We Are Still Willing
When my father was ordained in the Franconia Mennonite Conference (now called Mosaic), he was given a beautiful Fraktur piece as a gift of welcome from the conference. It's something I grew up with, so I never really considered its beauty until my dad died and my mother insisted that I have it. It's full of rich, bright colors and has a bird (a pheasant?) on the left grasping onto flowers and the traditional closing statement of the Franconia Conference on the right: "We are still willing to continue in the simple and nonresistant faith in Christ, looking for that blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ." The very first line (We are still willing) is written out in big, flowing calligraphy and is at least four times bigger than the rest of the passage. It's gorgeous, and I'm so grateful my mother passed it on to me. As I reflect on my experience at Mennonite Convention 2023 in Kansas City, that big first line jumps out at me:
We are still willing.
I have been to six of the last twelve conventions. My first two—Nashville and Atlanta— were as a youth. I went to Pittsburgh in 2011 as a youth sponsor. In 2017, I was invited to be part of the Future Church Summit in Orlando. And then I went two years ago to Cincinnati and this year to Kansas City as a representative of Mennonite Women.
There was just a different vibe this year. I heard it commented on over and over. It just felt…comfortable. Now if you had asked me prior if the other conventions I’d been to had been uncomfortable, I don’t think I would have agreed. But now that I’ve been to a “post schism” convention I can see how they were just that: uncomfortable.
At the Pittsburgh convention in 2011, there was a “Listening Circle” on “LGBT issues.” It was, for me personally, awful. I grew up a little bi girl in the church and had only come to understand and embrace my sexuality a few years prior to this at college. I worried I would never fully belong in the church I loved, and the vitriol against us that was being given equal mic time to the pain of LGBTQ folks felt like clear evidence that me and my siblings were still not welcome.
When I came back to convention in Orlando in 2017 for the Future Church Summit, the first convention since the contentious Kansas City gathering, things were, well, weird. There was anger, desperation, fear, and— despite the rest—hope. We were walking on eggshells and trying to figure out how to be in community, but we all showed up to try together. Well, most of us were trying.
But then so many left MC USA in the following years both before and after we repealed the membership guidelines. And then there was COVID. Convention in Cincinnati in 2021 was even weirder than Orlando, if that’s possible. It was so small and we weren’t quite sure how to gather again yet. It was wonderful to be together, but it still felt so incomplete.
Coming into convention this year in Kansas City, I had no idea what to expect. I just knew it would be a far cry from the huge 5,000+ people conventions of my youth, and I hoped the contentious atmosphere of earlier gatherings were behind us.
We are still willing.
The community that gathered this year in Kansas City were those who are still willing. There were still pink t-shirts and rainbow ribbons on our nametags, but they weren’t needed like they have been in past years. We all knew that those who gathered together this year were those who are still willing to be church with their LGBTQ siblings. There was a sense of calm, of peace, of unity.
While at our Mennonite Women booth in the exhibit hall, I had the opportunity to engage in this unity first hand. I had a long and lovely chat with a trans youth about our welcoming stance and their experience in the church. I spoke with an elder who was moved by the pride post I’d created and used it in their church bulletin. I shared with her how creating that post had healed part of that wounded bi girl growing up in a church that didn’t accept her. I also relearned how to knot a comforter at the MCC booth right next to ours and helped some youth with queer Mennonite trivia at the Big Booth for Intersectional Justice. And I heard, over and over, that this convention felt different, felt like a deep breath after holding it in for too long.
We who remain are those who are still willing. Still willing to defend, expand, and challenge this church we love. Still willing to live in forbearance and unity with a myriad of understandings. Still willing to give up our Fourth of July BBQs. Still willing to call ourselves Mennonite. I’m so glad we can all be church, together.
Brooke Natalie Oyana
MW USA Trustee