Hidden in plain sight

A version of this editorial was originally published in the June 2016 issue of The Mennonite.

By John D. Roth, Director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism


At a recent Sunday morning in my home congregation, Elijah and Priscillah Metekai, longtime members of our church, invited everyone to enjoy hot tea and a few other traditional Kenyan delicacies following the worship service.

For nearly a decade, Elijah and Priscillah have been working tirelessly, alongside their regular jobs, to support villagers from their home community of Kimuka in Maasailand, Kenya.

The primary focus of their efforts has been on education, especially assisting needy students with school fees, helping women learn skills that can supplement their incomes, and strengthening the rich cultural traditions that have long been part of Maasai identity.

In many settings during the past years, Elijah and Priscillah have shared with our congregation stories from their village: reports of drought and celebrations of rainfall, concerns about ethnic tensions during a national election, the completion of a well, pictures of joyful schoolchildren who had just received new textbooks.

Over time, our congregation has developed a sense that in some small but tangible way, we are connected with Kimuka. Clearly, we are not experts in Kenyan history, politics or culture, and we have no grand vision of responding to all of the challenges the people in Maasailand are facing.

But Elijah and Priscillah, along with their two children, are deeply embedded in our community—we care about Kimuka, in part, because they care about Kimuka. They are a bridge that has opened up a part of the world to us that we otherwise would never have known.

And we are joined to other parts of the global church as well. Right now, four young people associated with our congregation are serving in three separate assignment in Bolivia. Another young man has been working with Jubilee Partners in Comer, Ga., in a special outreach to newly arrived immigrants.

International students, retired missionaries and former service workers in our congregation remind us of a dozen other connections to the world.

But the amazing is that my congregation is not unique.

A survey conducted by the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen College (Ind.) in 2014 revealed that 40 percent of congregations in Mennonite Church USA have some kind of special relationship with a sister congregation outside the United States.

Seventy-nine percent of the respondents have members in their congregation who have served with Mennonite Central Committee; 55 percent have members who have served with a Mennonite mission agency. On any given Sunday, Mennonite churches in the United States will hold worship in at least two dozen different languages.

Our connections with the global church are also evident in local conferences—not just on the east and west coasts, where immigrant Mennonite congregations are flourishing, but also in the Midwest.

In the mid-1990s, for example, Illinois Mennonite Conference collaborated with the Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Árgentina in a partnership called Arm in Arm. Initially the focus of the partnership was to support Argentine Mennonite congregations in an aggressive program of church-planting in the Patagonia region.

But as relationships deepened over time, participants began to ask whether the mission-minded Patagonians could help inspire a renewed commitment to local missions back in Illinois. So in 2004, Arm in Arm invited Juan and Amaris Sieber to spend time with the churches of Illinois conference, encouraging and equipping them in a sustained initiative focused on church planting.

Separated as we are by geography, culture and language, it is sometimes easy to think of the global church as a distant abstraction.

Yet traces of the global Anabaptist fellowship are all around us.

In the coming weeks, I would challenge you to:

  • Make a list of all the individuals in your congregation who have had a significant connection to a country outside North America.
  • Create a space in your worship to name and to honor their insights and experiences.
  • Ask them to reflect on similarities and differences in worship style, interpreting Scripture, collecting the offering, sharing testimonies or simply bearing witness to the good news of the gospel.

The global church is already here, hidden in plain sight.