AKRON, Pa. – A newly formed network of urban Anabaptist leaders, facilitated by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), is developing organically. Person by person, they are gradually connecting with each other because they share the commonality of engaging the city as Anabaptists.
The formation of the network is based on one founding principle – Anabaptist leaders who are committed to caring for the cities they live in can benefit from relating to urban Anabaptists from all parts of the world. Once connected, they will better understand how they can support each other in their efforts.
“We have Korean Anabaptists longing to be in relationship with other urban Anabaptists,” said Joe Manickam, Asia director for MCC. “We have urban Anabaptists in London who are longing to be in relationship with other urban Anabaptists. The same can be said for Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Vancouver and the list goes on.
“So this initiative is here to give credence to this voice coming out of the city,” said Manickam, who together with the Rev. Leonard Dow, pastor of Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, birthed the idea. MCC’s role is simply to connect the urban voices. Dow is vice chair of the MCC U.S. board of directors.
“We want it to remain very organic,” said Manickam. “We want it to evolve as the people want it to evolve without outside pressures telling it what it should be.”
The first steps of the network took place in August when a group of urban leaders, most from Philadelphia, flew to Seoul, South Korea, where they were hosted by the Korea Anabaptist Center (KAC). Starting with these two groups was logical because KAC already participates in MCC’s exchange programs and was interested in more interaction, and Philadelphia is home to the largest group of MCC urban constituents on the East Coast.
For participant Ron Tinsley, communications director at Philadelphia Mennonite High School, the most valuable experiences of the trip were the personal discussions and times for reflection that were amply built into the schedule. Tinsley is a member of Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.
“Sometimes we get so busy looking at programs that we don’t get a chance to understand where (the other leaders’) hearts are at and listen to their dreams and fears,” Tinsley said, adding that a prophetic sense can emerge from these kinds of conversations.
Some of the discussions, including those about stereotypes and racism, were difficult, Tinsley said. Instruction by Jeff Wright, an urban missiologist from Southern California, revolved around “theology of place” or building of intentional community in the city.
The Philadelphia guests also visited two Anabaptist churches and learned about several peacemaking organizations. KAC teaches peace-building skills to North Korean defectors and South Korean young people. The organization also works with other peace groups to create understanding of past hurts among people from South Korea, Japan and China.
When KAC Administrator Kim Kyong-Jung paid a return visit to Philadelphia and then to Los Angeles in November, he was glad to witness urban churches at work within a multicultural society. South Korea, which once was predominantly homogeneous, is becoming increasingly diverse.
“This means that many different types of conflict issues exist, which makes churches’ jobs harder,” he wrote in an e-mail after his visit. “The churches’ missional approaches are being challenged as they look to this kind of social phenomenon.”
Encouraging young people to serve in cities around the world through MCC’s Global Service Learning program is important to this emerging network. For example, Korean Jung Joo Park, who is a participant with MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), is working with Oxford Circle Mennonite Church and its community partners.
“Here in the U.S., I am valued as Asian, adding to the cultural diversity of Philadelphia, and it does not seem to matter that I am a foreigner,” Park said. “Once I go home, I hope to introduce a deeper understanding of and respect for diversity in South Korea.”
Making these kinds of “flesh and blood connections” between Anabaptists from different cities is exactly what Ruth Keidel Clemens, executive director of MCC East Coast, hopes will happen as the network develops. “Urban Anabaptist churches are a priority for MCC East Coast, and bringing its leaders together with those from other countries strengthens all involved, as we seek to engage the cities together as Anabaptists,” she said.
Clemens and Manickam are discussing possibilities for holding a conference of urban Anabaptist practitioners as another way to bring people together to learn from each other. Until then, the conversation will continue, person by person.