Reflection: Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando, July 2017

By Addie Liechty

My experience at the Mennonite Church USA conference was…many things.  As some of you know, I signed up for this task in the midst of break up grief/mania.  I was dumped and the reason given was irreconcilable differences in regard to religion.  My check-list for processing through this break-up reads like this:

1. Sign up for Mennonite Conference with the hopes of healing all religious trauma

2. Stay up late researching all of the following thing

a. my own genealogy

b. The history of Christianity

c. The history of Judaism

d. Early Christianity and its split from Judaism

e.The history of humans

f.The history of Neanderthals (a particularly glorious rabbit hole)

g.The history of the world (It’s 4.4 billion years old!)

h.The history of the universe (it’s 14 billion years old!)

i.String theory and parallel universes

3.Write songs and poetry

4.Have many epiphanies that feel SO DEEP that will later feel rather obvious

5.Get a tattoo

6.Cry, a lot

I make jokes, but this is the type of break up mania that can only occur when it triggers one’s own trauma.  The trauma that was triggered was given to me, very clearly, by the Mennonite Church.  This is the trauma of feeling like something that I could not change did not fit into the boundaries of the community…that my otherness, my queerness, is a threat to the space, and me just being me could send my church into deep conflict…where people would yell, cry, leave and LGBTQ members would be denied membership and jobs/leadership positions.  The image of two people being denied membership was recurring during my grief process, as were dreams/nightmares where I was wandering around, trying to find my place and asking “Am I not holy, too?”

During my first introduction at the Future Church Summit session  — the dialogue process that delegates participated in to discuss the future of the Church — we were asked why we came to the convention.  I said, I am a representative for my church, but I also came to seek some healing.  We were asked to share a story with one other person, about our Mennonite journeys.  My partner shared about her experience in the 1960s of getting a divorce from an abusive husband.  She shared, with tears in her eyes, that she was ridiculed, judged and told that she could not live with the other women in the dorms at Goshen College, because she might be a bad influence.  Divorce in those days was what LGBTQ issues are today.  She shared that she went to a Mennonite Convention in the 1960s and stood strong, as she told her story.  She stated that a leader of the Mennonite Church, gave her a public apology.  As I told her my story, she made the bridge between our shared space of pain, though our stories have many unique differences.  I felt this was a promising interaction for my intention around healing.

My memories of other parts of the convention (even though it was just last week) feel somewhat swirling and a mix of deeply healing moments, with moment of clarity and also fog and dissociation.  Some of these clear moments include the message delivered by Regina Shands Stoltzfus at the inclusive worship service, as she has an ability to cut directly to the truth and give the audience a felt sense of intersectionality. (Footnote: Intersectionality is a term coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.) Regina holds that beautiful grounded heart space of both sorrow and hope, perhaps the place where new life can bloom.

Other moment of clarity was getting on stage on Friday afternoon, in front of 600 plus people in the delegate body.  I was slightly distracted because my time had been cut from 20 minutes down to 5 and I found this out 20 minutes before I was supposed to perform.  Swirling in some questions about the reasons for this last minute change, I flubbed some of the words to my poem, adding in a weird adage about “the lord” — something that was not written, but I felt that maybe I would not be taken seriously if I didn’t say “God” “Jesus” or “The Lord.” However, there was this moment when I was singing my own words, “I have felt myself get tall and I have felt myself get small.  Its what I do when I fall, for you. I won’t be less than you, I can choose to be chosen too.”  I looked out to a room and felt like I was speaking directly to the archetype of the toxic patriarch.  In that moment, I was free.

These were the types of moments when I felt like we might be moving forward, but there was another energy present.  The energy that protected the powers that be and clouded the truth while talking in code.  One such moment was when the executive board asked for “prayers” about the “issue” that we all received in “an email” about “the state of things.”  What they were referring to was the suspension of Doug Basinger, from his leadership position, due to his sexual orientation.  Before I could even explain to my table what was being talked about, the moderator, Patty Shelly, started singing from the pulpit “Lord, listen to your children praying.”  I don’t have any other description for this, except it felt gross.  I think that song might be a little ruined for me, for a while.

These cloudy moments continued in smaller group discussions as people talked about their sadness that conservative churches had left the larger Mennonite conference.  It occurred in comments about “the changes” and people in conservative churches being worried about “their children.”  One of the more aggressive moments was when a woman said that God had been on a journey with her friend and led her back to being with a man, after she had been with a woman.  She did this in front of group of 10 people, when I was the only queer person at the table.  This was the story she chose to illustrate about God being on a journey with us.  She stared me down, as she told this “testimony.”

It was soon after this interaction that a tornado warning was issued and we could hear loud thunder roaring outside.  We could have forgotten that there was an earth and elements in that sprawling and overly air conditioned convention center.  However, we were being reminded in that moment.  I had a vision of a tornado bursting right through the “Love is a Verb” (the convention theme) icon that was at the front of the room and I thought to myself, “I am not dying with these people.  I am not dying with the woman who just humiliated me. I am not dying with these white christian men, who are claiming that they are now the ones being oppressed.  I am not dying with the man in the room, who has my last name, who got up during the resolution on Israel/Palestine and said that Jewish people had not experienced pain.”  There is nothing like an anti-semite, with your last name, that will make you throw all remnants of ethnic Mennonite tribalism out the window.  That really sealed the deal for me.

In a moment that I find kind of funny now, I left the main hall during the tornado warning and went to the empty Pink Menno room, thinking it might be better to die there.  This was a likely indicator that my system was becoming a bit overloaded, after exposing myself on stage earlier that day.  I think that heart-opening had left me a bit more vulnerable.

The next day, at the final delegate session, I had my 11th hour breakdown.  As we were wrapping up conversations, I had a moment of panic.  What did we even talk about?  I felt like I didn’t know anything about these people and they knew nothing about me.  We talked about wanting the church to be centered on Jesus and following Jesus, but what does that even mean?  I think it means VERY different things to me than for the man at my table who thinks that he is being oppressed.  Someone mentioned AGAIN the loss of the conservative churches, and I broke down.  I said to the man claiming oppression, “I know that you feel oppressed and are worried for your children and I don’t know what to say to that, except that I am sad.  It feels like in order for you to feel safe and not oppressed, I have to not be here.  When I came out at 21, while at Goshen College, my body was shutting down.  I was losing weight and not eating.  It truly felt like I had to either come out or die.  If I could have stayed in the closet and survived, I would have.  So, I really don’t know what to say to you.” I then left my table and cried in the arms of Michelle Burkholder, the pastor of the Hyattsville church and the third queer pastor in Mennonite Church USA .  Interestingly, I had yet to have much of a conversation with her, but I just sensed that she was the type of person that could hold me…and, she was.

The final vote for the approval by the delegate body, for the statement put forth by the Future Church Summit, was a complete blur for me.  There was an unplanned open mic and the statement that called for a more inclusive church as well as attention towards issues of social justice became watered down.  Then people were raising their hands to approve the statement and it all went very fast.  If I had not been so exhausted and confused I would have voted no or abstained, but I didn’t do anything.  I didn’t raise my hand at all.  This was a big lesson in how power maintains, when whiteness, patriarchy, heterosexism and Christian hegemony are centered and unexamined.  Those on the margins just become exhausted and confused in trying to speak about the right just to be taken seriously or seen as fully human.  If there is one thing this experience gave me, it was infinitely more empathy for those on the margins, who are having to do this more than I am, in the queer friendly bay area.

I am glad that the conference ended when it did because I could feel myself getting a little obsessed with my own pain and trauma.  I can feel the spinning nature of that, as I read back this reflection.  I watched the Bill Maher documentary, “Religulous” on the flight home and that helped with a feeling of levity.  When I shared, with the person I am dating, some of the homophobic things that were said, she could not help but laugh.  She did not grow up with this type of Christianity or any Christianity at all, so her outsider view could mirror something else to me, something that I maybe did not need to take so seriously and allow any more power over me.  This was helpful and allowed a spaciousness and a shaking off.  It is easy to get narcissistic and grandiose about pain. (I’m sure that my whiteness intertwines somehow with that, but that is another article)

When our identities get tied to pain, letting it shake off and finding levity can feel like a death or a betrayal.  This, I think, keeps us from connection, especially across divides, that the white-heteropartriarchy power structures would like to keep divided.  My main intention is to keep this experience as an ever present point of empathy, not to overlay my experience, but connect into, just as the woman at my table did regarding her experience at Goshen, in the 60s.

My flight back made a stop in Miami.  When we landed, I looked out the window and saw a beautiful double rainbow.  I later found out, that at the same time, there was also a double rainbow that arched over the convention center in Orlando.  This was of course personally meaningful as the rainbow holds symbolism in my psyche that is both Biblical and queer.  It felt like mine and I know that it felt like it was meant for us queer Mennonites that day.  But, the truth is that it was there for everyone.  It was also a rainbow for the woman who humiliated me, the white Christian men who feel oppressed and even for the man who made anti-semitic remarks.  Do not get me wrong, I do not condone this and think this man should not be allowed at conferences with his hateful rhetoric, but I do affirm that even he is not out of the reach of the Divine.  I cannot hold these people because as their fragility shatters, shards tend to fly every which way, but the Divine can.  In the letting go of my own Christian grandiosity, I let go of any need to save anyone else.  My purpose is to save myself, or rather claim myself and then share that journey with others in the loving wish that they might do the same.  The wish that they too might feel the freedom of a Divine Companion that is too expansive for any church, any religion and any denomination.  This is the Divine Equal that proclaims you as both whole and holy from the very beginning, to the very end. This is the Divine Self.  The question that arose in my nightmare has been answered; Yes, I am holy too, and so are you.

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