quoted one of her own mission mentors, who said, “When these girls get to be grandmothers, you will see that you have made a difference.” 

In addition to worship and learning from each other’s experiences, collaborative inter-agency business sessions were held during the week. Council of International Anabaptist Ministries is organized by a rotating, three-person committee. This year’s gathering was planned by Marcella Hershberger and James Krabill of Mennonite Mission Network, and Rod Hollinger-Janzen of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. Next year, Chris Sharp of Brethren in Christ World Missions will replace Krabill.

###

Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, leads, mobilizes and equips the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world. Media may contact Andrew Clouse at andrewc@mmnworld.net, 574-523-3024 or 866-866-2872, ext. 23024.

 

 

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