As we neared the park, the police officer guiding our prayer walk through the streets of Phoenix thanked Mennonite Church USA’s leaders for allowing her to participate in the event. “Many groups string out and lag behind,” she said, “But you guys stick together, you’re fit, and you’re prayerful. You’ve made my day.”
Her words produced a chuckle that toasty summer evening, but I’ve continued to chew on them as I’ve accompanied Elizabeth Soto Albrecht on the last two weeks of her cross-country journey to visit Mennonite Church USA congregations.
We have visited congregations who gather three or four times a week for prayer meetings, congregations who participate in acts of civil disobedience, congregations who march in parades, who hold community fairs and weekly laundry outreaches, who open their facilities to the homeless, who wrestle with Scripture and sometimes one another.
We met leaders who speak Spanish, English, Indonesian, French, Vietnamese, German, Creole, and Garifuna. We worshiped with congregations who sang out of hymnbooks, who sang off the wall, who sang from memory. We prayed with our hands lifted in the air, in silent moments of meditation, and on awkward but delightful walks through city streets. We had conversations with people who are concerned about the future of Mennonite Church USA, with people who are excited about it, and with people who didn’t even know they belonged to Mennonite Church USA.
In some ways, the police officer’s observations are a reflection of who we want to be, who we are on our best day. We’re fit, active, working to bring about God’s reign on earth. We’re prayerful, throwing ourselves and our hopes and dreams on the mercy of a faithful, just, and loving God. We stick together, knowing that faith must happen in community, even when members of that community don’t agree with or even like one another.
On our journey, Elizabeth has often reminded congregations that our denomination is only 12 years old. Like most preteens, we’re still trying to figure out who we are, how we should behave. The next few years, our teen years, will show us what we’re made of as we face increasingly difficult and potentially divisive issues. Will we stay fit and prayerful? Will we stick together? Will our neighbors, like the police officer, want to participate in what God is doing in our midst?
Maybe her words were less an observation and more a prophetic word on that final evening of Convention. Maybe our prayer walk was less for the people of Phoenix and more for ourselves, a symbolic act that marked the transition between what has been and what could be. Maybe it was an act of hope, of promise, a way of assuring ourselves, even as we worry and doubt, that with some cold water, exercise, and plenty of prayer, we can stick together. Even in the Arizona heat.