Tag Archives: Community

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?: “Mothering” of a Different Kind

 

Becca Lachman

Guest post from…Becca J.R. Lachman lives with her husband Michael in Athens, Ohio, where she teaches, tutors, and writes. Her first book of poetry, The Apple Speaks, is dedicated “to humanitarian workers around the globe, but more for the families who love them.” She muses about the writing life and living simply at http://tattooedmennonite.blogspot.com/. To hear Becca read poems and discuss writing, check out this WOUB radio interview.

Do me a favor:  Imagine you’ve been asked to tell your mother’s life story. In public. In front of your family.  Your community will be there–your ancestors, too. What stories would you choose to tell? And which influences, memories, or emotions might steer your tongue?

Being a creative writer, I often ask myself these same tough questions. Sorting through complex answers helps me to write what matters, what needs to be said simply because of beauty or music or truth (I make it sound rather easy here, but if you’re a writer, you know that it’s anything but.)

One writing exercise I return to involves imagining a long banquet table surrounded by the people or events that have shaped my sense of self and, most importantly, my public voice. Sometimes, the guests around this “inner writer’s table” surprise me with their presence: my 7-year-old-self, my high school boy friend, my strict great-great grandma I never met. Other times, they’re expected, even cliché: my seemingly perfect father, or my martyred religious ancestors with tongue screws still intact.

In order to write the truth (note: not necessarily the same thing as fact), I “excuse” certain guests from my inner table, then decide who sits at the head. This inner rearranging of place settings, if you will, can shape how–and why–my stories are told.
Over the past few months, I’ve been traveling to promote my first collection of poetry. But the real goal of this self-planned book tour

Participants at a Creative Mothering workshop

is to encourage others (particularly women influenced by Mennonite Church USA) to realize the strength of their stories, and to share that truth–as Emily Dickinson puts it, to “tell it slant.” Having the courage to tell our version of a story, even our own, takes ongoing encouragement and hutzpah.

So wherever I go to share my own stories through poetry and song, I also offer free storytelling/poetry writing workshops for intergenerational women. I’m calling these gatherings “Creative (M)othering” workshops, not because I’m an expert on parenting (I don’t have children, may never have children) but because there are other, alternative ways of mothering, perhaps just as important to Anabaptist faith and culture and to new generations of feminists.

I believe that sharing our stories is a powerful form of creative mothering  (what I define as the long-term act of affirming and mentoring one another’s originality and truth).  As a writer, friend, wife, sister, daughter, and stumbling Anabaptist, it’s very important to me that mothering can also mean “to nurture, to author, or to protect” (dictionary.com). If I do have a child one day, I will teach him/her this with both my words and actions.

One reason I’ve been collecting stories is to nurture the Women in Leadership project within Mennonite Church USA. “Mennonite Monologues,” the project focus group I’m a part of, hopes to eventually collect diverse experiences for an anthology or worship resource. But at its most basic level, it simply asks Mennonite women of all ages to take the time to share their life experiences:

“As Mennonite women, we believe it is important for women in the church to share their stories, not only to value individual experience, but also to strengthen and transform communities. Historically, due to explicit and implicit patriarchy in the Christian church, women have been silenced and their stories devalued. We believe this historic reality is still present, keeping women from experiencing the freedom of full expression in their church community. We believe that our church, the Mennonite church, with its commitment to the priesthood of all believers, can honor the stories of women as a step away from patriarchy.” (excerpt from “Mennonite Monologues” mission statement draft)

At a recent poetry reading in Orrville, Ohio, a confident 20-something man introduced himself to me as “a Mennonite feminist.” His public declaration made my entire week. (It also reminded me that men of all ages need opportunities to share their stories, too.)

“I will tell you something about stories,” writes novelist Leslie Marmon Silko. “They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.” As I’ve led Creative (M)othering workshops, I’ve been inspired, challenged, and changed by the stories shared and the questions raised. I’ve giggled and cried with strangers. I’ve found the community I’d always been hoping to find in Mennonite circles. And I’ve set new places at my “inner writer’s table.”

Want to share your stories with the Women in Leadership project? Contact Becca at ms.rossiter@gmail.com for more info.

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Mennonite, Feminist, & Woman

Hilary Scarsella

Guest post from…Hilary Scarsella is a recent graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary who researches and writes on the intersection of violence against women and worship. She lives in Elkhart, Indiana as a part of the Prairie Wolf Collective and enjoys spending time with family.

This post is one in a series of posts by guest bloggers, each reflecting on what it means to be a Mennonite woman. You can check out earlier entries in the series here.

Being Mennonite has always been an important part of my self-identity. Though I attended church as a kid with my family every Sunday, I hardly ever spent time with other Mennonites during the week. It would have been rare for me even to spend time with other Christians. Consistently, my friends and peers seemed to be Jewish or Hindu or secular – anything but Christian and definitely not Mennonite. In fact, when the topic of conversation turned to religion I remember being grilled again and again. “If you’re Mennonite, how come you have electricity?” “How can you be Christian and believe in evolution?” “Do you think that God spoke the exact words that are printed in the Bible?” And, the question I answered most frequently, “How can you be a pacifist when there are horrible things happening in the world that need to be stopped?” I was aware of my Mennonite identity and thankful for it all the time, because I was made to account for it by my curious (and often critical) peers.

These days, the tables have turned, and it’s rare that I have an extended conversation with someone who isn’t Mennonite (save for my childhood and college friends, of course). I have just finished an MDiv from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and within a one mile radius from my home there is a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit, at least three Mennonite churches, AMBS (the seminary), Mennonite Church USA headquarters, Mennonite Mission Network offices, and more. Instead of my Mennonite identity causing me to seem suspect it’s what allows me to belong. Now, it is my identity as a feminist woman that seems to pose a potential threat to my credibility. I’m not sure if the feeling that this is a threat is one produced from within me or absorbed from my surroundings, but I feel it all the same. It is with gratitude that I can say many of the people around me are warmly supportive of feminist theology and work hard to undo oppression against women, people of color, people of the lower socio-economic class, people of lgbt orientations, and so on. Even so, I sense an odd undercurrent that is at least very different from the interreligious and secular subculture I grew up in.

The Madonna of Humility by Domenico di Bartolo

It is one that has me questioning my ambition. For example, I recently used a vocational assessment tool to help me discern next steps, and part of the feedback I received was, “Motivational levels are highest for Hilary when in the limelight where recognition is earned, deserved, or given.” From a feminist perspective, there is no shame in appreciating and striving toward recognition for a job well done. All people should be appropriately recognized for the work that they do. But, as a Mennonite, accepting this truth about myself – that I am motivated by the potential for recognition – feels a bit like failure; failure to be happy with simplicity, failure to be humble, failure to be selfless, failure to be Mennonite. Somehow, though I don’t think this was ever said to me explicitly, I’ve absorbed the idea that a “good Mennonite woman” is one who blends into the background and delights in helping others into the limelight. Thus, my Mennonite identity and my identity as a feminist woman have at times become tangled, each seeming to paralyze the other.

To untangle the knot, it’s been important for me to recognize and accept several things. As a Mennonite woman I find myself needing to work a bit harder than my secular female peers to feel justified in seeking out and accepting my own gifts, talents, and successes (however “success” is defined). I find myself needing to qualify and explain myself carefully when I self-identify as a feminist in church settings. I find myself needing to pay closer attention to my own mannerisms in order to prevent myself from defaulting to a more quiet and apologetic female role than is true to my nature.

On the other hand, as a Mennonite woman I also find myself supported and formed by an absolutely stellar community of people who help me hold faith and justice and reconciliation as values to center my life on. I appreciate that my Mennonite formation keeps me from getting caught up in the spirit of cut-throat competition that sometimes characterizes various feminist and professional circles. In Mennonite tradition and scholarship I find resources for valuing my “womanness” that have been essential elements of my personal, spiritual, and vocational development.

For me, being a Mennonite and feminist woman means feeling confused and stuck sometimes. It also means that joy and healing and faith are with me as steadfast friends for the journey.


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Ecclesiology in Lars and the Real Girl

“We need never ask, ‘God, what should I do?’ Because the Lord has told us what to do. Love one another. That, my friends, is the one true Law. Love is God in action.” – Reverend Bock. From the movie, Lars and the Real Girl

A few years ago, I watched a small indie movie that stuck with me. The film follows the story of Lars, a young man (played by Ryan Gosling, now of infinite feminist Tumblr fame) whose mother died while bringing him into the world. He is left to grow up with his older brother, Gus, who struggled to finish school and leave home as quickly as possible, and an increasingly distant father. These experiences early on in life leave Lars traumatized about childbirth and unable to build intimate and meaningful relationships with other humans, even his brother and sister-in-law. However, despite his limitations, Lars is kind, soft-spoken and caring, and he is a well-loved member of his small town community and the local congregation that he regularly attends.

One day, Lars announces to his family that he has met a friend, Bianca, on the internet, and that she is coming to visit. But when Bianca arrives, to everyone’s surprise, she is not a “real girl,” but instead is a life-like doll that Lars has ordered from an “adult website.” Concerned for his mental health, Lars’ brother and sister-in-law take him to a local doctor, who diagnoses him with a delusional disorder. But her prescribed treatment is surprising: she suggests that Lars’ family and friends should get to know Bianca and to treat her as a real woman.

The film that follows traces the story of Lars and his journey to healing within a loving, caring community. As the film progresses, members of the community and his family, because of their love and care for Lars, accept Bianca as one of their own. She begins to be invited to volunteer events, she is given a makeover by some of the local women, and she is accepted as a companion for Lars in public spaces like church. Slowly, in the awareness of this loving and caring community, Lars is able to process the events of his childhood and to replace Bianca with new, real relationships. 

Lars and the Real Girl paints a picture of a community that is willing to adapt and respond to the particular needs of community members, no matter how obscure or odd. Instead of responding in judgment or fear, members of the community reached out to Lars and loved him back to wholeness. As the quote above illustrates, for the community that Lars is a part of, love is the guiding and binding principle.

Although the film centers around the actions of an entire small town, and not simply one church or congregation, its themes can certainly be extrapolated and applied to ecclesiology more broadly. According to Philip Clayton in his book, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, ecclesiology raises questions about the nature of the church and the ways that it is distinctive and different from its surrounding society.  The type of ecclesiology embodied by this film suggests that the guiding principles of the Christian church are commitments to love and justice, which must necessarily manifest themselves differently in each unique church location and should be lived out and interpreted in consort with the voices and experiences of all members of each given community.

For me, in ways similar to eco-feminist theologian Sallie McFague in her book, Life Abundant, it is important to understand God as a being concerned primarily with love, in all of its many manifestations. As McFague writes, “If, however, God is the love that creates, sustains and transforms everything that is – if God is the declaration that reality is good – then all is changed. It is not, then, so important that ‘I believe in God’ as it is that I align my life with and toward this reality.” Although McFague is speaking as an individual, this statement can be extrapolated to include churches (the lived reality of ecclesiology) as well. Therefore, I see myself and the church as agents of that love, enmeshed and intertwined with the world and the communities around us and engaging all parts of creation with love. 

In her book, God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology, process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki describes a process ecclesiology. Suchocki echoes this belief that the work of the church should be focused on the pursuits of deeper senses of love, and she expands this definition to include justice (an expansion that I appreciate).  Suchocki describes the church’s fundamental purpose as such: “The church is called, by its identity in Christ, to be love and justice, to be openness and mutuality, and in the living dynamism of these qualities, continually to move into deeper forms that manifest these qualities.” This is both a fluid ecclesiology, and an ecclesiology that is inherently particular and meets the needs of the individual. For example, because of Lars’ particular historical experiences, and his need to work out human intimacy in a safe space (visibly represented by Bianca), his community needed to extend their love not just to Lars, but they needed to find ways to affirm his experience and Bianca’s existence, as well. Bianca was real for Lars, and the community took this very particular, and perhaps odd, reality seriously.

If you haven’t seen the film, I’d highly recommend it. It’s lighthearted, but also points to the very real challenges that churches face when they try to figure out how they will relate to members and to those outside of congregational walls, as well.

Tomorrow, I’ll be exploring ideas about Anabaptist and Mennonite ecclesiology. But in the meantime, share your thoughts. What does ecclesiology mean to you? How can communities responsibly care for one another in extreme situations? How do communities make space for healing?

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Every Woman Strives to Keep it All Together

Anna Yoder Schlabach, another Mennonite in a little black maternity dress

Guest post from… Anna Yoder Schlabach graduated from Goshen College in 2007 and from Iliff School of Theology in 2011 with a Master of Divinity. Anna and her husband Brian currently live in Albuquerque, NM , where they serve as leaders for Mennonite Mission Network’s Service Adventure program. They currently live with four teenagers, four chickens and one dog. They’re expecting twins in August.

The other day I received a Thirty-One catalogue from my sister-in-law who was hosting a Thirty-One party (think Mary Kay but with tote bags instead of make-up). Since I’m about six months pregnant, I flipped through the catalogue hoping to find an affordable diaper bag. And although I didn’t find what I was looking for, the content proved to be a surprising source for a little self reflection. Each page of the catalogue had a catchy slogan on it, certainly created not only to inspire women to buy bags, but to inspire women themselves. Phrases like “Smart virtuous women have goals, right?” and “Be yourself, be confident, be independent” are splashed across the pages.  These slogans were ok, but the one that really got me thinking was, “Every woman strives to keep it all together.”

While every woman may strive to keep it all together, for me the task has recently seemed more daunting. Somewhere between moving to Albuquerque to lead and live with a group of four teenagers, weathering a house fire in December, and getting pregnant  and seeing an ultrasound with not one, but two babies on it, things may have spiraled out of my control. Some of these are challenges, and some of these are gifts from God. Either way, I can’t keep it all together and I don’t think a tote bag is going to help. I may have to ask my community for help. But I’m not happy about it.

A decade ago (when I at least thought I had things under control), I was a senior in high school and considering becoming baptized.  A huge part of what eventually sold me on getting baptized was the way I saw my community responding to someone who needed help. A person in my congregation shared one Sunday morning about a medical condition that would likely leave her in a wheelchair for life. People in the congregation got up and embraced her, creating a circle of support around her in a moment of communal despair and lament. That image compelled me to join this community – a community of people asking for and receiving help. Community is one of the things that Mennonites do best.  We are a people who believe in living out the life of Christ through

I think I'll need more than a tote bag to hold it all together...

our relationships with each other. I believe that the church is the perfect place to seek help, but then why am I so reluctant to appear weak or vulnerable or like I don’t have it all together, particularly in front of my church community?

I think part of what bothers me about asking for help from my congregation is that I like being up front at church, this is part of what drew me to seminary; I enjoy leading worship and being involved in public ways.  But I always like to be prepared when I’m going to be in front of people. I like to appear that I have it all together, not only because I think it makes the worship service flow better, but because I like to present my best self, which is maybe antithetical to what worship is all about. It’s not about me, it’s about God. And it’s about following Jesus, a man who probably didn’t give a lot of thought to how his hair looked when he was speaking to the masses, or about appearing “in control” when he washed his disciples’ feet.

The real Jesus never would have done this

Plus, Jesus was always receiving from other people. He was hosted in peoples’ homes all the time and he rarely shied away from people who clearly couldn’t keep it all together. As followers of Jesus, we are called to both accept hospitality from others, and to seek help, allowing the community to respond as Jesus would to our myriad needs. Come August, I hope that I have the grace to allow others to care for me (and forgive me for showing up to church with my hair unwashed and spit-up on my shirt). This isn’t shameful, this is what it means to live in a way that recognizes that we all rely on God, that we can’t do it all by ourselves. No woman can keep it all together by herself. Thirty-One suggests that the solution is just the right combination of tote bags and motivational quotes, but I’m trying to trust that the answer is more likely found in opening myself up to the care of my community, trusting that at some point, I’ll be on the other side of the helping again.

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