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2012-02-01 issue:

1948 meetings reoriented our thinking

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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In early August 1948, a remarkable event in the history of Anabaptist-Mennonite churches occurred. For seven days—first at Goshen, Ind., and then at North Newton, Kan.—Mennonites from countries that had fought each other in World War II met face-to-face to discuss their shared future.

For most of the previous decade, their countries had been locked in a devastating war that unleashed enormous human suffering and reduced the symbols of European civilization to a smoldering pile of ashes. Now, as questions of refugee resettlement, “war guilt” and the legacy of the Holocaust dominated the public discussion, Mennonites from these formerly warring nations gathered for the Fourth General Assembly of Mennonite World Conference (MWC). The meetings were not easy.

Relations between German and Dutch delegates traveling together on the trans-Atlantic voyage were tense. But early in the deliberations, Dirk Cattepoel, a German pastor from Krefeld, appealed to his Dutch, French and American counterparts for forgiveness and, “in the name of Christ, [for] a new beginning of Christian brotherliness.” And by all accounts, the meetings ended with powerful gestures of reconciliation and a new commitment to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The MWC assembly in August 1948 provided a framework for true ecclesial transformation. It helped the Anabaptist-Mennonite family reorient its understanding of geopolitics and the church; for those who were willing, it reframed how they thought about the world.

On Jan. 1, the offices of MWC officially completed a move from Strasbourg, France, to Bogotá, Colombia. At stake in the transition is much more than a new postal address. Since its beginnings in 1925, MWC had been dominated by European and North American groups. Yet dramatic changes have been unfolding in our fellowship. During the past 30 years, MWC’s center of gravity has shifted decisively from north to south—today, more than two-thirds of our members live in the southern hemisphere. (Indeed, Mennonite Church USA now accounts for merely 6 percent of the total Anabaptist-Mennonite family.)

Throughout his long tenure as general secretary of MWC, Larry Miller has been attentive to this transformation. It was thanks largely to his vision that the most recent MWC assemblies have taken place in India (1997), Zimbabwe (2003) and Paraguay (2009). Now, as leadership of MWC shifts to a new general secretary—César García of Bogotá—it is fitting that MWC headquarters move as well. García is a first-generation Anabaptist, attracted to the holistic gospel of the tradition. As a leader of the Mennonite Brethren conference in Colombia, he actively promoted closer relations with the Mennonite church and Brethren in Christ there, helping overcome some of the divisions that lingered from the missionary era. He is a person of conviction yet gentle in spirit and committed to a shared style of leadership. García embodies the new face of our global fellowship.

On Jan. 21, the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition celebrated its 487th birthday. As a professor of history at a Mennonite college, I have come to know and love the Anabaptist story. And for most of my career, I told a familiar narrative: a story that began with the first baptisms in Zurich, Switzerland, spread through Europe, crossed the Atlantic to North America, and culminated with us. In recent years, however, I have set myself the task of telling that story in a new way. What if what God had in mind from the beginning of the movement, with the first baptisms on Jan. 21, 1525, was not Mennonite Church USA but the 1.7 million Anabaptist-Mennonites around the globe? How would we need to tell our history differently if this was where God’s narrative was heading all along? I look forward to sorting out that story in the coming decades.

In the meantime, hold César García, the new MWC offices in Bogotá and the global Anabaptist-Mennonite fellowship in your prayers. Sixty years after the gatherings in Goshen and North Newton, MWC still offers the possibility of reorienting our thinking and transforming the way we look at the world.

Reader Comments

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  • Posted by lingarber at Monday, February 06, 2012 at 04:58 PM

    Brother John's credentials as a historian are beyond challenge, but his geography could use some remedial work. The "global south" is not the same thing as the southern hemisphere, which is defined as anything south of the equator. It cannot be true that 2/3 of the world's Mennonites live south of the equator. For instance, such very large populations as those in Ethiopia and India are entirely in the northern hemisphere. Even the new offices of Mennonite World Conference, in Bogotá, are north of the equator (see the name of the next country to its south: Ecuador!).

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