Upheld by a living cloud of witnesses
Leadership: A word from Mennonite Church USA leadersby Hannah Heinzekehr
In the summer of 2001, I found myself thinking intentionally about transition for the first time in my life. I had just finished my sophomore year of high school, and people were asking me more often about my plans for college. I realized that some of my friends would be graduating and would no longer be staples in my high school hallways. I felt intimidated about taking standardized tests and figuring out “the future.”
That summer, I biked with my church’s youth group to the Mennonite Church USA convention in Nashville, Tenn. Over seven days, our group from Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship in Goshen, Ind., encouraged and supported each other as we pushed our bodies hard on our pilgrimage to the convention. In Nashville, we participated in seven days of worship, servant projects, relationship-building and more with thousands of Mennonite youth from across the country.
Although that feels like a long time ago, I remember in particular a message given by Shirley Hershey Showalter, then president of Goshen College, during one of the youth worship services. She talked about the living cloud of witnesses who were present among us and had gone before us, and who were cheering for each of us youth in the worship hall. She invited a host of adults up onstage as a symbolic show of support and hope for our collective futures.
I remember being moved by the power inherent in this gesture. As I looked around at members of my youth group and my youth sponsors, I was struck by the knowledge that I was surrounded by people who loved me, supported me and would walk alongside me as I transitioned into each of these new life phases. When I applied for a job with Convention Planning late last year, it was stories and memories like these that reminded me that convention is a space of possibility—one I am excited to work with—and that informed my decision to step into this new leadership role.
One of the gifts of working at the denominational level is being able to work alongside people from all across the church and to develop a broader picture of what Mennonite identity looks like. Not long ago, I returned from a week of meetings in Phoenix with members of the committee charged with “putting flesh onto the bones” of youth worship services for next summer’s convention there. This committee is a diverse group of people that includes pastors, high school students and young adults, people from all across the country, women and men, people from various racial/ethnic backgrounds, and individuals with diverse theological viewpoints.
As we sat around a table, brainstorming, praying together, reading the Scriptures for the week over and over and sharing times of fun and fellowship, I was struck by the realization that this process has continued for many years. With every two-year cycle, a new set of volunteers is willing to engage the convention themes and prayerfully work together to prepare a set of worship experiences to nourish, inspire and challenge convention attendees. All those who have participated in this process in the past, and those who are currently involved, have become part of the growing crowd of living witnesses who are planning and praying for all those who will come to the Phoenix convention.
At Phoenix 2013, we will explore questions of citizenship, allegiance and loyalty, working with the theme “Citizens of God’s Kingdom: Healed in Hope/Ciudadanos del Reino de Dios: Sanados por la Esperanza.” As we hear testimonies from people in our Mennonite communities and beyond who seek to live each day in ways that respond to God’s unique call, we hope each participant will engage the question of what it means to be a Mennonite, an Anabaptist and a Christian today. We hope each participant will wrestle with questions of faithfulness, discipleship and what it means to be church together.
And I hope everyone who comes to convention who is like I was in 2001—unsure of their next steps or unclear about where they belong, no matter what their age—will feel at home and surrounded by a great, diverse cloud of living witnesses who believe in them, are cheering them on and are committed to walking this journey together.
Hannah Heinzekehr of Claremont, Calif., is convention planning coordinator for Mennonite Church USA.
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