What surprised me the most at the graduate student conference hosted by the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre (TMTC) on June 14-16 was the prayer gathering that happened each morning. I expected that only two or three people would appear, but I was wrong; more than 20 people came. Of course, not everyone attended but a large number of people joined.
The theological dialogues brought us together, as did the prayers. The prayers reminded all of us the main reason why we chose to study theology and why we have gathered at this conference. It even helped me to realize that we are not merely colleagues in theological studies but sisters and brothers in Christ who are serving Christ’s body.
This was the eighth biennial graduate student conference, which brings together emerging Mennonite theologians from across North America. It featured 22 student presenters from 15 different institutions across North America, and the range and quality of the theological conversations it generated was impressive. All but three of the sessions were concurrent so I will concentrate on the sessions that gathered us together, all of which were informative and engaging.
The first session, facilitated by Sarah Kathleen Johnson, was entitled “Shaping the sung theology of the future Mennonite Church.” In addition to being a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, Sarah is the worship resources editor for Voices Together, the new worship and song collection for Mennonite churches in North America. She reported on the work the Mennonite Worship and Song committee has been doing and spoke about how its members are trying to make this hymnal as inclusive as possible. They are seriously considering how race and ethnicity, class and economic status, ability, gender and sexuality, theological diversity, colonialism and nationalism influence Mennonite theology and faith community.
Time was set aside to ask questions and offer advice to the committee as well. We were reminded that what we sing shapes our theology, hence we need to be mindful of the theology behind each song and critically consider if it is something that we would like to hold on to or discard.
On the second evening of the conference, Lydia Neufeld Harder, former TMTC director and current senior fellow, was the keynote lecturer. Lydia presented important points from her recently published book The Challenge is in the Naming: A Theological Journey (CMU Press, 2018). Kimberly Penner, a recent Toronto School of Theology PhD graduate and TMTC research fellow, and Maxwell Kennel, a TMTC associate and doctoral student at McMaster University, responded to the lecture. Lydia spoke about her experience and her challenges as a feminist Mennonite in the academic world. She encouraged the participants as young scholars and future church leaders, and told us that our work and study as theologians are meaningful and honourable.
The last session of the conference was a workshop led by Carol Penner, assistant professor of theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College, entitled “Conferences, experiences, interpretations.” She encouraged relaxed interaction amongst the attendees in a way that made everyone feel welcomed. During this time, we reflected upon all the sessions, lectures, and dialogues, and they shared in small groups. We discussed what we learned, identifying some takeaways and challenges that relate to our studies and our faith.
In other conferences, I would always leave overwhelmed with new insights, having lacked the time to digest and ponder them deeply, but this workshop allowed space to reflect on the experience.
Kyle Gingerich Hiebert, the director of TMTC, and the planning committee of graduate students organized and staged the conference. Several professors from Conrad Grebel University College joined us throughout the conference, taking an interest in our theological work and providing feedback.
I hope and pray that this spirit of collegiality continues into the next of these conferences, which is scheduled to take place at Eastern Mennonite University in 2020, and that the theological projects that we are currently wrestling with individually and together as emerging Mennonite theologians will contribute not only to academia but also to the church and to the world.
Founded in 1990, TMTC is a graduate teaching and research centre of Conrad Grebel University College, affiliated with the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto. TMTC helps form theological leadership for the church by providing and supporting graduate theological education, particularly at the doctoral level, from a Mennonite perspective in an ecumenical context.