When I attended my first Mennonite World Conference assembly in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1962, I remember sitting cross-legged on a gymnasium floor with other youth. I’d just come from Ethiopia—where I had been surrounded by brown faces at the Bible Academy, a high school begun by the Mennonite Mission in Ethiopia.
Here at the assembly I was surrounded by white faces—primarily North American and European. Yet we leapt to our feet to shout out the countries we represented. There was a smattering of international reps, but no Ethiopians—so I decided to be the Ethiopian rep. This was to be a world conference.
Today the Meserete Kristos Church of Ethiopia, with more than 218,000 baptized members, is the largest single MWC member body. MKC also sends and supports 335 local and international missionaries.
That MKC now sends almost triple the number of missionaries as Eastern Mennonite Missions, the organization that first sent missionaries to Ethiopia in 1948, is just one example of the growth that is driving the changes in MWC leadership and office location.
The MKC story is multiplied throughout the Global South where vibrant young churches are changing the face of global Anabaptism.
What does this shift in the center of gravity among Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches mean—in the North and in the South? How does it feel?
In 2011 César García, a first generation Mennonite, was named the new General Secretary for MWC, and in early 2012 the MWC head office relocated from Strasburg, France, to Bogotá, Colombia. What does this symbolize? What is it heralding?
For historian John Roth, secretary of MWC’s Faith and Life Commission, it only makes sense that MWC, the most visible expression of the global Anabaptist family, relocates its headquarters to the southern hemisphere.
“From the perspective of a 500-year- old tradition,” Roth said, “we are witnessing—in our lifetimes—an amazing renewal movement in which the centre of gravity for the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition is shifting from North to South. Indeed, during the past 30 years, the global Anabaptist-Mennonite family has nearly tripled in size, with virtually all of that growth coming from groups in the Global South.”
South now giving back
“For many years,” commented Peter Stucky, a Mennonite pastor in Bogotá, “the Global South has received so much, for example the work of missionaries. Now we are grateful for the opportunity to give back.” Stucky considers the commissioning of César García as a primary example of the South’s “giving back.”
He noted how the southern world has been seen by many with disdain and on the periphery. Colombia, he said, has been “not only on the periphery but a source of shame” with its history of violence and drug trade.
Then with tears welling up, he opened his well worn Bible and recalled how God became known in places considered insignificant—such as Bethlehem and Nazareth. He pointed to a number of texts about God’s vindication of those who suffer but remain faithful (such as Luke 1:46ff, Isaiah 54 and Revelation 3:8ff ).
MWC president Danisa Ndlovu acknowledged that the transition to southern leadership and a southern office comes with some uncertainties. For example, what will happen with the support base from churches in the Global North? “I don’t have anxieties about that,” he was quick to add, “given the MWC culture with its strong desire to see ourselves as a family sharing our joys and sorrows.”
When asked about further changes and challenges, Ndlovu suggested that the transition could mean a different leadership style, “and perhaps a different pace of how things are done.” He also noted that often a change of leadership also opens the door for new issues to emerge.
Yet with the challenges come an invigorating sense of energy. Liesa Unger, 2012 MWC Events Coordinator noted, “It’s a natural step in a journey that we are travelling together as a world-wide community.” Unger, who with her husband pastors a church in Germany, loves the blend of the local church that keeps her grounded, and the global community that helps her see beyond her own horizon.
From India, Cynthia Peacock, Chair of MWC Deacons Commission, believes this is a time for the MWC community to watch, wait, and build on the relationships with the new leadership for new directions—but directions that continue the work already begun.
The foundation of MWC will stay the same, says Markus Rediger, quoting Menno Simons’ favorite Scripture, 1 Corinthians. 3:11. The Swiss journalist and member of the MWC Executive Committee is excited to see the South and the North serving and strengthening one another with their gifts. The North is rich in history, education, institutions, and leadership training. While the South brings youth, energy, church planting, and mission gifts.
Foundation is the same
Roth noted that under Larry Miller’s leadership the MWC has helped cultivate a strong network of personal and institutional relationships that has nurtured a deeper awareness that we are part of a “global body.” And this has happened without the creation of a strong hierarchical centre or a lot of bureaucratic machinery.
Peacock thinks that the changes in MWC leadership will bring a more youthful outlook. She observed that the South values relationship-building and connecting with one another for learning and sharing. This models a different perspective and way of working than is typical in the North’s efficiency-valuing bureaucracies.
Even so, MWC leaders expect continuity and growth from the current structures. Rebecca Osiro, Kenyan church leader and vice-chair of the MWC General Council Faith and Life Commission, is confident that “the personalities elected in leadership positions are strong enough to take MWC to greater heights .” The shifting geography of the administration, she says, “should not deter the global faith community from achieving its set goals and objectives. “The one potential challenge she envisions is a temptation to allow a “regional economy to find room in our minds.”
As Roth observes, García shares a vision of patient growth, based on sturdy relationships built up over time. Like Miller, he is deeply rooted in Anabaptist-Mennonite theology, yet eager to build bridges with other religious traditions. He also exemplifies servant leadership, with an ability to combine strong listening skills with a clear vision.
Roth thinks that the basic theological and organizational trajectory of MWC will not change dramatically. At the same time, he hopes that locating the head office in the Global South signals even greater levels of participation and ownership of MWC by member churches outside of Europe and North America.
Rediger is glad to see MWC standing with its member churches wherever they are all over the world. He believes MWC is enriched by the decision to change locations and to work in a variety of contexts, languages, and cultures. Member churches have been on the move around the globe during the past 500 years helping to birth what we see today. The last three MWC global gatherings were in the South (India, Zimbabwe, Paraguay) so it’s time to move south with the administrative office, too.
Roth is encouraged by the recent formation of the MWC General Council Commissions. With clearer mandates and broader, more energized bases of support, the commissions should help MWC’s work become more visible and tangible “on the ground.” While much of this work is still developing Roth believes that it will provide MWC with better ways of responding to specific needs in the global church. The work that went into the “Shared Convictions of Global Anabaptists,” for example, provides a useful framework for ongoing conversations about how our various, particular identities can be nurtured within a larger Anabaptist-Mennonite theological framework.
But Roth notes that many challenges remain for the global Anabaptist body. For the rapidly growing churches of the Global South there is the happy challenge of leadership development— nurturing spiritual gifts, providing new leaders with adequate training using appropriate materials, and then allowing a new generation of leaders to find their rightful place in the life of the church.
Roth says that both North and South have a responsibility to cultivate more creatively the gifts offered by young people and women. This means paying more careful attention to education and curriculum development rooted in Anabaptist-Mennonite theology.
Some Anabaptist groups also face the challenge of responding appropriately to the growing, sometimes aggressive, presence of Islam, Roth said.
“All of us need to grow in our openness to giving and receiving gifts in the global body, including the gifts of mutual encouragement and admonition,” Roth said.
Rediger added, “Let all of us in MWC be aware of our rich spiritual and financial resources. Now with the General Secretary’s office located in the South, it’s important for us in the North to stay deeply involved—and welcome the revitalizing winds of the new southern leadership.”
Jewel Showalter is a staff writer for Eastern Mennonite Missions