Philadelphia Conference Celebrates
Many Stories, One Kingdom
by Laurie L. Oswald and John E. Sharp
Photos by Laurie L. Oswald
"Philadelphia Stories: Kingdom
Building in the City," April 3-5, 2003, was sponsored by the Mennonite
Church USA Historical Committee and the Mennonite and Brethren in
Christ churches in the city.
Goals of the conference included
reflecting on the history of the Mennonite presence in Philadelphia and
examining any barriers that exist between races and peoples in order to
build new bridges. Tuyen Nguyen and Nate Yoder co-chaired the
thirteen-person planning committee that shaped the conference. Nguyen
is a research scientist and leader in the Vietnamese Mennonite Churches
in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. Yoder is the outgoing Historical
Committee chair and assistant professor of church history at Eastern
Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Va.
Through storytelling and academic
presentations, the planners wanted to create a setting where some of
the hurt and pain from the past on such issues as racism or gender
discrimination could be shared. They also wanted to provide pastoral
sensitivity for any journey toward healing and reconciliation. While
such a journey could not be completed in three days, the planners hoped
that perhaps some tiny steps could be taken.
The photo essay that follows provides
snapshots of various segments of the conference.
Leonard Dow, senior pastor at the multiracial Oxford
Circle Mennonite Church in northeast Philadelphia, challenged the
conference participants to examine whether racism lived in their hearts
and to work toward reconciliation. The multiracial Anabaptist community
in Philadelphia-including twenty-two churches representing twelve
ethnic groups-brings the promise of a new Christ-centered community but
also the pain of timeworn racism, he said.
Paraphrasing the question asked about
Jesus, Dow asked, "Can anything good come out of Philadelphia? I
believe the answer is Yes, come and see. Not because of who we are, but
because of who Jesus is."
Miriam Stoltzfus (right), a member of Diamond
Street and a longtime church worker with her late husband, Luke
Stoltzfus, shared about the contributions of many single Anglo women.
Lancaster Mennonite Conference sent many such women to serve in the
Stoltzfus's storytelling led into a
main presentation by Lilly Lee (left in picture at right), who spoke
about the barriers of women to using their gifts in the church. Lee
serves on the pastoral team at the Abundant Life Chinese Mennonite
Church and teaches mathematics at the Community College of
Philadelphia. She spoke on "Sister Workers and Center Women Build the
She shared insights from biblical
exegesis regarding women's roles. These findings are in her book,
written in Chinese, Passion for Fullness: Examining the Woman's
Identity Roles from Biblical, Historical and Sociological Perspectives.
She made a case for recognizing and using the gifts of women in all
places, including pastoral roles and places of authority.
"We don't want to stop with encouraging 'center'
women, but we also want to make space for women in pastoral roles in
the church," Lee said. "Like men, women were created in God's image.
... They are equally blessed, gifted, called and sent."
Beth Graybill and Kim Schmidt described "center
women" as women who provided behind-the-scenes leadership and
organization in nearly every congregation during the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. Graybill and Schmidt were members of the planning
committee and leaders of a seminar on "Recognizing Gendered Leadership:
Anabaptist Women's Stories."
Jeff Gingerich, doctoral candidate at the University
of Pennsylvania and assistant professor of sociology at Bluffton (Ohio)
College, shared a view of the past in "Mennonites in Philadelphia:
Building an Urban Anabaptist Identity." Mennonites first came to
Philadelphia in 1683 and founded the Germantown Mennonite Church-the
oldest Mennonite congregation in the United States. Since then the
community has grown to include many other ethnic groups. They include
English, Spanish, African-American, Ethiopian, Filipino, Chinese,
Palestinian, Asian Indian, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Cambodian.
Gingerich described the various stages of
interracial assumptions of Mennonites, from an assumed segregation in
the 1930s and 1940s, to a "color blind" approach in the 1950s, to a
culturally pluralistic point of view in the 1960s, to globalization in
the 1990s. Finally, he referred to the rhetoric of a "new kingdom" to
describe the current multicultural membership of the Philadelphia
congregations that will act as a model for other U.S. denominations.
Barbara Moses (right), dynamic principal of the Philadelphia Mennonite
High School, now in its sixth year of operation, shared her story as a
"center woman," and introduced the school's choir.
spirited singing of the Philadelphia Mennonite High School choir
delighted and inspired the audience.
Tuyen Nguyen, co-chair of the planning
committee, a research scientist and leader in the Vietnamese Mennonite
Church in Philadelphia and in Wilmington, Del., spoke on "Phases of
Christian Identity: Immigrants and Ethnicity." He identified the
challenges of calling and training leaders among the first generation
of immigrants who are primarily concerned about survival in a new land.
Siblings, Raymond Jackson, a former Mennonite
pastor, and Mattie Cooper Niekema, a Diamond Street "center woman,"
both shared their stories. In 1951, when two women in dark cape dresses
and white head coverings came to Nikiema's door to invite her
African-American family to Diamond Street Mennonite Church, she had no
idea she'd one day wear the same.
When Nikiema was twelve years old, the family
began attending Diamond Street. That's where she donned the
conservative dress, got involved in youth group and taught Sunday
school. She became a member of Diamond Street when she was 14 years
old. She is still a member today at 65. Jackson and Niekema are
pictured with Miriam Stoltzfus.
Quang Xuan and Tam Tran (left), pastor of the
Vietnamese Mennonite Church, and his wife graciously hosted the
conference. With the conference in session, the Trans played the part
of the biblical Martha by preparing food. The Vietnamese church, with a
multitude of ministries, is located on 63rd Street and
Woodland Avenue in southwest Philadelphia.
Pat McFarlane (right) moderated a story-sharing
circle of five "center women" from local congregations. From left to
right are Hattie Minnis of Second Mennonite Church, Barbara Miller of
Diamond Street, and Geraldine Abraham of Second Mennonite. McFarlane
and Linda Christophel, both of Goshen, Ind., have initiated the
Mennonite Women of Color Oral History Project to record and publish the
stories of fifty or more women across the United States.
Nicolas Angustia (left), one of three bishops in New
York City, moved his seminar audience with accounts of his ministry in
Brooklyn. Fred Kauffman (right in picture at left), pastor of the West
Philadelphia Mennonite Church, translated Angustia's Spanish
presentation into English.
John L. Ruth (left), noted historian of Harleysville, Pa., in a
seminar, described "Philadelphia's Influence on Pennsylvania German
Mennonites. "For nearly two centuries southeastern Pennsylvania
Mennonites saw 'die stadt' (the city) as the center of government,
economy and worldly culture. In the nineteenth century two
congregations were founded in Philadelphia, and half a century later
mission work was begun. Essentially, these efforts did not survive. In
the twentieth century, however, new developments such as a huge wave of
immigration from the American South and foreign countries has changed
the nature of the city, which has seen the birth of congregations of
multiple ethnicity. Culturally, it is no longer 'foreign' territory."
Lemuel So, pastor of the Love Truth Chinese Mennonite
Church (left), and Freeman Miller led a workshop (at right in the
picture at left), "Pastoring Through Generational Transitions." Miller
also gave the final address of the conference, "Thy Kingdom Come:
Resources and Challenges for Urban Anabaptists." He said the Mennonite
and Brethren in Christ churches in the city are striving to build a
bridge between the first- and second-generation Mennonite churches and
to revive the Anabaptist vision for the twentieth-century urban
He asked, "Are we giving our youth something
they can live and die for? Our urban youth may not like shoo-fly pie,
but the one thing that grabs young and old alike is the original
Anabaptist vision of following Jesus as Lord in all areas of life, 24
hours a day, seven days a week. This is still a compelling vision for
urban Anabaptists today.
"We no longer plow the ground and milk the cows,
but we have become many kinds of professionals in the city. And we need
to find new ways of engaging the city as salt and light and yeast. ...
As we exercise our citizenship of the New Jerusalem in old
Philadelphia, a dynamic new community of shalom will rise up."
Joe Manickam (right), associate executive director and staff associate
for Asian Ministries at the Center for Anabaptist Leadership, Los
Angeles, Calif., makes a point in the closing session of the
conference. Seated with him on the panel are Barbara Moses and Freeman
Miller, who gave the closing address.