I wish I had a field guide to give Kansas City residents and businesses on how to spot, feed and care for the more than 4,000 Mennonites who will attend the biennial Mennonite Church USA convention Tuesday-July 5 at the Kansas City Convention Center.
Of course no such guide exists, nor could it exist. That is because the denomination I belong to (MCUSA) is made up of geographically and theologically diverse conferences, churches and peoples.
One cannot and should not make sweeping generalizations about the estimated 100,000 members within Mennonite Church USA.
MCUSA is made up of urban, rural and suburban congregations. We span the age spectrum, although high school youth will be the largest age group represented at the convention.
Every Mennonite has a different story of how they or their ancestors became Mennonite. Some of us have belonged to a Mennonite church all our lives, and others of us have come to the Mennonite church by way of a partner, a friend, a book, a website or by mistake.
Some Mennonites will arrive to Kansas City on trains, planes or bikes. And just in case there are any rumors going around, no, there will not be an increase in horses and buggies downtown.
MCUSA is made up of Anabaptist Christians. Amish, like Mennonites, trace their history to the 16th-century Anabaptists, but it would be erroneous to conflate Amish and Mennonites today. Some refer to Mennonites and Amish as distant denominational cousins.
There is nothing about our physical appearance that will identify us as Mennonites. That being said, some of our theological convictions do sometimes make us stand out in the Christian denominational landscape.
Like all Anabaptists, we believe that Jesus was the one who transformed worldly greed, power, violence and ultimately death. The Mennonites I am most inspired by are those who take seriously prophet Isaiah’s vision: “They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (2:4)
We struggle, just like all people of faith, to respond to the injustices and human suffering experienced in this world. And sometimes we experience conflict, division and controversy within our churches, conferences and denomination.
Hopefully these conflicts won’t be the only thing that you hear about during our time in Kansas City.
For example, I hope people will notice the Mennonite students around the city doing service projects. Perhaps you’ll spot the Mennonite prayer walk downtown on Tuesday evening. Or perhaps you will have the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a Mennonite and learn more about our history and values. And I hope the learning will be mutual.
Finally, I hope some KC folks will have the opportunity to hear a group of Mennonites singing four-part a cappella hymns, its own piece of heaven on Earth.
If you are interested in spotting the Mennonites singing and praying together, we invite the public to attend our closing service on July 5 from 10-11:30 a.m, with featured speaker Shane Claiborne from The Simple Way community in Philadelphia. This service will be at Bartle Hall, Exhibit A.
Finally, should any Mennonites actually go wild during their time in Kansas City, I don’t know them.
Ruth Harder is pastor of Rainbow Mennonite Church, Kansas City, Kan.