“Celebrating the Church of the Brethren’s 300th Anniversary in 2008″
(May 2, 2008) — Is it possible for a broken church to heal a divided society? Pastors, theologians, service workers, academics, and laypeople of Church of the Brethren and Mennonite backgrounds met in Washington, D.C., on April 11-12 to discuss this question. “Bridging Divides: Uniting the Church for Peacemaking” was held at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church and hosted by the Brethren Witness/Washington Office and the Anabaptist Peace Center.
Speakers and participants discussed how to interact with those who are miles away politically, but sit next to us in worship every Sunday. Can we find common ground yet remain the prophetic voice in society?
An opening session on “Sources of Our Common Faith” was led by Celia Cook-Huffman, the W. Clay and Kathryn H. Burkholder Professor of Conflict Resolution and professor of peace studies at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., and associate director of the Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies; and Nate Yoder, associate professor of church history and director of the master of arts in religion program at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
Yoder talked about how the church, as the body of Christ, transcends chronology and geography. He also discussed the idea that the church is empowered to discern according to criteria in the Lord’s prayer, that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. When discussing sources of common faith between Mennonites and Brethren, the peace position is the main link, he said. Historically, both churches have been very strong on the peace position, he said, but he asked, how is it playing out today?
Cook-Huffman stressed history, rituals, faith, and community. The Brethren tradition of footwashing holds special significance, as does our shared story. She also emphasized getting conflict out in the open, talking about it, and resolving it peacefully. She talked about community as a way to move forward.
Friday night’s worship service featured Myron Augsburger, professor and president emeritus at Eastern Mennonite University. “For me, the deeper convictions for peace find their base in the Lordship of Christ, in his teachings and his mission of a crosscultural and global extension of his kingdom,” Augsburger said. He talked about the need for an ecumenical association of people committed to nonviolence. With a peace stance, the members of the church are citizens of the state and may properly challenge the state’s just war theory, as well as fellow Christians who hold to this view, he said.
A plenary session on “Mending the Broken Body of Christ” was led by Chris Bowman, pastor of Oakton (Va.) Church of the Brethren and a past moderator of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference; and Michelle Armster, codirector of Mennonite Central Committee’s Office on Justice and Peacebuilding. Bowman talked about shifting circles of loyalty. The circle for Christians used to be the church, but now people have many different circles or spheres of influence, and other circles often do not interact much with the church, he said. He talked about pastoring as redrawing the circle, creating a family house where diversity can live. Armster challenged everyone to act on the peace and justice positions of the church, and talked about the pastor as facilitator of such action. She said that peacemaking is about more than just saying that the church is a peace church.
The final session on “Christians Engaging the World” was led by Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, and Steve Brown, minister and director of care ministry at Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Va., a congregation of Mennonite Church USA. Jones talked about the importance of acting on matters of conscience. He stressed finding what makes you passionate and then being a strong advocate for that issue. Engaging the world as a living peace church and not just an historic peace church is an important call. Brown pushed the church to get out and minister to the community. He also invited people to openly talk about issues of racism, poverty, and violence. “We are called to be risk-takers, to move beyond the four walls of the church building,” he said.
One of the ways Jones and Brown have been working together is through Churches Supporting Churches, an effort to support churches destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Brown is the peace and social justice coordinator for the African-American Mennonite Association, and has led the Mennonite effort to support churches destroyed by Katrina. He has assisted Mennonite congregations to pair up with churches in the New Orleans area to offer financial resources and supportive relationships. Jones has promoted the same ministry in the Church of the Brethren, and has been one of a group of people working on Churches Supporting Churches who meet monthly in New Orleans.
The conference was a success in the minds of those who attended, and the hope is that it can continue annually. When asked why she attended, Dana Cassell, a Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) worker at the Church of the Brethren’s Ministry Office, said, “I came to the conference because I’m interested in how the church is finding faithful ways to witness in the political spectrum–especially those of us in the Anabaptist tradition who come with a history of ambiguity about participation in the political processes.”
“I came to this conference to learn more about our struggles–both as a church and part of the Anabaptist movement–hoping to learn how we can peacefully resolve our internal divisions,” said Jerry O’Donnell, a BVS worker with the Church of the Brethren’s workcamp ministry. “I learned, simply, that we have taken the first step in mending the broken body of Christ by coming together in His name, committed to another way of living. Peace for far too long has solely been seen as the ends or the goal–a sort of distant prize. I think it is high time that we restore our faith in peace as the means.”
–Rianna Barrett is a legislative associate at the Brethren Witness/Washington Office of the Church of the Brethren General Board.
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