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2013-02-01 issue:

The gift of vulnerability

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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In May 2012, more than 200 people from nearly 50 different countries gathered at a retreat center close to Basel, Switzerland, for the triennial meeting of the Mennonite World Conference General Council. The gathering was a significant opportunity for the important business of sharing reports, clarifying budgets and establishing priorities.

Also, the newly established MWC commissions pressed forward with their work, and participants enjoyed times of shared worship, singing, Bible study and teachings.

But around the edges of the formal meetings a host of smaller stories were also playing themselves out in ways that did not make it into the official minutes. For a group that does not have many formal ecclesiastical structures, these small threads of connection—the  unexpected encounters of individuals, cultures and circumstances—create a space for the Holy Spirit to be present in a transformative way and help form the warp and woof of a global fellowship. Here is one example.

On May 27, the Sunday following the conclusion of the meetings, many Mennonite congregations in the region invited participants to take part in their worship services.

Walter Ortiz had been asked to give the sermon at the Ingolstadt congregation in Germany, a six-hour train ride from Basel. Walter is a member of the Enlhet tribe, an indigenous group in Paraguay, and the head of the Convención Evangélica Hermanos Menonitas Enlhet. Though fluent in Spanish and several local languages, Walter spoke no German or English, and he had no experience traveling alone in a European context.

On Friday evening, the day before his departure, he spent much of the night on his knees praying that God would send someone to help him navigate the trip. The next day, Walter walked to the nearby bus stop with an assurance that God would answer his prayer.

Johan Teichroeb Rempel grew up in an Old Colony family in Chihuahua, Mexico. As a young man, however, he shifted his membership to the Conferencía Menonita de Mexico—a progressive group and strong supporter of MWC, which has nonetheless maintained close ties with its conservative Old Colony neighbors. Johan, who is fluent in German, Plautdietsch, Spanish and English, served as a delegate to the MWC General Conference and had decided to visit friends in Germany following the conclusion of the sessions. On Saturday morning, he joined a throng of people at the bus stop, waiting to launch the first leg of his trip to Ingolstadt. Although the two men had never met, Walter approached Johan confidently and asked if he would accompany him to Ingolstadt. Shocked by the apparent coincidence, Johan quickly agreed, and the two men journeyed together, enjoying a rich conversation along the way.

In his sermon the following morning, Walter shared openly his sense of helplessness in the face of the daunting trip to Ingolstadt and the subsequent assurance he had received from God that someone would help. He also mentioned that during the time of the General Council meetings, torrential rains in the Paraguayan Chaco had flooded the Enlhet settlement where he lived, destroying his home and sweeping away most of his possessions. But here, too, Walter insisted, he was assured that God would provide for his people in their time of weakness.

Following the sermon, someone in the Ingolstadt congregation suggested that a basket be made available in case anyone wanted to make a contribution in support of Walter and his community. The spontaneous offering totaled nearly $2,400. At lunch, a guest of the family hosting Walter and Johan noted that it would not be difficult to drop off Walter at the Frankfurt airport on their way home, thereby resolving one more obstacle as Walter thought about the long journey back to Paraguay.

All of us would agree it is not good to be alone in an alien culture and that floods are unwelcomed catastrophes. But circumstances of vulnerability can also become occasions for the gifts of God’s people to be revealed in surprising ways. Walter shared the gift of trust and gratitude; Johan offered the gift of cross-cultural bridge-building; the Ingolstadt congregation gave of its hospitality and resources. Such is the body of Christ—a living, breathing organism knit together by 1,000 relationships of love.

When have you offered the gift of vulnerability? When have you made yourself available to someone else in need? When have you spontaneously shared your time or money? 

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