Christian parents have long encouraged their sons and daughters to find a life partner at church activities. They have also encouraged their young adults to meet the global church through international experiences. Sometimes those situations overlap.
Theology students Benni and Rianna Isaak-Krauss will celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary this summer, three years after the Mennonite World Conference Global Youth Summit (GYS) and Assembly where they first met.
Radical movement of God
“I had a gut feeling it would be a really cool experience,” says dual-citizen Canadian/American Rianna Isaak, but as director of a summer camping ministry, attending a conference in the middle of July seemed impossible.
Providentially, she received permission to leave with barely a month to spare. She was able to fill the vacant role of Mennonite Brethren delegate for Canada, and quickly compiled a survey of her national church’s young people.
“Getting two weeks off work was a pretty radical part of God moving things,” Rianna says.
Transformative experience of church
German Benni Krauss, selected two years in advance to represent his national church, co-organized group of 12 more participants from Germany and Switzerland to attend GYS.
It was his second time at GYS. He spent half a year in Paraguay, studying, learning Spanish, gaining context to understand the global and local aspects of the worldwide assembly in Asuncion in 2009.
“Paraguay was pretty transformative,” he says.
With his co-leader for 2015, he planned an extended program for their group that would aim to “contextualize the experience” for the German-speaking young people. They took extra time in the USA before the MWC event to learn about the challenges threatening to split MC USA fracturing with youth. They visited affirming and non-affirming churches.
Benni recommends that participants start planning long before the event. “Make space to build friendships.”
Delegates take ownership
The role of delegate to GYS is not tightly defined, says Benni, but most took ownership of the responsibility in their own ways. “It moved people further into leadership and awareness of the scope of the church,” he says.
As a young person, Rianna says being selected as a delegate sends a message from the church: “We need you; you are important.”
“I felt validated as a leader and contributor, not just a recipient,” says Benni.
At the halfway point between Assemblies, that assessment bears true: 2015 North American GYS delegates are pursing graduate and post-graduate studies in theology (including Rianna at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, USA), or serving the church as pastors and YABs committee chair.
There’s a feeling of a youth camp at GYS, says Benni. “It’s fun, it’s participatory,... [but] the delegates were also aware of problems and cared about them.”
For example, one delegate from Latin America approached Rianna to discuss perspectives on sexuality. The respectful conversation they exchanged formed “a sacred space of curiosity and care,” says Rianna. “And we were able to bring the conversation back to our continent groups. It was a very humbling and shaping experience for me.”
GYS and Assembly are of course a gathering of the global church. “There is a profound love for the church, not just my own project even if that works really well,” says Benni. Participants realize “the global church isn’t just a dream.”
He left with some experiences and more questions. “How do we realize our diversity and start building relationships?”
On a personal level, Benni and Rianna built their own relationship despite diverse backgrounds. The spark of interest lit between the two Anabaptist nonconformists at Assembly fanned into flames of love over the next year. Benni visited Rianna’s home and community in Canada after Assembly; Rianna relocated to Benni’s parents’ community in Germany for several months.
This allowed her to act out another assembly lesson: learn a new language.
“Knowing only one language can be marginalizing,” she says, recognizing how not understanding any language but English locked her out of conversations. But it also had the opposite danger: “It wields power in an unhealthy way.”
Yet, everyone at GYS has two things in common, says Benni: unique, contextualized personal identities and a shared Anabaptist identity. Out of that, friendship, partnership, mentorship (perhaps even a bit of romance) can grow.
“There’s what you can do and then you have to lean on the Holy Spirit,” says Benni.
—a Mennonite World Conference release by Karla Braun