Assembly 15: does it need more analysis?

The January 11 Canadian Mennonite carried a letter from Margaret Loewen Reimer, which she had first sent to the Mennonite World Conference (MWC). In it she thanked for the “colourful reports” of Assembly 15 in Asuncion, Paraguay, in the recent MWC magazine, Courier. But, she went on, “The glowing reports, as appropriate as they are, did, however, leave me with many questions and a longing for some deeper analysis.” Loewen Reimer then offered some questions she would like explored in future issues of Courier and the Mennonite press generally.

MWC president Danisa Ndlovu (left) and Lutheran World Federation general secretary Ismael Noko embrace after the LWF apology to Anabaptists at Assembly 15 in Asuncion, Paraguay. Photo credit: Lowell Brown


Although I do not currently work for the Mennonite press, I was part of the four-person Meetinghouse team that covered Assembly 15 in Asuncion, Paraguay. (Meetinghouse is an association of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ publications.) I also oversaw Assembly 15’s presentation in the MB Herald, where I was working at the time. We covered the event primarily for our papers, but shared our material with MWC for use on their website and in Courier. They had also assigned stories that they then sent us through their news service. 

I’ve been thinking about Loewen Reimer’s letter and would like to offer a few responses to it from my perspective. I hope I won’t sound defensive, because I think the questions raised are good ones, indeed. 

Let me quote Loewen Reimer’s questions and respond in turn: 

What were some of the surprises and disappointments of Assembly 15? What were people saying? Who was comfortable and who was not? What issues and events raised the most hackles? Grappling with difficulties–and differences–is surely an essential aspect of being a worldwide Mennonite body.

When I reflect on my experience of Assembly 15 and what was said in the reports, I come to the conclusion that what you read is pretty well what participants got. Lots of people, lots and lots to see and do in terms of workshops and tours and displays, lots of singing and podium stuff. Lots of diversity and a spirit of belonging together. Celebration is built into such an event and people attend with a tremendous amount of goodwill and enthusiasm. Assembly 15 took on a glow just for being what it was, and although such a full event leads to exhaustion, reports of it will glow. I don’t think there was any attempt to avoid hard issues or difficulties.What were people saying? They generally highlighted what we did — or we what they did!  

Hackles? In my report about Wednesday (we were assigned different days to cover) I noted Nzuzi Mukawa’s message was “one of the most appreciated but also controversial of the week.” He issued a strong message on following Jesus through the practice of social justice, urging the church to ordain women, for example, accept minority group leadership, and so on. Perhaps I might have elaborated on “appreciated” and “controversial.” It was one of the messages (the only? I’ve forgotten) interrupted frequently by applause. But there was also some hallway talk later suggesting his calls for political action on behalf of poorer countries were one-sided, perhaps naive. 

Anything else we missed? Someone here in Winnipeg later suggested we missed an important story in not probing more about the large Pentecostal-type congregation whose facility MWC used, and how that group fits into the mix of Catholic and Mennonite in the country. We were caught up in the story of a shifting Mennonite identity within Paraguay because of Assembly 15 — a good story. But yes, we missed that other one.

Another might be reservations some Mennonite church leaders of Paraguay had about aspects of MWC’s ecumenical engagement, particularly with the Catholic church, hinted at here. (July 18 – I.) It did not hinder the cooperative working together to host the event but it was a point of discussion, as it might well continue to be. 

I’m not sure how much attention was given the fact that people worldwide could immediately participate in Assembly 15, through live streaming, blogging and web photos going up continuously, and coverage of entire services on Chaco (Paraguay) television. Our aim as reporters was to give those who couldn’t attend as full a taste as possible of what it had been like. But in view of these other possibilities for immersion in the event, was our “traditional” print coverage, much of it landing a month or more after the event, simply old-fashioned, a little redundant? Should we have done more analysis, as Loewen Reimer suggests? It was a new and interesting shift in terms of participation that bears further analysis and may help MWC think about how we “meet” in the future.

And then there was the comment someone made to me. “You know what’s a story? 60,000 horse-and-buggy Mennonites not here.” He was referring to South America, I think, but I’m not sure if he meant their physical presence or the fact that the conservative branches of Mennonites, who are not member groups of MWC, probably don’t land on the radar of other Mennonites much. The session started and I didn’t pursue it. 

It has been a heady experience for Mennonites in recent years to hear “apologies” from Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed for their persecution and mistreatment of Mennonites…The reports of these ecumenical encounters always leave me extremely uncomfortable…. Have Mennonies apologized for being so intransigent and self-righteous?… Mennonites need a much less simplistic, and disingenuous, approach to this complex history.

“Heady” would not be the word I would ever use to describe what I witnessed and experienced of the “apology” offered at Assembly 15, from Ishmael Noko on behalf of the Lutheran World Federation, about the painful history Lutherans and Mennonites share. For me, and I believe for most in the gathering that morning, it was deeply humbling, even holy. Maybe we can be thankful that in the providence of God the two body’s representatives were both African, both from Zimbabwe, because there was something profoundly connecting and wonderful in the words they spoke to one another.

Loewen Reimer’s call for Mennonites to look at themselves and also apologize has been taken up by a number of people, including Jeremy Bergen in the same Canadian Mennonite in which her letter appeared. I in turn find myself wondering about this feeling of unease to be in the position of being asked for forgiveness. Maybe it’s uncomfortable because it puts us in a position of new “power” to release those who wish to be released from part of their history, to be healed of the “poison of the scorpion” through our forgiveness. But it also seems to me that to rush to apologies of our own could just as well be a false humility that keeps us from engaging with the hard task of forgiveness. To say that we have things needing confessing is true, but wouldn’t this be the by-product of forgiveness rather than a first response? 

The statement of forgiveness offered to Ayoreo chief Jonoine Picanerai raised a host of questions for me. Where were his words? What was his response? What is his story and how did this public ritual of forgiveness come to be? What is the current relationship between Mennonites and Ayoreo people?

I can’t give any additional detail about the ritual, as a death in the family meant my needing to leave the Assembly early. An article at Mennonite Historian, adapted from a number of sources, gives the history of this. This reconciliation occurred earlier but was “symbolized again” at the MWC closing Sunday. My sense is that it may have been a bit of “theatre,” especially for the large local audience on the final day, an important symbol for a country aware of what this means for both groups. But I’m just not sure what the thinking behind it was. As far as the current relationship goes, my understanding is that there has been much good, but there are also many challenges. In Like a Mustard Seed, Edgar Stoesz reminds that “the story of Mennonites and the indigenous people is not finished. That story so far has been written from the Mennonite perspective.” He also noted that “discontent…smolders just beneath the surface and could still become lethal.” 

Perhaps some of the questions Loewen Reimer raised will be picked up by the Meetinghouse group when they next meet to plan joint stories for the future.

If you attended Assembly 15 or followed the coverage of it, what are your questions? Do you agree that it needs more analysis?

2 thoughts on “Assembly 15: does it need more analysis?

  1. Thanks, Dora. I did not attend the Assembly and therefore found this behind-the-scenes and after-the-party-is-over report very helpful. I spend a lot of time thinking about forgiveness, so your recognition of the complexity of this issue–on both sides is very good to read.

    And you were not at all defensive. 🙂

    • Thanks, Shirley. 🙂 It is complex, that’s for sure, whether person or group-wise. There’s more discussion coming in the Canadian Mennonite, so I’m looking forward to following that.

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