The house of God is never finished

Timo Doetsch, youth pastor at Evangelisch Mennonitsche Freikirche, Dresden, Germany, and General Council member for Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Brudergemeinden in Deutschland (AMBD), interviewed former Deacon Commission secretary and new MWC president Henk Stenvers.

How was it for you to lead the Deacons Commission?

I’ve been in secretary of the Deacon Commission for 10 years. It was an inspiration and I always enjoyed the work. Although it sometimes was a lot, it is wonderful to be able to visit so many churches, sometimes very small, sometimes in very rural areas.

Not only do you do the work of the Deacons Commission, you don’t only bring, let’s say, greetings from Mennonite World Conference, you also let people feel that they are part of the family.

But also for me personally, it was enriching. It changed my faith in good ways. I guess I’ve gotten more faithful.

How did Online Prayer Hour begin?

The Deacons Commission came together with MWC Communications in the first period of the lockdown in 2020. So many people were affected by this. We thought, it might be good to organize an online prayer just to pray for coping. The first time, there were immediately 60, 70 people. And it got such a positive response that we said we’ll do it again in September.

Then we got 90 people. Okay, then we’ll do it in November again. And all the time it was done by Arli Klassen coordinator of the regional reps, and by me (for the Deacons) and by Karla Braun of the communications team.

Then, MWC decided to make it an official international event. We had a wonderful time organizing this with the whole Assembly tech team with Liesa (Unger) and everybody. So, it became a steady event every two months.

After the Assembly, the tech team will not be there anymore, but we have already decided that we will go on.

Could you describe some of the Deacons Commission projects?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is of course the COVID-19 task force.

The Deacon’s Commission is responsible for the Global Church Sharing Fund together with the general secretary. This is for member churches in the Global South to apply for money for projects. We decided in 2020 to turn it into a COVID-19 task force, in cooperation with Mennonite Central Committee. And that was really, really successful.

We supported something like 54 COVID-related projects in many countries. We disbursed more than $500,000, while we never gave one project more than $10,000 US.

And the response from churches, from individuals, from funds was really encouraging.

So in the end, we could support all projects that fulfilled the criteria.

And it was a great cooperation. That task force brought together all the different Mennonite relief organizations in Zoom meetings just to inform each other what they were doing in relation to COVID-19 so they could also coordinate some of their projects.

I think it was wonderful how MWC can be the connecting organization between all those organizations that do all those projects.

Do you see a connection to the other Commissions?

Well, that is strong, especially to the Peace Commission. In the course of the years, we have done several projects together. Two times we did [solidarity] visits together. We have written letters together when a national church is having problems, especially with wars or conflicts.

Every month, we have a meeting between the secretaries of the Commissions. We discuss very openly and have very good cooperation.

You’re stepping back from the Deacons Commission. What do you think are future challenges and key issues for the Deacons?

The shepherd’s staff was gifted to J. Nelson Kraybill in Pennsylvania by Calvin Greiner, a charismatic preacher who walked around the Assembly 16 host city praying. “After a number of trips, Calvin Greiner learned that the Mennonites were about to have an Assembly there, and that a Pennsylvania native would be installed as president. Then it made sense to him why God sent him to Harrisburg so often!” says J. Nelson Kraybill. Pictured: Hens Roesita Sara Dewi (Interpreter: EnglishIndonesian), Maria Hoffscholte Spoelder, Henk Stenvers, J. Nelson Kraybill. Photo: Nelson Okanya

Well, of course the creation care challenge.

Also you see in more and more countries there is either violence or division or polarization. In the coming years, there will be more work for the Deacons Commission, especially with delegation visits to encourage and just let the member churches know that they are part of the global church.

For example, we visited the Wounaan, an Indigenous people living in the forest between Panama and Colombia. Many of them are Mennonite Brethren. They have problems with illegal logging on their land. They asked us to come, but they said, very seriously, ‘we don’t ask you to solve our problems, because you can’t. We ask you to pray for us and to tell the world what is happening.’ That’s exactly what it’s about.

Can you share one of your most favourite Scripture passages?

Well, that’s always a difficult question because it depends on the situation. 1 Corinthians 12 – about the body of Christ – for me at the moment, that’s one of the most important.

Also Sermon on the Mount because those are key passages about trying to be a peacemaker, to work for peace, reconciliation, to have attention for the ones who are having less chances.

And Philippians 4:7: there is a peace that we cannot understand and don’t need to understand, but it guards our hearts and minds.

Can you recommend a book, a song or a movie?

Jonathan Sachs, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has written wonderful books about the books of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It was really an eye opener to read how from the Jewish tradition he looks at all those stories that sometimes we find confusing.

You will be in the new president of MWC. What thoughts on your mind about it?

It feels like a big responsibility; however, after four years of being president elect, I don’t know if I’m ready, but let’s begin. In MWC, we work as a team: the officers, Executive Committee, staff – we all work together.

I feel honoured and humbled to stand in that line of presidents.

You come from the Netherlands and among the MWC churches, the European church is tiny. What is your take on this?

In MWC, it is typical that it is not important where you come from. The people don’t choose you because of your country. They choose you because they know you.

I think people chose me because they know me. I’ve been in global life since 2003. Being a General Council member, I became secretary of Deacons Commission in 2012. I have been Europe representative at the same time from 2014 to 2020. So I have been in many places and met many people in the global church.

MWC is a platform where we should be able to talk about anything. If not in official dialogue, then person to person, with respect, without judging, without splitting. That’s important, I think, if our desire to be a peace church is real, then we should not solve problems by splitting. Accepting that people are coming from different contexts and start reading the Bible together and try to explain what you read and what they read, and then maybe you could come to better understanding.

What will be important for you during your presidency?

Well, I think one of the things we see more is problems with leadership in churches. And I think that MWC can play a role in trying to resource people for church leadership. We want to foster leaders who are not glued to their chairs, but ready to give over to somebody else without a conflict. Those things will be important.

You’ve used the image of the Sagrada Familia cathedral for the church. Can you explain more?

I like the idea of a cathedral as the house of God.

The people that started to build a cathedral never saw it ready. So you have to have a lot of trust to start building. It is said that architect Antoni Gaudí really didn’t want to finish it. He wanted to keep building all the time.

I think that’s a wonderful parallel. The house of God is never finished. It’s solid, but you have to keep building.

But then the other thing is that when you walk around the Sagrada Familia, you see first a part that was designed by Gaudí. It’s wild with all kinds of interesting images. You go around and then you see the part that was designed after his death. Totally different. And there are more parts that are designed by other architects.

This is a very diverse building; still, it is one. It reaches up to God and it’s never finished.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2022.

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