Ah, Mennonites. It is July 4, the annual observance of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But rather than celebrate our freedom from oppressive British overlords with fireworks and cookouts, we gather in off-season convention centers to ignore all of that.
I arrive at the Orlando County Convention Center to get my nametag, my meal card, and my requisite conference tote bag. There are two other gatherings taking place here this week: a gathering of Catholic religious leaders and a youth basketball tournament. A convention center is a center of commerce and a magnet for tourism. Beginning our Mennonite conventions on July 4, we Mennonites thumb our nose at patriotic observances yet offer our sacrifices to capitalist cathedrals. Ironies abound.
The conference center fills slowly like a swimming pool. You can distinguish pretty much everyone by their appearance: young basketball players in sneakers and baggy shorts, Catholic religious leaders in clergy collars and (irony again) head coverings, Mennonites look like . . . well, anyone really.
I always have this familiar unfamiliarity in Mennonite conventions. If you were raised Mennonite or attended a Mennonite educational institution it might be hard for you to understand. It’s sometimes a bit like attending someone else’s family reunion. But over the years and with layers of connections accumulating from repeated dippings in Mennonite gatherings, my own networks start to form as well. I start to look like everyone else.
There are faces I look for and those who recognize mine. The trap in such a natural process is that we rest content to know those we have known and do not extend ourselves beyond our familiar circles. It’s the “circle of the we” thing again. It will be the challenge of this Convention, to everyone in general and to me in particular, to look for God’s “we” and to have the courage, the faith, the humility perhaps, to recognize it, embrace it, and be embraced by it.