“Jesus calls us to life-long journeys of faith—shaped in part by our age and stage in life. Faith practices are deepest and richest when our Christian community embraces and nurtures all these different ages and stages of our lives in a variety of contexts.”
These words from an overview of the goals of the planners of the first-ever “Deep faith: Anabaptist faith formation for all ages” conference held at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Elkhart, Ind., last fall, resonated with the goals of Mennonite Women Canada and MW U.S.A. to encourage women to nurture life in Christ, acknowledge and share their gifts, and hear and support each other, as we serve/minister across the street and around the world.
So we decided to help sponsor and support this conference, which offered three keynote speakers and 30 workshops, 19 of them led by women. It was inspiring to observe the ways in which women and men learned about different aspects of nurturing faith together, encouraging and empowering each other for the varied ministries in which we serve.
In her “Making room for formation: Practically communicating hospitality” workshop, Shannon Dykus, conference planning group member and co-pastor of First Mennonite Church, Indianapolis, Ind., explored the nature of Christian hospitality and how the practice of this helps people become ever more like Jesus—especially in the offering of hospitality to “the stranger.”
Much of her presentation grew out of the practical realities her urban congregants face as they learn to relate to vulnerable strangers who may join them during worship, and highlighted the importance of experiencing both the difficulties and the goodness of hospitality, while remaining true to themselves.
Her example of engaging with a vulnerable, possibly unemployed stranger in conversation, stands out in my memory. Often we ask newcomers to our worship services about their place of work, but clearly that’s not the way to start a comfortable, hospitable conversation with an unemployed person. Alternatively, perhaps telling them a bit about why you like worshipping at this church could open the way for them to share something they enjoyed during that morning’s worship service.
Dykus concluded her session with a prayer that I believe, if prayed regularly, could deepen our practice of hospitality and strengthen faith formation in all of us: “Jesus, make our hearts ever gentler and more humble, so that we may be present to those you have entrusted to our care, and in this way make us instruments of your love, which gives life and joy and real freedom. Amen.”
And in a plenary presentation on “Ordinary time forgiveness,” Rachel Miller Jacobs, spiritual director and assistant professor of congregational formation at AMBS, noted that forgiveness is an aspect of faith formation that presents a somewhat unique challenge for Anabaptists who value the virtue of peace and “reconciliation as the centre of our work.” She said that Anabaptists “often experience difference and disagreement as a terrible departure from the way things ought to be, and forgiveness as a grudging duty.”
So we need to develop forgiveness skills in the everyday offences we all commit and endure. Her illumination of the Greek word afieme—often translated as “forgiveness,” but which can also be translated as “letting go, remitting, cancelling, releasing or sending away”—widened our understanding of this, and provided some good ways forward in dealing with a biblical mandate we hold so dear.
Another workshop on “Women empowering women,” by Marlene Bogard, staff person for MW U.S.A., drew attention to the ways in which doing something “like a girl” still carries more negative associations than positive ones. Women still need empowerment, which can begin by naming, noticing and celebrating each other through intentional friendships. She shared stories and research data that indicate that women’s minds are hardwired for friendships. Women tend and befriend, creating deep relationships that can counteract stress, allow vulnerability and create belonging. She explained that friendships among women empower the deepening of faith in our lives as followers of Jesus, allowing us to be who God created us to be.
Shirley Redekop of Elmira, Ont., began as president of Mennonite Women Canada last July. She now works as a full-time outreach worker for House of Friendship in Kitchener.