Gathering at the Hearth: Stories Mennonites
A collection of twenty-eight stories from Mennonite History
by John E. Sharp
Herald Press, 2001
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Anabaptist Tea and Other Tales of Integration
The road to Integration/Transformation has been a long one. Herald of Truth editor John F. Funk, who helped Russian Mennonites migrate to the prairie states and provinces in the 1870s, hoped the immigrants would join MC conferences. They didnt. MCs and GCs cooperated in sending relief supplies to India during the great famine of 1896-97. When sending food and money led to sending missionaries to India, GC leaders asked MC leaders whether they could cooperate. MCs said no. Mennonite Central Committee, however, was inter-Mennonite from its beginning in 1920. MCs and GCs worked and prayed together during Civilian Public Service (CPS), 1941-46. Goshen Biblical Seminary (MC) and Mennonite Biblical Seminary (GC) affiliated to become Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Such shared experiences led to the formation of dually affiliated congregations 129 by 1995. Peter and Elfrieda Dyck know about this journey from personal experience, as the following vignettes illustrate.
I told him that what he had heard was true. I also shared with him that the major reason for this was to hear Prof. Harold Bender lecture on Anabaptism. Thiessen was not pleased. He attempted to dissuade me, giving one reason after another why Goshen was not a good choice. Why not go to Bethel or Bluffton College? I will always remember his final comment (given in all seriousness), that as a General Conference member, not a teenager but already thirty-four years old, I was setting a bad example for the youth of the General Conference.
We had no money and the idea of a discount sounded very good to me. It would mean less to borrow. However, had I expected it? My answer was No. Miller was visibly relieved, and proceeded to explain that the college could not give me financial aid, since I didnt belong to the "Old" Mennonite Church. Giving me aid could be interpreted by the General Conference as wooing one of their members away from them.
We continued the discussion about GC-MC cooperation in education, especially on the seminary level. Finally we agreed to invite some brethren, no more than four from each of the two conferences, for an informal discussion. I was to invite the GC representatives and Bender was to invite the MC people. I remember his suggestion that we meet in his home and that Elizabeth would serve tea. "Nobody can fault us for getting together and drinking Anabaptist tea," he said.
The meeting did take place. Brother Bender asked me to introduce the subject. That took me by surprise, but I began. I said something about my own good experience as a General Conference student at Goshen College and Seminary. I said I hoped we might explore ways of moving closer together in our separate programs. I was by now attending the GC/Church of the Brethren Seminary in Chicago.
There were some questions, a few concerns, and one or two cautious, but positive, statements. I was disappointed. I guess I had expected too much from this meeting. Orie Miller was the first to leave, having said very little. As he left, he simply said, "Thanks for the tea." For some time afterward, I referred to that meeting as the thanks-for-the-tea meeting.
But the ball had started to roll. More informal meetings followed and more people participated. Usually these meetings were in connection with other meetings, such as the MCC annual meeting in the Atlantic Hotel in Chicago. And then one day the conversations became official and minutes were kept. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ultimately they relented and said we could have our primary membership in the Akron congregation and a secondary membership in the GC Eden Church, Moundridge, Kansas. We objected. We asked for equal and full membership in both conferences. In subsequent discussions we were asked if we belonged to both the GC and MC conferences, were we intending to subscribe to both The Mennonite and the Gospel Herald? Were we going to double or halve our giving? Would we attend both the MC and GC general assemblies?
A final argument, intended to persuade us of the folly of dual membership, was that of statistics. Suppose we all did that. Just look how that would mess up our membership statistics: overnight the church would have doubled, because we would all be counted twice once by the GCs and again by the MCs. Someone suggested that the trouble with Elfrieda and me was that we had been too long with MCC.
But then it happened, praise the Lord! A few years later the Akron church voted unanimously to become a dual-conference church. Yes, and we did subscribe to The Mennonite and the Gospel Herald. We did attend both assemblies. The church did and still does contribute financially to both MC and GC mission boards, colleges, etc. It was a bit of a hassle and on the surface it didnt make much sense. But we did it because everybody believed that this was a temporary inconvenience on the road to full amalgamation. Basic to all of this was the desire to strengthen our witness in the world, to heed the prayer of Jesus: " that they may all be one so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:21)