Reshaping unjust systems: pastors and church leaders at the helm

Pastors and Leaders 2019 keynote speakers engage in a panel discussion.

The keynote speakers at AMBS’s Feb. 25–28 Pastors and Leaders 2019 conference participated in a panel discussion facilitated by Cyneatha Millsaps, M.Div., executive director of Mennonite Women USA. Pictured are (l. to r.) Millsaps; Andrew Draper, M.Div., Ph.D.; Maren Tyedmers Hange, M.Div.; and David Anderson Hooker, M.Div., J.D., Ph.D. (Credit: Jason Bryant)

Audio of keynote presentations available online.

By Marlys Weaver-Stoesz

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Featured speakers at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s (AMBS) Pastors and Leaders 2019 conference encouraged attendees to imagine and proclaim new narratives that embrace marginalized communities and counter oppression in today’s society.

More than 145 people from eight denominations, 14 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces came together for the Feb. 25–28 event at the Elkhart, Indiana, seminary to explore the theme of “Loving Our Neighbors in Tense Times.”

AMBS President Sara Wenger Shenk, Ed.D., noted the purpose of the conference in her welcome to participants on Monday evening, Feb. 25.

“We gather from near and far to cheer each other on — to find refreshed courage, renewed love and resolve,” she said.

Speaking to the week’s theme, she described the environment that today’s church leaders and pastors face: “The tension in the air often crackles with anxiety and fear. Vitriol is pointed at leaders and at whole groups of people based on their religion, ethnicity, race, gender, ability and sexual orientation.”

Worship and teaching sessions throughout the event continually noted the necessity of changing the narratives that shape beliefs and oppressive systems.

Keynote speaker David Anderson Hooker, M.Div., J.D., Ph.D., associate professor of the practice of conflict transformation and peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and a core faculty member of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in South Bend, Indiana, explained that churches are one of the few groups in society that have permission and authority to approach injustice at all of its levels: from the individual to the relational, communal, national and international levels.

Churches are “well positioned to do it,” he said, “and yet so utterly ineffective.”

He noted how churches often focus on the “fruit work” — helping with immediate needs in a community — and overlook the “root work” or “soil work” that endeavors to undo oppressive histories and systems.

“If everybody is feeding the hungry and visiting the imprisoned,” he posed, “then who’s doing the work so we don’t have hunger, so that we don’t have prisons, so that we can stop organizing our lives around the disposability of the being? That’s our work.”

He also described how that deeper work includes looking at how oppressive structures exist within congregations and in the church’s theology itself.

Scripture was “preserved by the marginalized,” he explained. “So if you are standing in a place of privilege and a place of power, you can’t look at Scripture and place yourself in the center of it. It wasn’t written by you, and it really wasn’t written for you. In order to understand and interpret the Scriptures, we have to get to the margins.”

Anderson Hooker reflected on the Bible passage in which Jonah goes to Nineveh and, under the king’s decree, the city’s people and animals all put on sackcloth and mourn their injustices.

“If we believe and if we organize and reshape our value system in a nonhierarchical, nonoppressive, nonexploitative way, others will see it and they’ll believe it,” Anderson Hooker said. “And when the king heard, then the king did what ultimately will need to happen for us to achieve this beloved community, which is reorganize all relationships toward equity.”

Keynote speaker Andrew Draper, M.Div., Ph.D., pastor of Urban Light Community Church in Muncie, Indiana, shared what he has learned about working toward equity and justice since he moved to the urban south side of Muncie 15 years ago. The region has experienced high unemployment, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. The church Draper leads is located on the historic dividing line of segregation in the city.

He moved there with a mission mindset, he said, excited to be a part of transforming the region through anti-racist work directed toward visions of a reconciling community. After several years of limited progress, Draper said God gave him the message, “Andrew, you are concerned about your church. And I am concerned about your community. Stop looking at your church and start thinking about what is already going on in this city.”

Draper described how he, a white pastor, was welcomed into historically black churches in Muncie and mentored by a pastor who had been working in the community for 35 years.

“The Lord has allowed me to go through 15 years now of being re-wired,” he said. That growth has included learning how “to be corrected, to be challenged and to learn from the Other,” he said.

“How do we begin to think about being one together in Christ given the realities that we face?” he challenged attendees. A good place to begin, he said, is by looking at Ephesians 2:11-22 and considering, “Where do we read ourselves in the story?”

“Because of my missional blinders, I found that I couldn’t think about racial reconciliation in any other way than myself — or other Gentile Christians, especially white folks — being at the center of God’s reconciling work, bringing others in — which I recognized was highly prejudicial and problematic,” he said.

He noted that the Gentiles were “once outsiders without hope, and without God in the world.”

“I would suggest that simple Gentile remembrance — remembering that we worship another people’s God; that we are guests at another people’s table; that we have entered into someone else’s story — is a good place to begin in de-centering our own assumptions about what is normative,” he said.

Keynote speaker Maren Tyedmers Hange, M.Div., co-pastor of Charlottesville (Virginia) Mennonite Church, related the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with God with her own wrestling with God in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally and consequent violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017.

“I learned that weekend where my front line was, how I listened to the voices around me, how blind I am, how much I was living in privilege,” she reflected.

Hange shared about being part of a committee of interfaith clergy that planned a series of events for remembrance, repentance and healing around the first anniversary of the rally. She learned that “if you stick with the process — with one another — and keep listening for the Holy Spirit, God will show up and will transform your wrestling and your messy offerings into something powerful and beautiful.”

Hange spoke about how the idea emerged to create a stole to publicly identify her as a pastor.

“I realized in the wrestling that I was seeking anointing from God for the journey ahead — into spaces I had no map to navigate,” she said. “I am claiming God’s presence and power with me in a symbolic way.”

She believes that “God is in the struggle” of the continued work toward transformation.

“To know that God’s Spirit still hovers over the waters, we have to enter the formless void, the chaos,” she said. “To know that God still provides manna, we need to enter the wilderness. To know the God of the resurrection, we have to enter the tomb. To know the power of God, we have to keep wrestling with God.”

Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, Ph.D., AMBS dean of Lifelong Learning, director of the Church Leadership Center and a member of the planning committee for the annual event, said she was grateful for the speakers’ wisdom and vulnerability.

“Participants have expressed deep gratitude for the conversation about how we view race and our racialized culture and the church’s unique opportunity to speak to it,” she said. “I greatly appreciated — as one participant wrote in an evaluation — ‘the emphasis on vulnerability, openness to change and sitting at the feet of the Other.’ I also gained new ways of thinking about how well the church is positioned to proclaim a counter-narrative to the prevailing fiction of race, and how this unique position is sorely underutilized.”

Pastors and Leaders 2019 also included 11 workshops on topics such as The Movement Makes Us Human: Wisdom and Challenge from the Life of Dr. Vincent Harding; Sanctuary in the Streets: the Faith Community Showing Up for Our Neighbors; Embrace Enemy Love: a Playful Spiritual Practice; The Welcoming Prayer: Inviting God Into Our Tension; Healthy Masculinity: On Being a Man; and Reading the Bible With Neighbors and Strangers: Encountering the “Other” With — and Within — Scripture.

In addition to Gingerich Longenecker, the planning committee included Sophia Austin of Missouri; Sara Erb of Kitchener, Ontario; Barbara Good and Dwight Stewart, both of Wheaton, Illinois; Merle Hostetler of Goshen, Indiana; Cyneatha Millsaps of Markham, Illinois; Haroldo Nunes of Orrville, Ohio; and David B. Miller and Cheryl Zehr of the Church Leadership Center.

Pastors and Leaders 2020 will be held March 2–5.

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AMBS Pastors and Leaders 2019 keynote speaker David Anderson Hooker, M.Div., J.D., Ph.D., associate professor of the practice of conflict transformation and peacebuilding at University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and a core faculty member of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in South Bend, Indiana. (Credit: Jason Bryant)

AMBS Pastors and Leaders 2019 keynote speaker Andrew Draper, M.Div., Ph.D., pastor of Urban Light Community Church in Muncie, Indiana. (Credit: Jason Bryant)

AMBS Pastors and Leaders 2019 keynote speaker Maren Tyedmers Hange, M.Div., co-pastor of Charlottesville (Virginia) Mennonite Church. (Credit: Jason Bryant)