Connections at the marginsBy Joanna Shenk
Anna of Rotterdam, an Anabaptist martyr, advised: “Where you hear of a poor, simple, cast-off little flock, which is despised and rejected by the world, join them.”
More than 27,000 people — considered poor and simple, rejected by the powerful — attended the U.S. Social Forum June 22-26 in Detroit. Committed to uniting the struggles of oppressed communities, the USSF brings together grassroots organizers to build structures of resistance to national and global injustice.
About 40 of the participants were raised Mennonite or attracted to Anabaptism. Some of us committed to reflect theologically as Anabaptists in the context of the event. This Anabaptist companion gathering to the USSF was organized by some Midwestern Anabaptists and named “Becoming Undone” — signaling that both personal and systemic transformation is necessary as we commit ourselves to follow Jesus.
In the opening parade I walked alongside migrant rights workers, giant puppets created to draw attention to the rights of the disabled, union organizers holding up banners, gray-haired antiwar activists and members of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Alliance.
Though Christians were surely present, official church groups were strangely absent.
Based on my work with discipleship communities on behalf of Mennonite Church USA Interchurch Relations, the USSF seemed like a prime opportunity for collaborative learning and mutual support. I saw an opportunity to expand the Anabaptist imagination as we connect with new groups, such as the discipleship communities, and revive old ones, such as mutual aid societies. It was an opportunity to gather to confess our privilege and share our brokenness.
The planners of “Becoming Undone” described the need for such an event: “An Anabaptist movement is building in U.S. and Canada outside the traditions and structures of the Mennonite, Brethren, Hutterite and Amish churches. This movement is centered in worship that thrives on the biblical vision of shalom for all people and the Earth. The growth of this movement speaks to the urgency of undoing the net of oppressions that bind us in sin and keep us from be(com)ing whole and living well.”
“Becoming Undone” participants attended the forum and gathered in the evening for worship and fellowship. Worship times included prayer, singing, silence and litanies with themes of lamentation, resistance and hope in the shadow of empire. We also attended a service at Community Christian Fellowship in Detroit, a member congregation of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.
After the forum we gathered for a day to reflect. Also in attendance were staff members of MC USA, Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Relationships grew between members of older and younger intentional communities, current and former MC USA pastors, seminary graduates, doctoral students and Mennonite Voluntary Service workers. It was encouraging to be with Anabaptists who are wrestling with the complexity of undoing oppression in our faith communities, organizations and neighborhoods.
Seeing that the accompaniment model worked well, “Becoming Undone” hopes to gather as an affinity group at other conferences. Jesus calls his people to enter into the places where people are experiencing rejection, oppression and struggle.
The Anabaptist movement is being reignited in the places where the powerless gather to struggle against oppression.
Joanna Shenk, of Elkhart, Ind., is associate for Interchurch Relations and Communications with Mennonite Church USA Executive Leadership.
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