Persistent voices empower hope

Anneli Braul

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The following speech was presented at a BMC gathering during the Mennonite Church Canada 2003 Assembly at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario in July. It was adapted from a sermon Anneli preached at Broad Street Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia, June 1, 2003 during BMC board meetings.

I thank BMC for this opportunity to speak here today. It is a daunting privilege to give voice to thoughts that might be inspirational or lead us forward into new possibilities or, as feminists say, toward “new visions of flourishing”.

I have recently joined the new Brethren/Mennonite Council Board for Canada and I am excited about this. I am also co-pastor at Calgary Inter-Mennonite Church, one of three Canadian Mennonite congregations that is publicly affirming and publicly inclusive of everyone regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

One of the congregation’s earliest principles, “that we will welcome whomever God sends through our doors” forms the foundations for its decision to be hospitable to all. This principle stretches our imaginations and leads us to strive to be inclusive of everyone in the full life of the congregation. When we said this out loud and in public, which for us gave congruence and integrity to the walk and the talk (or as Anabaptist Mennonites are fond of saying “bringing together word and deed”), we were told by conference leaders that it would have been better to have kept quiet; that “now is not a good time to go public.” For its acts of solidarity and inclusivity CIM has been excommunicated from two Mennonite conferences and marginalized from Mennonite Church Alberta.

I do not claim to have all the answers or insight into the dilemma of expressing conviction in the face of institutional intransigence. However, I would like to raise several key ideas brought forward particularly by liberation and feminist theologies that might be helpful for the church in thinking about what is involved in going forward.

These ideas are definitely not exhaustive but point us in a life affirming and loving direction based on the teachings of Jesus. Not only Jesus’ teachings, but his life demonstrated “social inclusivity,” the abundance of love, the fullness of life as a possibility for everyone, and the welcome of hospitality to those who were seen as the least and the last, the forgotten and invisible persons of his society.

A story inspired by the movie, Paradise Road, provides a powerful image for our reflection. This story is about an extraordinary group of women from different countries and speaking different languages. They are held prisoner by the Japanese during World War II; interned for over three years in the jungles of Sumatra, totally cut off from the outside world. They live in ramshackle huts and are forced to do hard labour. Food is scarce, they are at times reduced to eating snails, snakes and grasshoppers. Malaria and disease are rampant, adequate medication is non-existent.

But something happens. The women discover things about themselves and each other which eventually leads to the forming of a choir. One woman painstakingly writes note for note and voice for voice a symphony score she has remembered into a notebook. Another conducts. A vocal orchestra emerges from the blending of the women’s voices. No words are sung, only the intricate interplay of many notes hummed at the same time. Their music begins tentatively, but once they find their voices, it is full of life and hope.

At one point the women are forced to move to another location, more remote and deeper into the jungle. They find themselves in a small clearing where they are crowded into desperate living conditions. Any hope now seems elusive. They fear that they will be forgotten. What chance is there that anyone will rescue them now? They are exhausted, their bodies wasted, their clothes threadbare, their spirits depleted. Many deaths have decimated the choir. Now there are no words, nor are any chords coming from their throats and lips. The music has stopped. The silence is deep. With whatever resources are left, the women spend their days caring for the sick and dying.

One day, hot and humid, the women form a procession, their dusty, grey bodies, their wane and pale faces a stark contrast to the verdant green of the jungle around them. They are on their way to bury a dead friend, carrying her gently on a makeshift stretcher. The only sound is the shuffling of their feet against the dirt road and the drone of insects. They seem like walking dead themselves but there is an aura of possession and resolve about them which seems uncanny under the circumstances.

Into this moment comes the voice of one of the guards. “So, no more heroic singing from you ladies?”

Who can understand the cruel barbs of this remark? The women’s eyes flash a retort, their ongoing mourning demanding everything they have left to give, no energy is expended in words. But this taunting remark is not to be tolerated. The woman at the front of the line stoops down and picks up two rocks from the road. The smile on her face hints of an immutable spirit. She raises the rocks slightly, hits them together and begins a slow clap. The sound shatters the stillness with a shock that rings and echoes. The guard steps back.

As each woman passes the guard this sequence is repeated until the air is filled with rythmic clapping. A symphony of rocks. A whole chorus of sound, at times dull, soft; at times sharp, staccato. The procession becomes transformed. It sways to the rhythm of the clapping; the release of energy and tension is palpable. There is no script but it is clear that the women are communicating. They are completely fixed on this, their bodies straining in concentration.

Liberation and feminist theologians believe that impetus for change and transformation comes from those who are relegated to the margins and that the perspective of those at the margins will provide new ways of seeing and understanding. This is actually a large responsibility and a privilege, both.

Letty Russel speaks about churches as “households of freedom” (*Households of Freedom,*1987) where the inclusive church lives with what she calls the “impossible possibility” (J. J. Thiessen Lectures, CMU, 2001). This means the church lives with ambiguity and the realization that mending relationships and unity is not always realized, but at the same time lives with the openness to be surprised. Thus it is necessary to look wider, into the larger purposes of God in the world. Russel also speaks about not giving up. The church needs to be persistent and faithful in raising questions, in hope and in prayer, (even though this means repeating oneself over and over again). The church is under-girded by the belief that God does not give up on us.

Rebecca Chopp, in her book The Power to Speak (1989) talks about communities of “emancipatory transformation” that hold together the experiences of the “pain of oppression” (exclusion) and the “visions of flourishing”. She challenges us to speak directly and bluntly to expose foundational (institutional and private) principles on which policies of exclusion are fashioned. (9) Chopp says it is voices “seep(ing) from the margins and fissures in the present” that offer resources for transformation in the church.

Chopp outlines three ideas or steps the church can take towards a flourishing end. One is to become a “community of poets” where creativity, and beauty in worship and life are nurtured. Second, the church “demands, enables and encourages differences.” It wonders, queries, questions and probes its history, its tradition, its scriptures in trying to understand itself. Third, the church is characterized by the fruits of the spirit which are visible in its vitality and expressions of wisdom, love and acts of justice. This church speaks out of an expansive spirit of plenty. The church becomes what it proclaims.

Elizabeth Johnson, a Catholic nun, in her book Friends of God and Prophets (1998) also speaks about “flourishing” in the community through the use of memory and story and the rich resource of the “communion of saints.” She says the church cannot survive without a “communal memory”. Remembering and telling stories, both the known and the silent or anonymous provide inspiration and hope and “restores a heritage of religious power to a disenfranchised group”. She goes so far as to say, this can potentially lead to healing and transformation for the whole community. She also says that risk-takers do not originate with the hierachy, but belong “to the realm of non-institutional charisms where the spirit flows freely.” These friends of God and prophets come along unexpectedly, their creativity being a free gift and challenge to the church” (237).

Lastly, Christine Pohl in her book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition(1999) talks about those who are forgotten or those who are overlooked and says “their invisibility is a loss to everyone”. She believes the practice of hospitality does at least two things. It “enriches the life of every human being” and the community’s relationship to God is also “deepened”. She acknowledges the mystery of hospitality by saying “as we make room for hospitality, more room becomes available to us for life, hope and grace” (xiii). Hospitality is characterized by relationships where “love and generosity” a sense of peace, and respect for others’ needs, flourish. She also says churches that practice “a gracious spirit of welcome, equality, and care can help in efforts to heal (racial) divisions and previous exclusions” (157).

The task of those who are committed to the Jesus way (this may be the collective church or individuals within it or individuals standing at its edges; that is whether expelled or not, whether marginalized or not,) is to persist, to not give up.

God is big enough to hold all of us, the whole people of God. Those of us who are able should take the lead and find all the ways of living and relating that are life-giving, that speak of “flourishing” and demonstrate a generous, abundant and expansive spirit. We can seek out and tell stories of both pain and hope; to mingle these and weave these together with a whole “communion of friends of God and prophets”. The church is never disenfranchised from its rich storehouse of communal memory and possibility. This is also true for individuals who are shunned from their faith communities, or their families. It is impossible to eradicate a joyful, hopeful and grateful spirit. It is impossible to manage or keep the spirit contained and down. All of our actions, words and deeds reverberate beyond us, they echo in ways we may not even be aware of. Their effects seep in and out of all kinds of cracks and miniscule institutional fissures. The spirit of an inclusive church cannot easily be expelled.

The women prisoners risk sharing the shame and scandal of their individual and collective suffering and loss. Though they have been treated badly, less than human; they abandon apathy and indifference; they hang onto the vestiges of their dignity. They step directly into the shadows of their living nightmare and are surprised to find within themselves a flourishing of beauty and spirit that finds expression in their many acts of kindness and care for one another as well as in their times of making music. Their blunt questions hanging in the sultry air do not defeat them.

Standing together the women have the courage to look for the subtle persistence of hope in the face of utter abandonment; hope that turns their songs into a symphony of triumph, life affirming and full of love. In their concern for others, their sensitivity to the present needs that face them, their vulnerability to sorrow and hurt, their openness to joy and pleasure, they are transformed. Those who are able care for their friends who are languishing and suffering. They become a source of life and hope for each other.

The powerful staccato and ringing of the many stones together in concert, is testimony to the persistence of the spirit which springs up in unexpected places, it speaks to the “impossible possibility.” They stand in solidarity and speak bluntly of their protest. The stones cry out loud!

Mennonites would be proud of their peaceful resistance. One can hear in the stones their courage, their great love and respect for the lives of their friends and companions, their collective memory of suffering and hope, of their strength together. It is a bold statement of the resilience and persistence of the human spirit expressing itself. In the face of great adversity, indignities, humiliations, and innumerable losses they are still very much alive. Despair has not rendered them incapable of nurturing a rich beauty and creativity.

Being excluded/expelled/shunned/marginalized (whatever words we use to describe not being fully included and welcome) from a conference/congregation is not the end of the road by any stretch of the imagination. Jesus did not have an easy time of it either. He was deemed too radical and subversive to live, but his teachings of loving others just as we like to be loved persists as a powerful legacy to this day. This remains central to the faith community’s communal memory.

This does not deny the feelings of loss, pain, humiliation or insult surrounding actions of exclusion that are so difficult to keep experiencing. We are children of a particular tradition/history and to the extent that we hang our identity on this, our identity can never be taken away. No matter what, we are part of the wider family of God and the stories of faith, courage, and persistence can be told again and again to strengthen the communal memory of the congregation; to keep it grounded, connected, and flourishing.

The task of the church is to join hands with all “friends of God and prophets,” to embrace an active imagination and to be open to new possibilities. It is to share the pain and the hope, to stand together, to open wide its doors to the forgotten and the invisible, to be warm, generous and loving and hospitable to everyone. This is what it means for love to prevail! May this be our “paradise road”!

Amen.

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