Contributed by Justin Yoder
A few months ago I attended one of two “town hall” meetings with MCUSA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman which were hosted at churches in my home Franconia Conference. The meetings were billed as a chance for churchgoers to hear a report from Ervin on the current denominational “turmoil” over LGBTQ inclusion and to engage him with questions about the church-wide processing of Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s decision to license Theda Good for pastoral ministry. The town hall meeting was well attended, with a wide spectrum of theology and practice represented in the audience. While Ervin’s introductory review of the current situation and its history took up a good portion of the allotted two hours, the subsequent question and answer session drew numerous contributions from those in attendance. The full two hours was used, and some of us who attended continued to speak with Ervin after the formal session was over.
This week there are three similar town hall sessions scheduled to take place in Ohio Mennonite Conference, and I imagine there will be other such gatherings to follow across our area conferences in the weeks and months to come. I would urge any Pink Mennos who feel so inclined to attend, and for those who are comfortable giving input at these gatherings, I encourage you to raise some pointed questions about the denominational process and how our leaders are choosing to engage “the issue.” While Ervin did offer a lot of historical context and a detailed analysis of the current dynamics within the denomination, everything was framed and articulated from the viewpoint of a white, straight, cisgender man who holds a lot of power within MCUSA. Two things struck me as especially problematic in what Ervin presented:
1) Although denominational leadership has been hearing repeated calls for the inclusion of LGBTQ voices and “votes” in any formal decision-making process that affects the lives of LGBTQ Mennonites, there was nothing in what Ervin said that acknowledged these calls or indicated any plans for answering them. The exclusion of LGBTQ Mennonites from the decision-making table has, of course, been going on for years, and it was recently highlighted with painful irony at the March Constituency Leaders Council meeting, where the one group of people most affected by the questions at hand (LGBTQ people) remained unrepresented on the council. LGBTQ Mennonites are already a part of MCUSA; we are members, song leaders, Sunday School teachers, committee chairs, and pastors. It is vital that LGBTQ Mennonites be included in denominational decision-making processes about LGBTQ Mennonites.
2) Ervin continues to present the framework of a conflict between two equal opposing parties — those who support inclusion and demand change now, and those who support “the teaching position” and demand “discipline.” As many Pink Mennos have articulated so well (see Lisa Ann Pierce’s recent essay on “Power and Privilege”), this framework protects the status quo and ignores the lived experiences of LGBTQ Mennonites — who are not players on a level field, who are not an extreme pole in a debate, and who continue to experience silencing, violence, and exclusion. The idea that denominational leaders occupy a neutral space between two parties in conflict is a pervasive and seductive one, especially for many Mennonites familiar with the demonstrable transformative power of mediation and conflict resolution processes. But it is simply not the case here — not when our leaders work within a structure that perpetuates oppression and systemic violence. The framework that Ervin presented at the town hall meeting needs some serious dismantling.
There were plenty of other troubling, revealing, thought-provoking details — and even some hopeful things — that came out of the town hall conversation I attended. I would encourage anyone interested in attending upcoming gatherings to listen to some of the recordings from the town hall sessions in Franconia Conference, so that you can go into the meetings with a sense of where the conversation will likely go, and with some ideas of how you might help take it to new, more constructive places. As we seek the Spirit’s leading, may we all continue to challenge the old framework and speak “pink” to power.