By Steve Kriss, Executive Minister
My first communication received in the new executive minister role came as a text message on Sunday morning before I went to worship on January 1. It came from a Conference board member who told me that his congregation intended to support the work of Danilo Sanchez in Allentown for another year in the partnership between the Conference, Whitehall Mennonite Church, Ripple congregation and Mennonite Central Committee East Coast. It was a welcome communication and a gracious reminder of the Spirit’s work among us. What our board member didn’t know was that this important initiative working with youth (many who are refugees and immigrants) was reaching the end of its funding stream. We had decided late in 2016 in a collaborative conversation between the partners to move forward without funding fully being figured out. This gift will help bridge that gap. I was and am grateful.
It’s these kinds of signs along the way that remind me of the good work that we are called to do together. While political change and tensions surrounds us, we continue in the work that God has called us to do. As executive minister, I will do my best to keep us focused toward the going to the margins mission as affirmed at Conference Assembly in 2015. This includes the ongoing and important work of caring for the refugee, the stranger, the poor, the differently-abled, the young, the aged, the homeless, the hungry, those in prison and those recently released while respecting all people as created in the image of our God regardless of their own religious practice or lack thereof. And it also includes renewed attention on church-planting and gives space for new initiatives that we might not yet have imagined that will help carry the Good News into the next generation.
For some of us, this good work seems more challenging under President Trump while for others this seemed more difficult under the leadership of President Obama. Regardless of our political preferences or the regime at hand, we are called to the same hard and good work with respect and prayer: to speak and incarnate the Good News of Christ that heals the wounded, sets the captive free, provides sight to the blind and offers freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4.18). This message changes us and intends to transform the whole world.
Mission to the margins means both speaking and acting. For us as Conference staff, these last few weeks have included finding ways to support when Carlos Romero, Executive Director of Mennonite Education Agency, received a racially harassing phone call. Our response to Christ and the Spirit’s work at Pentecost means we cannot remain silent as witnesses to ethnic intimidation or acts that represent white supremacy. We are the first community to have named an African American pastor in the Mennonite Church and to have an African American lead our conference. We worship in four languages. Almost 20% of our pastors are people of color. This is our story. It’s never been easy work and gets even more challenging when we are able to be more honest with one another about our experiences.
It’s meant a conversation with Congressman Fitzpatrick’s office, who serves much of our constituent community in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, regarding last week’s Executive Orders that has halted for the time begin the processes for refugees entering our country. Many of our congregations have hosted refugees and helped with resettlement, others of us are refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Many of us descend from those who were those same persons from generations earlier. This is a story we live and know and are continually challenged by through Biblical mandates to welcome the stranger.
Donella Clemens from the Perkasie congregation once advised me to seek out Biblical texts that offer guidance into where to situate ourselves for difficult or transitional times. This week, I’ve settled into Micah 6.8’s invitation to “live justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” It’s a challenging invitation for our time even though the words can at times feel overly familiar. It seems exactly where I’m going to need to be awhile after 30 days into the new leadership role. There’s still much to figure out and to learn.
In the meantime, I’ll keep celebrating God’s generosity and Spirit’s provocation among us like I experienced on Day 1. We’ll keep figuring out how to speak and act as mission to the margins is our priority. I invite you to be an ongoing part of those good stories and that sometimes hard but worthy work among us as we live out what it means to embody the Good News with our neighbors near and far and even among those who might be perceived as our enemies. There is still much work but we have great hope.