NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — At the end of the first evening of the virtual educational series, "From Chaos To Shalom: Exploring Peace Theology Together," Andios Santoso and Joe Sawatzky, co-emcees of the event, struggled to wrap up the Zoom session. The concluding prayer had been spoken. The scheduled end time of 9 p.m. had come and gone. The problem was that none of the nearly 100 attendees wanted to sign off quite yet.
The webinar series, which ran Jan. 25-27, was the first of its kind: a collaboration between Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite World Conference (MWC), and the three Anabaptist synods in Indonesia — Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa (Evangelical Church of Java, GITJ), Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia (Muria Christian Church in Indonesia, GKMI) and Jemaat Kristen Indonesia (Christian Congregation in Indonesia, JKI).
Each of the webinars featured input from two theologians: one connected to AMBS and another hailing from one of the Indonesian Anabaptist synods. Each evening offered attendees the chance to examine a specific aspect of peace theology through the lenses of the two theologians. Daily themes consisted of: peace in the biblical story, peace in Anabaptist history and theology, and peace in Christian-Muslim relations. The final topic of the series, peace in Christian-Muslim relations, was uniquely relevant for the audience in Indonesia — the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.
Chialis Thuan, who translated between English and Indonesian for the webinars, recalled being "amazed" at the turnout. "I thought maybe [participants] would have been tired of the Zoom thing," she said. "I could feel that the participants had missed that international fellowship together. It makes them very eager to show up, even before the [start] time, and they didn't want to leave!" Thuan, along with her husband, Santoso, are both from Indonesia and are connected with the GKMI synod. They are currently living in Elkhart, Indiana, while Santoso is studying at AMBS.
The desire for fellowship and connection between Anabaptist church leaders in the Southeast Asian archipelago has felt especially vital since the onset of the pandemic.
MWC General Assembly, a reunion of Anabaptist-Mennonites that is held every six years, was originally scheduled to be hosted in Indonesia in July 2021. The pandemic pushed this international gathering back a year to this upcoming July, with the host city of Semarang, on the island of Java, remaining the same.
The collaborative nature of the webinar series, between organizations, synods and nations, was planned from the first brainstorming meeting, which was held outside, on the campus of AMBS, in May 2021. Santoso and Thuan were present, along with representatives from AMBS, Indonesia ministries and Mission Network. Joe Sawatzky, the international education liaison for a partnership between AMBS and Mission Network, was also present for the meeting.
Sawatzky recalled that the initial idea came out of a desire to connect Indonesian Anabaptist institutions with their North American counterparts. AMBS and MWC, which share a desire to strengthen the Anabaptist theological identity among MWC's member churches, were natural partners in the fledgling venture. Mission Network, which shares in that partnership through AMBS's Global Anabaptist Education (GAE) initiative, was also on board.
"It really was a 'together' venture," recalled Sawatzky. However, he said, from the beginning, the group knew that "we wanted this thing to include not only Mission Network, MWC and AMBS, but also be officially supported by all three of the Mennonite synods in Indonesia."
Santoso, who had served in leadership in the GKMI synod, volunteered to make those connections with the synod leaders. "Most of them are my friends," he said. "Many meetings, many coffees together."
Initially, Santoso said, the idea was to host the event in person in Indonesia, spread over two or three weekends in the months before the MWC General Assembly. However, in the months after that initial outdoor meeting, rising COVID-19 cases in Indonesia and the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 put that plan in doubt.
"I didn't think it was wise to ask the synod leaders to think about the [in-person] plan," Santoso said. Instead, like many things touched by the pandemic, the event adapted and moved into an online space. It became less formal but easier to attend for pastors and leaders who would have had physical or financial barriers to travel.
Santoso recalled pitching the idea to the synod leaders. "Maybe we can start with the simple first step of a webinar," he said, suggesting the possibility of an in-person follow-up in the future. "We will see how the response is."
The synod leaders agreed, and the response during the event was evident. Each evening, after the input session from the AMBS and Indonesian synod theologians, the attendees were put into breakout rooms over Zoom and discussed questions and ideas related to the evening's topic. Then, the full group reconvened and posed their questions to the theologians and one another.
"There was so much energy," recalled Thuan. "The pastors in Indonesia were thirsty to learn more." Thuan saw the webinar series as an opportunity not just for pastors and church leaders in Indonesia to connect with one another across the three synods, but also with the global Anabaptist church.
"With this event, [webinar attendees] felt like they are not just a small congregation in Indonesia, but they have brothers and sisters internationally that they can meet, and that this is real, even though they haven't met in person," she said.
"I'm sure with [MWC General Assembly], when people come to Indonesia, [webinar attendees] will be even more enthusiastic and looking forward to it, because they already knew some of the people from Zoom."
"Church leaders in every region of Mennonite World Conference have said that the most urgent need is to strengthen the Anabaptist identity of congregations and pastors." said David Boshart, president of AMBS. "I know that Mennonite Mission Network prioritizes theological and leadership education, and I think that by our two institutions collaborating together, ... we can really accelerate and deepen our engagement with members of Mennonite World Conference around the world." Boshart voiced a deep gratitude for the cooperation between the organizations and Indonesian Mennonite synods that made the event happen. "I thought it went exceedingly well."
Eventually, at the end of the first evening's session, after the goodbyes were shared and WhatsApp numbers exchanged in the chat, attendees began to sign off. Santoso and Sawatzky invited everyone back for the next evening, which was themed 'Peace in Anabaptist history and theology.' People waved as their videos left the Zoom gallery.
The next evening, before attendees signed off, Santoso led the group in documenting the newest chapter of Anabaptist history they were all writing together, by capturing a screenshot of the rows upon rows of pastors, theologians and church leaders gathered to learn about the history of the faith they shared in.
"Say, 'Peace!'" said Santoso to the group. Across the multitude of virtual windows, believers spanning different synods, organizations and nations joined in and did so together.