On Thursday I arrived at the lobby in front of the exhibition hall about halfway through the daily Pink Menno noon worship service. For the most part, I’ve participated in any Pink Menno-led worship that I’ve attended, but this time I decided to sit on a bench outside the circle and observe that permeable boundary between the pink worship space and the rest of the convention. I’m never completely comfortable in this blatantly observatory role—it makes me feel creepy—but at that moment it seemed possible to do it somewhat inconspicuously, so I went for it.
I wish I could say I witnessed something truly revealing, but mostly I just watched passing teenagers watching Pink Menno. Some of them stopped to stare. Their faces told me nothing. I had to resist the urge to impose my own speculative narratives on them, which is always a temptation to anthropologists; when there is no clear story in what we’re studying, we long to make one up and then force it onto our evidence, for fear that otherwise no one will want to read what we write. I saw a lot of curiosity, but that’s all I can claim with confidence.
But then there were also the ones—and again, I’m mostly talking about youth here—who saw what was going on and headed straight for it, accepting the pink hymnals that Katie Hochstetler handed to them as they joined the circle. Pink Menno worship leaders encourage people to stagger the circle of worship so that the edges are fluid. And this strategy works; every Pink Menno worship service and hymn sing that I’ve seen this week has ended bigger than it has started.
The service was an open communion, in a thoroughly unorthodox sense. At the center of the circle was a table laid with snacks, the orangest communion I have ever seen, complete with Goldfish crackers and Cheetos. The worshippers took cups of water and wandered around the circle toasting one another with the phrase, “May you be sustained.”
I sat and listened to the gentle ripple of this phrase throughout the group. May you be sustained. May you be sustained. May you be sustained. What I didn’t realize before I came to Pittsburgh is how central this phrase is to Pink Menno’s reason for being. There are a lot of exhausted people here, people who have strained against the edges of their own emotional endurance in the name of love and wholeness and a church they can belong to and believe in. Pink Menno worship is often full of tears. I see people overcome while singing, breaking down mid-verse, held by their neighbors. I see them master their voices again and join back in the singing. As I watched Randy Spaulding in the worship service on Tuesday night, his humor and grace and phenomenal skill, his survival, his patience and hope, it happened to me too. To quote a beloved Pink Menno mom, “My heart broke and was healed at the same time.”
It is tempting to be bitter here in Pittsburgh, at least for me. A few nights ago I sat in the dining hall, at one end of a long table, listening to a young man at the other end who, God help me, embodied everything that I see as the enemy. He spoke with great authority to the older woman he was sitting with about the problem of liberals and the need to minister to the “fallen world”; he sounded as though he had never questioned his own right to judge what is and is not fallen. As I rose to leave the table—I know the limits of my own temper—I heard him say, “I grew up in the Mennonite church and I love the Mennonite church, but I love Christ more. If that means we have to leave, we will leave.” My pulse quickened. Dude, I nearly said. Can I help you pack?
I left. I breathed. Out of context, his statement could probably have come from to a number of LGBTQ and straight ally Mennonites I have spoken to this week. The politics of this fragile denomination are maddening, and when I talk to pro-inclusion folks about possible futures, I don’t hear many holding out much hope for a fully inclusive MCUSA. Many of us have had moments this week of speaking truth to power—I was lucky enough to have the ear of a highly placed MCUSA administrator for a while, and I did not hold back (though I thought briefly of one of my professors, the one who told me I shouldn’t wear pink at the convention because then I wouldn’t appear neutral enough. I don’t agree with her. There is no neutral here). But I don’t flatter myself that our conversation makes any difference to what happens in MCUSA. The fear that the Lancaster conference and other conservative factions will leave MCUSA seems to be far more urgent to the leadership than any concern over the pro-inclusion Mennonites that MCUSA is losing silently.
And for me and many others there is another fear, grown more acute this week as we witnessed much resistance from several socially conservative immigrant leaders to the Pink Menno movement. I worry that MCUSA leadership is succumbing to the temptation of racial essentialisms that characterize all people of color as anti-queer. Such generalizations are terribly convenient as a silencing tool against the growing movement for LGBTQ inclusion in the church: they draw on decades-old stereotypes of LGBTQ interests as mere petty concerns of urban, privileged white people; they make it seem as though the church must choose between racial reconciliation and LGBTQ interests; they make it even more difficult for straight people of color to be allies; they render queer people of color doubly invisible, except as targets of hate or pity. Furthermore, to pit the interests of marginalized groups against one another is a classic weapon of institutional power. I don’t know where to begin with the cruelties of this. Queer people of color are present in the MCUSA, whether leadership acknowledges their existence or not. (Please read Arthur Kauffman’s great post, “The Scarlet Letter,” for more insight.)
The Pink Menno worship circle saved me from bitterness this week. That, for many of us in Pittsburgh, is where the hope is. And there IS hope here, lots of it. Not necessarily in the future of the denomination in its current incarnation, though there are some tentative reasons for optimism in the ten-year plan the delegates worked on this week. My hope, though, is centered in the strength of this movement and the strength of these people, and above all, in how much these people love and care for one another. Acting, for all the world, like a church. The circle grows and grows.
May you be sustained.