Identity, Leadership, and Mennonite World Conference - Reflections on conversations in Asia

Winnipeg, Canada – “Our children and young people have no idea what it means to be Anabaptist or Mennonite. What is MWC going to do about that?” This concern, forthrightly expressed, came from a congregational leader in India during one of dozens of teaching sessions in which I participated October 14 to November 18, in India and Indonesia. 
The leader’s challenge was at the heart of why MWC member churches in the region had invited my spouse Irene and me, along with MWC North American representative Bert Lobe and his wife Martha, on this fraternal visit, under MWC’s Global Gift Sharing project (see sidebar).
The welcome we received was overwhelmingly positive. Sapira Biswas of India summed this up as follows: “The simple, motivating teaching has encouraged us to be active leaders of our own congregations and society. [The] sessions have provided a clear notion of Anabaptist conceptions and made us aware of our mandates as true disciples of Jesus.” 
Pastors, Bible teachers, evangelists and other church leaders in both countries echoed similar concerns to that of the Indian leader. Their feedback highlighted two important realities:  In Asia there is a profound and passionate recognition that church identity actually matters; and church leaders acknowledge that existing energies, gifts, time, and expertise have not been harnessed to address this concern as a priority. 
Often the concern for identity came up when discussing the challenges of leadership and pastoral development. The pastors in one of the synods in Indonesia, for example, had graduated from 43 different seminaries – none of them Anabaptist-related. We understood why the conference leaders spoke of how difficult it is to embrace a common Anabaptist identity. 
The flip side, however, was the pure amazement, joy, and resonance that leaders expressed when they heard focused and articulate presentations of what the Radical Reformation theological stream has added to the other streams, both in history and in their present realities.
In one workshop for women and youth (age 35 and under) in India, the group asked for an additional session to learn more about the history and theology of the Radical Reformation. One of the slides I developed was a very simple explanation of the profound shifts in understandings of church and discipleship in the 4th century when the Christian faith became legal and obligatory in the Roman Empire. This was very new to the participants. 
A week later, as we visited congregations in the Raipur region in India, the young people who had attended the first workshop had already convened all the young people of the zone – more than 100 – to share with them the slide that I had developed. “Now we can see that it makes a difference what we connect to,” they said.
Does churchly and theological identity matter? While we all desire to be “Christian” before we are anything else, the fact is that we are “Christian” according to some identifiable theological foundation. Even those who espouse generic, non-denominational identities have foundations that distinguish them from others. A non-choice is also a clear choice.
“So what is MWC going to do about it?” To the leader in India, I responded with two points. First, MWC member churches have together identified Shared Convictions of Global Anabaptists that address the concern of identity. We have generated written resources to flesh-out these convictions further, including  What we Believe Together, by Alfred Neufeld; From Anabaptist Seed, by Arnold Snyder; and A Culture of Peace, by Alan and Eleanor Kreider and Paulus Widjaja. The Global Gift Sharing project brings churches into contact with other churches around the world.  MWC has also initiated conversations with the Catholics, Lutherans, and Seventh-Day Adventists to explore the fruit of identity together. 
Second, I said, local leadership must give MWC’s contributions arms, legs, and feet – in congregations, conferences, seminaries, and Sunday schools. MWC can be present with all through the resources it generates.  However, MWC staff and board members cannot be present in every home and congregation, each day and each Sunday.  Ultimately, this responsibility must also be assumed by leaders in the churches, and parents in the homes of children and young people. 
-  Robert J. Suderman
In 2004, Mennonite Church Canada identified the teaching gift of Robert J. (Jack) Suderman and offered his time to do theological teaching in the global MWC community, as part of the Global Gift Sharing project.  While still serving as General Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada. he conducted teaching sessions in Honduras (2007), Philippines (2008), and Ethiopia (2010), and following his retirement in August 2010, he undertook  the India and Indonesia trip. Suderman serves on MWC’s Peace Commission as assistant secretary, and as co-secretary of the MWC/Seventh Day Adventist conversations. Jack and Irene live in Winnipeg, Canada. 
The global teaching visit of Robert J. (Jack) and Irene Suderman and Bert and Martha Lobe October 14 to November 18 took them to four cities in Indonesia, and four in India (see main article). In each location national leaders from the MWC member churches joined them in the teaching tasks. Among them was Melani Susanti, an Indonesian member of MWC’s Youth Task Force, who accompanied the team in both countries, addressing concerns related to youth. In India, a veteran women’s leader, Rachel Bhag, worked with Cynthia Peacock (MWC’s Deacons Commission chair), Martha, Irene and the rest of the team in encouraging the churches to recognize the gifts of women. 
The teaching team conducted a total of thirty-two sessions on topics ranging from “Anabaptism and Pluralism” to “The Church’s Witness to Peace,” “Anabaptism and Gender,” “The Role of Women in the Leadership of the Church,” “Understanding the Church as Missional,” “Young People and MWC,” and “The Role of the Church in a Multi-Cultural Society”. 
The visitors also spent time with national and regional church leaders, visiting congregations, participating in worship services, and touring various church organizations, development projects and in India, the Mennonite Central Committee offices.  In all locations, they had opportunities to present the vision, mission, and purpose of MWC and to bring a face of MWC closer to these member-churches. 
Some of the teaching venues were at the congregational level and others involved leaders from several church bodies at once. In India, for example, two workshops included all 10 MWC member-churches from India and Nepal. In Indonesia, the visit generated a rare occasion that brought leaders of the country’s three Mennonite synods together to discuss ministry, identity, and their common membership in MWC.  
- Byron Rempel-Burkholder
MWC news service 
Photos available on request: 
1. Robert J. (Jack) Suderman (left) and MWC Executive Committee member Adi Walujo (right) of the Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa (GITJ) Mennonite Synod share the podium at a teaching session in Indonesia. Photo: Bert Lobe. download (659KB)
2. Moderators and general secretaries of the 3 Indonesian synods (JKI, GITJ, GKMI) during the full day meeting held in Semarang along with Irene and Jack Suderman (second row, 3rd and 4th from left), Melani Susanti (in front of Irene) and Bert Lobe (seated front row, far right). Adi Walujo, GITJ vice general secretary and MWC executive committee member, is seated first at the left and Paulus Widjaja, GKMI general chairman and MWC Peace Commission secretary, is seated fourth from the left. download (1.1MB)
3. Leaders from 10 MWC member churches at the All-India leaders’ gathering in Vizagapatnam, India, November 4-9. Visiting teachers include Jack and Irene Suderman (second row, centre), Cynthia Peacock (second row, first on left), Melani Susanti (first row fourth from left), and Martha Lobe (to the right of Melani). Photo: Bert Lobe.  download (889KB)
4. Robert J. (Jack) Suderman in a teaching session at the All-India leaders’ Conference in Vizagapatnam, India, November 4-9. Left to right: Jack Suderman, Satyen Basumata, Joren Basumata, Mrs. Raja Rao, Emmanuel Minj. Photo: Bert Lobe. download (868KB)
5. Women singing at the Conference for Women and Youth held in Vizagapatnam in India. Rachel Bhag, Irene Suderman, Cynthia Peacock, Martha Lobe and Melani Susanti provided input at the conference. Photo: Bert Lobe.  download (680KB)