This is an independent blog and is not affiliated with any particular church, group or conference. The term Bruderthaler refers to a specific ethnic or cultural Mennonite heritage, not to any particular organized group. All statements and opinions are solely those of the contributor(s). Blog comprises notebook fragments from various research projects and discussions. Dialogue, comment and notice of corrections are welcomed. Much of this content is related to papers and presentations that might be compiled at a future date, as such, this blog serves as a research archive rather than as a publication. 'tag

Monday, July 1, 2013

Phoenix 2013, Mennonite Church - USA Convention

Phoenix Convention Center courtesy City of Phoenix
PHOENIX   2013 
and the Ghosts of 1898

    In choosing to maintain Phoenix, Arizona, as the location for the national Mennonite Church – USA conference, over the objections of many in the Hispanic, immigrant and pro-LGBTQ Mennonite community, church leaders have resurrected age-old conflicts and divisions that have often haunted those in the Mennonite diaspora since the first national conferences beginning in 1898.

   In 2011, Iglesia Menonita Hispana, MC-USA’s Hispanic identity, confronted the national church over the then-scheduled Phoenix Convention for 2013.  Iglesia was concerned about recent Arizona legislation putting Hispanic and minority or immigrant Americans at risk for being detained by Arizona law enforcement officers and being forced to carry and demonstrate proof of legal citizenship.  At risk were numerous Mennonites in the United States who lack proper citizenship papers, not just those of Hispanic culture. 

    Iglesia was concerned about the risks MC–USA was asking Latino Mennonites to endure in order to travel to Phoenix.  Responding to MC-USA’s decision, Iglesia responded that it was “hurt by the symbolic message this sent to Latino Mennonites,” and that it would not participate in the conference.  (Sarah Thompson, Christian Peacemaker Teams).
 “In order to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are undocumented, we choose to stand with them and advocate on their behalf before the church and government, and also choose to abstain from attending the 2013 convention if held in Phoenix.  If the Phoenix site is chosen, we will bless the people who will be attending the event and will continue to pray.  While we are blessing the people and the event, it does NOT mean that we endorse the location.  We would also ask that ANY staff or board member (of any ethnicity) that would choose not to attend the convention if held in Phoenix be allowed to do so without question.” (quote from IMH letter of Dec 2011)

Members of the Iglesia Menonita Hispana board and other leaders at IMH’s May 3–4 “Celebrating Immigration” event: Gilberto Cortéz from Oregon, IMH Board; Soledad López from Pennsylvania; Stanley Green of Mennonite Mission Network; Samuel López, IMH moderator from Pennsylvania; David Maldonado, IMH moderator-elect from Florida; Madeline Maldonado, IMH director of finances from Florida; Leona Diener, board member from Texas; Juanita Nuñez, board member from Florida; Tania Guzman, board member from New York; Nicolás Angustia, board member from New York; Juan Montes, California board member, and Rafael Barahona, Mennonite Education Agency. (Photo: Rafael Barahona) courtesy MC-USA.

    As early as 2010, other groups voiced their support for Iglesia noting that they share in a common cause. 

    June 2010, Brethren and Mennonite Council (BMC) posted the following statement on their web-site:
“The recent anti-immigration legislation passed in Arizona is not only a statement of frustration at the lack of a compassionate federal immigration policy, but also a reflection of hostile attitudes and actions directed towards Latino people in Arizona and beyond. If anyone doubted this more sinister motive, the governor’s signing of a bill prohibiting the teaching in public schools of ethnic study classes that advocate ethnic solidarity, makes this point glaringly clear.
From painful experience, the lgbt community knows how it feels when legislators use their power to target, harass and demean a particular group. As a community whose families are not legally recognized, we also understand the inadequacies of immigration laws and the disruption and grief they can cause. For these reasons and also because the Latino community includes lgbt people, BMC stands in solidarity with Latino people as a continuation of the struggle for human dignity and worth that is at the center of our work.”

    Importantly, BMC noted and provided early support for Iglesia’ s request that MC-USA cancel their convention contracts with the city of Phoenix and the Arizona vendors and find a new location, while recommending that their Mennonite and Brethren membership consider a travel boycott to Arizona, a recommendation subsequently ignored by the leadership of MC-USA and the conferencing committee.

    A year later, on 06 Jan 2011, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) co-Director Carol Rose released the following statement of support for Iglesia’s position:
“I am disappointed that MCUSA’s leaders are still leaning toward a Phoenix convention despite concerns about Arizona’s recently enacted law that creates such wide space for imposing racist discrimination.  Right now we have a priceless opportunity for U.S. Mennonites to stand with those on the margins, to stand for justice,”

  In the same statement, Tim Nafzinger notes the special legacy and responsibility of the Russian Mennonites, a Mennonite ethnicity that has endured a 500 years status as international religious and political refugees:
“My ancestors were immigrants in previous centuries, who came to North America because of systems that oppressed them in Europe.  Today, God is giving us an incredible opportunity to support this century's immigrants in their struggle to live in peace and unafraid. Let's not let the moment pass us by."

    By 2013, Facebook sites such as that belonging to Pink Menno Campaign, an LGBTQ-oriented outreach loosely organized by BMC, and Mennonite World Review, an ethno-religious inter-Mennonite news source, reflected both the intensity of the debate and feelings regarding Arizona and the growing split between those who saw the location as an issue and those who did not understand the problem.

    Added to concerns over the safety of illegal immigrants and the comfort of Latino and other ethnic Mennonite groups, were added the boisterous threats and anti-gay legislations of Arizona in 2012 and 2013.  Making things even worse, just prior to conference, legislation was introduced requiring all Arizona high school students to recite an oath of allegiance to the state.  In a church still uncomfortable with the voluntary recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public gatherings, the idea of required oath taking should have united the church in understanding that Phoenix was an increasingly politicized and polarizing location, perhaps unworthy of if not a direct threat towards even the most basic tenets of historic Anabaptism.

    As of 25 May, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio was still intent on enforcing anti-illegal immigration duties he felt were not being performed by the Federal government.  Just last week, Arizona-based organizations celebrated the 44th Anniversary of the Stonewall Protest by taking the lead in challenging recent pro-same-sex marriage decisions by the Supreme Court, joining a civil rights resistance movement that audaciously shocked the nation by declaring their united determination to simply ignore the Supreme Court if it upheld gay rights.  Even with the Supreme Court decision, there is no protection or provision that gays and same-sex couples traveling to Phoenix 2013 will not be unnecessarily hassled as attendees or tourists, not to mention that many inter-national same-sex couples face similar complicating difficulties in dealing with immigration officials, complications that do not pertain to heterosexual couples.

    Regardless, citing reasons of cost (money) and convenience, MC-USA determined in 2010 that the conference would be held as scheduled.  Discussions with church leaders indicate that an effort was made to consider a satellite conference held in Chicago for those who did not feel they could safely or in good conscience attend the Phoenix event, but these proposals came to naught. 

    A positive, but in the end effectively meaningless, attempt was made to recast the decision to continue with the Phoenix location by turning the focus from cost savings to being a witness to Phoenix regarding “positive Mennonite attitudes and values.”  Programming was changed to include more discussion relating to diversity and immigrant Mennonite concerns. 

    Local Mennonite church leaders in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, noted their decision to attend Phoenix despite their otherwise well-known social activist views and activities.  For them, the change in focus was enough.  Comparisons were made to the decision by Mennonite World Conference, an international gathering of various Mennonite groups and conferences, to hold their 2009 international convention in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.  At first, many Western Mennonites were disturbed by the idea of gathering in Zimbabwe out of politics and in regard to using up the relatively scant resources of the hosting Zimbabwe national conferences.

    On the other hand, there seems to be a great distinction between the controversies surrounding the Zimbabwe World Conference and the 2013 Phoenix Convention in that the Zimbabwe churches requested that the Conference be held in Africa and saw their ability to host their Mennonite brothers and sisters in their own churches as an act of world-wide inclusion and empowerment. 

   The controversy surrounding Phoenix is the opposite.  This site location symbolizes a decision to accept exclusion rather than inclusion.  The Zimbabwe Conference was held at the request of the impacted groups and churches.  The Phoenix Convention is being held despite the request of the impacted groups and churches.

    An interesting reaction to MC-USA’s handling of the Phoenix controversy was BMC and Pink Mennos transition from advocating diversity and inclusion to engagement of the Strangers No More Project,, modeled after iO Tillet Wright’s project, Self Evident Truths Project.  Both projects focused on putting a human face to those who continue to be excluded and victimized by discrimination.  The implied message is that the mainstream Mennonite church needs to “know” and “see” who they exclude, or who is not included and who might feel discriminated against, so that they cannot be so easily written off or seen a minor, and thereby excludable, portion of the church.  The unspoken question being the extent to which Iglesias is also perhaps seen by many as a faceless, non-essential, non-core Mennonite identity.

    You see, just like many in the Mennonite Church – USA were not seemingly moved by the prospect of “missing” fellowship with Iglesia, Strangers No More aims to introduce the church to the friends, family and co-workers who would not be able to attend were BMC and Pink Mennos to be likewise unable to attend.  (While Pink Mennos and BMC are not officially part of the convention and have not been allowed display space in the main hall, conference officials have made room to include the gay advocacy groups in the margins of the Convention’s programming.)

    Still, one waits to see how groups like BMC and Pink Menno will successfully address the controversy at the actual Convention.  Perhaps the two groups, BMC-Pink Mennos and Iglesias have a lot more in common than even they know, or that more conservative elements of MC-USA would want them to realize.

    One of the most significant dangers is that of fragmentation within the Mennonite Church sectarian conference.  One the one hand, there exists a Mennonite Church – USA that celebrates social justice and diversity within ethnic groups, within gender identifications and within language and cultural groups. The flip side of the coin is that the spiritual church is strongly divided by its secular politics regarding immigration, acculturation, the military and acceptance of the LGBTQ community and pursuit of equal rights for all groups.  Certain churches within the LGBTQ dialogue have already been pressured by sub-conferences to move or join other liberal conferences, such as has been the experience of Saint Paul Mennonite Fellowship in Minnesota, and in Pennsylvania, where Frazer Mennonite Church left its conference to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, immediately prompting the church of Maple Grove Pennsylvania to “recategorize” its membership within the LGBTQ welcoming conference from “full membership” to “associate membership”. 

    How does this impact Iglesia?  Iglesia is a Hispanic church group separated from the main body of MC-USA by language and ethnic culture – two issues that ought to unite a church built in diversity but which have historically split the Mennonites who have schismed or refused cooperation based in the usage of competing forms of German dialects or even between the use of German or English in the homes and church. 

    Many politically conservative Mennonites who oppose LGBTQ rights and inclusion, or wish that “gay” churches would separate and form their own conference, are also seemingly supportive of conservative political understandings of immigration, language use and the status of illegal immigrants.  While there are no polls that highlight this tension within MC-USA, other polling data indicates a strong correlation between attitudes towards immigration, illegal immigrants, social welfare and anti-gay legislation to be highly sympathetic.  In other words, those who hold a conservative stance towards one of these topics are highly likely to view the other topics conservatively.  Other polls indicate a strong correlation between a personal belief system conforming to “Fundamentalist” Christian values such as anti-evolution, public display of the 10 Commandments and the above mentioned political values.

    One learns in academia and research that sometimes it is not the questions that one asks that are the most meaningful, or the ones that are answered, but rather the questions that remain unasked and unanswered.

   In the controversy surrounding Phoenix 2013, groups such as BMC will perhaps a role in answering the question as to why alternatives to holding the convention in Phoenix were not followed up on and why it is considered sufficient and appropriate to move on and to address the delegate sessions without the full and equal representation  of not only the gay community, but also those congregations that together make up Iglesia.  Or is it enough to note that for 2013, Iglesia will be functioning as a separate and distinct identity outside of the Convention?  Perhaps too many politically conservative Mennonites are actually a lot of more comfortable with things this way.  For too many of us, perhaps the limitations imposed on us by meeting in Phoenix are limitations and exclusions that suit us just fine?  Would they actually prefer that Iglesia withdraw and form a distinct Hispanic entity with its own politics and focus?

    In conversation with Glen Guyton of the MC-USA Conference oversight committee, meaningful changes have been added to the programming to meet and answer these questions.  We will all wait to see how insightful and impactful these sessions are.

    The first national conference built out of conventions held in 1898 failed because the things that divided us in 1898, language, geography, focus and theological-leanings became more convenient to us and were of greater fundamental and long term importance to us than were the things that united us.  Pray that 2013 is not another 1898.

Editor’s Note:  This piece is still a bit choppy, but is current.  The piece was placed on hold until news out of Arizona over the weekend potentially making life challenging for any gays and lesbians who would attend the convention, especially with their partners.  The news potentially places LGBTQ couples in the same potential danger of not only being harassed, but targeted based on their identity, though in most, but not all, cases, not to the same extent as facing deportation.  Lives could easily be ruined by politicized public servants in both the immigrant church, Latino and LGBTQ communities.

        One of the many challenges is to discuss the specific problems and scenarios that bother those of a minority Mennonite identity without providing a roadmap for those who would seek to hassle them.

        A more polished version may be substituted at a future time, but will be noted if such is the case and with a link to this original.  sdw

edited 02:00 am 02 July:  Paragraph removed discussing comments that had been made within Central Plains conference on the personal level regarding a split between the liberal congregations and conservative ones.  Paragraph removed because it could mistakenly imply that such thoughts had been officially communicated by or to any of its member churches.  Official communication has centered around the need to align with historic conference thought and practice, but no talk of divisions.  Thank you, editors!

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