When my husband, Justin, and I moved to California to pursue graduate education, I had already been working for Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, for two years as a church relations associate. Through my job, I spent a lot of time talking with people about mission and Mennonite identity, and I thought I had a handle on how these concepts were defined and lived out in Anabaptist contexts.
But moving to an area as cosmopolitan and diverse as Los Angeles County meant my ideas about what mission meant had to change. L.A. County, home to more than 9.8 million people, is one of the most diverse counties in the United States. A recent study by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California found that at least 40 different languages are spoken at home by individuals in this county, and that one in three L.A. County residents was born outside the United States.1 Although the Mennonite Church USA presence in Los Angeles is small (there are 17 affiliated congregations in the county), the congregations also reflect the diversity of the county they live in, with Mennonite churches planted within the last 50 years and led by first-generation immigrants from Belize, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Korea, as well as churches that have been in existence for more than 100 years, originally planted by Swiss-German and Russian Mennonites who traveled to the area.
I quickly realized that, in this setting, I could not make same assumptions about what the Mennonite church looked like, how theology impacted mission, how Scripture was interpreted and how the Anabaptist story was lived out in particular contexts. It also meant that some of the assumptions I brought with me, as a European, middle-class, English-speaking Mennonite from Indiana, were called into question simply by virtue of the place I was living.
Sometimes, it was little things that made me aware of the assumptions that I carried within me, often subconsciously. The Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale, one of the Mennonite church’s largest regional fundraising events for international relief and development, features Nigerian puff-puff and kimchee in southern California, instead of the Swiss-German apple fritters and funnel cakes I grew up with.
“International mission” doesn’t feel very far away. In fact, many Mennonite church leaders in Los Angeles are actively involved in mission in their hometowns in Nigeria, Belize and Indonesia and in the local neighborhoods where they live. Four-part harmony is not an assumed skill, and worship services are often conducted in two or three languages. Building space, which is highly expensive and limited in crowded L.A. County, is hard to come by, and many congregations share space and/or meet in homes or parks. And the list of differences could go on. I quickly realized I would need to sit at the feet of new teachers and people who had been involved in mission in Los Angeles for many years before engaging in any major initiatives or projects. I would need to be willing to stay still, listen and learn, instead of being in the middle of the action.
As part of my master’s program, I conducted interviews with a variety of church leaders throughout Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference, which allowed me a glimpse into the theological diversity within this small conference. Although Mennonite Church USA does point to the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, published in 1995, to set a standard of denominational beliefs, it was clear in my interviews that these churches fell at different points along a broad theological continuum, each of them drawing on different tenets of Scripture and the same Anabaptist tradition to help guide the living out of faith.
Pastor Grace Pam at Los Angeles Faith Chapel in Inglewood, California, emphasized Anabaptism’s affinity with Pentecostalism and the importance 16th-century Anabaptists placed on the Holy Spirit. Other congregations were firmly committed to what they articulated as “historic Mennonite positions” of pacifism and nonviolence, and felt a strong call to public witness against injustice. Still others felt that the primary call to Anabaptists was to embody a distinctly counter-cultural community that modeled nonresistance and was not tainted by or engaged with politics.2 And this list could go on.
In his essay, Benjamin Goossen suggests two alternatives to the current plans that are underway for commemorating the 500th anniversary of the first Anabaptist baptism in 2025. One of the alternatives Goossen suggests is that “rather than thinking of Anabaptism as a single tradition, emanating from 16th-century Europe, we could celebrate it as a growing, evolving, and polyvalent entity that is constantly being reinvented in different places in the world.”
If the Mennonite Church USA members represented in Los Angeles County are any indication, such a celebration would point us towards the future development of our church, which is likely to hold within it a multiplicity of models for following Christ faithfully that grow out of a shared Anabaptist story.
But perhaps even beyond pointing us toward our future, such a celebration would in fact be a truer representation of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement anyway. From its beginnings, there was no one clear-cut and monolithic Anabaptist movement, even in the 16th century. That’s why we could have something like the Muenster rebellion, where a group of radical Anabaptists tried to undertake a violent revolution to install an Anabaptist government. Or why we had two different confessions of faith, the Schleitheim and Dordrecht confessions, each with different nuances and emphases.
If the purpose of a 500th-anniversary celebration is to point back to one particular moment as the utter essence of what it means to be an Anabaptist, or to call us to return back to some previous pure Anabaptist vision, the project will inherently be set up to fail. There has never been one cohesive Anabaptist narrative. But if this celebration is meant to invite us into conversations about the intersecting stories and threads that have been woven together to create the Anabaptist-Christian story over the last 500 years, then the events of these next 10 years, planned by Mennonite World Conference leaders, will be a wonderful opportunity to re-learn who we are.