March 1, 1997
by Susan Mark Landis
Susan Mark Landis is minister of peace and justice for the Mennonite Church
God calls us to be peacemakers and we might answer that call as congregations, or through local service agencies. But God has given marvelous gifts to congregations to make them a special place to work at peacemaking. Victor N. Clamen (see below) gives five reasons why congregations should not leave the work of active peacemaking to governments and nonprofit agencies. Interviews with Mennonite pastors from congregations known for their community peace work support these points.
First the Bible commands us to work for peace and justice in our communities. Our shared faith that we are called to “love our neighbor” both motivates us and sustains us when difficulties come. A firm, spiritual commitment from the start of a project for peace, with people discerning the project as a call of God to which they are responding, is a major key to success.
Carrie Harder of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church Peace and Justice Center said that she would burn out without a faith-based commitment. You can hear the faith and hope of Reverend Cecil Murray, pastor of First AME Church, Los Angeles, California when he points out “Paul says, I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me—what is there that God’s church can’t do? There’s nothing in this world we can’t do!” (p 127) “Ask and it shall be given unto you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.” What government agency or community group has that backing?
John Bender, pastor at Raleigh Mennonite Church (attendance 130), which began Jubilee Peace Center, Friends of the World outreach to local international students and a Ten Thousand Villages shop, says that a major focus of their congregation is to nurture a sense of God’s call in individuals. Other members then gather around this call and help it to become a ministry of the congregation.
Secondly, the needs we are willing to meet may not interest the government or may be beyond what the resources of nonprofits can handle. The biggest case in point may be offering alternatives to abortion.
Third, outreach is natural for a congregation. “Yours is a real, continuing community. You meet regularly and are used to doing things. Your people have time, talent and treasure, energy and enthusiasm. You understand planning, organizing and fund raising.” (p 3) Victor hadn’t heard of Mennonite Disaster Service or Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sales when he wrote that, but he certainly described our congregations!
As members act on their belief in God, their faith is strengthened and the vitality of their congregation is enriched. The resulting joy bears witness to the good news of the gospel, especially in the contacts the congregation makes through their peacemaking.
Mary Lou Bowers, administrative assistant at First Mennonite Church of Iowa City, remarked that people other than Mennonites “are attracted to our congregation because of our peace and justice stance. They jump in with both feet!” One Presbyterian Church minister said, “People will go past a dozen other churches to get to us because they know that this is a church with a mission.” (p 27 ) Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, from California, feels that “Every religious institution is much more attractive to people when they feel it’s ‘walking its talk.’ . . . .What turns them on is when they see churches and synagogues that are actually rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in people’s lives. It’s the best PR for religion going.” (p 107)
Fourth, Victor says that congregations understand their home communities. They know how things work, who the key people are and where to find needed resources. Mennonites are now sitting on local school boards and library boards and have key businesses. Our congregations command respect and have access to press coverage. We have physical facilities and may be right in the center of things.
And last, and most importantly, he reminds us that, as people of faith, we have a sustaining vision of wholeness and thus will work with greater care and imagination, with sustaining power and with LOVE.
Acting on Your Faith: Congregations Making a Difference, Victor N. Claman To order, call 1-800-323-6809 and tell Victor you discovered the book through this article.