Byron Rempel-Burkholder and Chuwang Pam in conversation (Credit: James C. Juhnke)

We will receive a vision of Anabaptism for the new millennium when we find freedom in allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us.We might begin with the story of Moses, who, when faced with the Amalekites, was instructed by God to keep his hands raised up. (Exodus 17:11-16) And Moses complied. But the Bible says that after a while his hands began to tire and so he called on two of his assistants, Aaron and Hur, and they helped him. And as long as Moses’ arms were lifted up, Joshua was winning the battle. But the moment his hands began to sag, the children of Israel began to lose.

I strongly believe that in searching for an identity in this millennium, especially in the twenty-first century, we have to understand that some of us are going to play the role of Moses, some of us are going to play the role of his two assistants, and some of us are going to be there in the trenches fighting the battles. Without the soldiers, without Moses, without his assistants, there is no victory.

Our search for identity has often been caught in a crossfire of conflicting ideas and philosophies. Some Mennonites approach this search for identity in fear. They see their main stronghold eroding. They fear that they will be giving up something in the process of transformation. They fear the newness of unity. But I want to strongly say something here to you my brothers and sisters. Whether you are Swiss, German, or Russian you are not giving up anything; actually you are gaining something. I believe that the identity we are talking about here is to see the face and the spirit of Christ. And so I just want to encourage people who by God’s divine purpose happen to have a Mennonite tradition by saying that I have no Mennonite roots whatsoever. I may be black, but I am not even African-American. I am African. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that I am as Mennonite as any one of you sitting here today.

I think that we should look deeper than our roots. We should begin to look at what prompted Menno Simons, Harold S. Bender, George R. Brunk, and the others. Let’s look at the forerunners of this wonderful vision, what it really cost them to be what they were. They had a problem in their hands. They were not satisfied with the system at that particular moment and that’s why they broke out. And God then gave them this vision.

Many times when people get a vision, they don’t see its end. Look at what happened to Moses for instance. God took him up to the mountain and showed him the promised land. Did Moses make it to the promised land? No. Did Aaron make it? No. But did they have the vision? Yes, they had the vision. And that’s why God told Habbakkuk, Write your vision on stone. Write it boldly so that he who sees it will read it and carry it with speed. (Habakkuk 2:2) I believe that right now we have caught the vision, and we owe it to ourselves to run with the vision.

Let me say that if God gives you a vision, God wants you to transform the vision into mission. I strongly believe that in this millennium the identity for the Mennonite church should be found in three words: mission, mission, and mission. Nothing else. We are not here by accident. With so much going on in the world, I ask myself why God picked me out from Africa? I had a prosperous business; I was in politics; and I was called by God. Why did God pick me out from Africa and send me to America? My peers were governors; my peers were senators. And I said, Why did you bring me to America? And the Lord said to me, I’m going to place you where you will be a vessel.

I strongly believe that traditional Mennonites should begin wholeheartedly to embrace some of us newer Mennonites. We bring something to the table that you probably don’t have. Look at what happened to the seven churches in the book of Revelation. They all had some good and positive characteristics. But God told one of the churches, But! This I have against you. (Revelation 2: 14)

My fear, brothers and sisters, is that the Mennonite church will become lackadaisical and relaxed, and let down its guard. We may be content with these great traditions and big structures. Then what will it be that God has against the Mennonite church? I strongly believe it’s up to us to answer.

The woman with the issue of blood had a vision. (Matthew 9: 20-22) She had a purpose. She was aiming to touch that which God had ordained her to touch. We too should look at Jesus Christ, and we should aim at touching what Jesus Christ would be glorified with. If our search for a new identity is simply to support the existing structures, we will have questions to answer. If our search for identity is simply to reinforce our glory, we will be missing the mark. Look at what’s happening right now in Los Angeles. Right now as I talk to you, we are on the march for full realization of the new Mennonite church. Today the pure Anglo churches in southern California are a minority. Today the majority are people of color -- Africans, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. That to me is just a glimpse into what God in this millennium expects the Mennonite church to look like.

We all bring something to the table. We all have something to offer one another. If people are looking at heaven from just one direction, then they will be bored in heaven because heaven is going to be full of colors. So I believe that God is beginning right now to infuse into us what heaven is going to look like.

In our search for an identity in this twenty-first century, our task is to hold on to what God has given us right now. The next generation will one day ask what did we do at this particular time. There is so much happening right now in the urban areas. I really appreciate those of you who have given and are still giving to foreign missions. But many of the programs that I’ve seen in the Mennonite church are little more than social programs. They may have a little taint or a spice of religion, but they otherwise seem cut off from their spiritual source. I must tell the truth, for the truth will make us free.

I believe that now is time for us to incorporate Anabaptist theology. Before I made up my mind to bring my congregation into the Mennonite church, I did my research. I did my homework, and I discovered that the Mennonites had something that was really needed in this twenty-first century. I come from a big urban city and I have some good news for you. The Mennonite church is again setting a new trend in what is called mission. Mennonites are embracing people of color.

The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of pain. There is a lot of healing that must take place. Our African-American brothers feel that it is too early to begin to loosen up because they are still healing from the bondage of slavery and discrimination. I know that God through the power of his spirit will give us the fortitude, will give us the strength and encouragement to persevere. Like the woman with the issue of blood, it was not easy; she had to pass through the crowded multitude. But she knew what she had to do. She faced obstacles in pushing forward to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. Perhaps even her family discouraged her. But she did not lose hope.

As we continue to search for a new identity we will hear some discouraging remarks. We will come across obstacles, barriers, and bridges to cross. But like the woman with the issue of blood we must not give up. We owe it to the next generation to hold onto this new vision and search for Jesus Christ in everything we do. That to me is the true identity.