Mennonite Brethren participate in constituency forums
Mennonite Central Committee’s September 25 meeting with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York was the topic of discussion at constituency forums hosted by West Coast MCC Oct. 1 and Central States MCC Oct. 20 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
In his letter inviting interested constituents to the Sioux Falls forum, MCC Central States executive director John Stoesz says, “The intent is to … allow MCC to better understand why these meetings have been troubling to some even as it describes what led to the decision to engage in them in the first place.”
Central States staff and board members have had informal discussions with concerned Mennonite Brethren from Oklahoma. As of press time, no report was available from the South Dakota meeting and no decision had been made as to whether Central States would hold a public forum in Oklahoma.
Some 80 people attended an Oct. 1 constituency forum hosted by West Coast MCC. At the invitation of Fresno Pacific University president Merrill Ewert, the open meeting was held on the FPU campus in Fresno, Calif., as part of the university’s Building a Culture of Peace Week activities. Invitations went out to local pastors and people who contacted the MCC office about the September event.
Former MCC executive director Robb Davis served as a resource person for the dialogue, opening the time of discussion with an impassioned explanation of why, in the past, MCC felt called to engage with the Iranian leaders.
He reflected on the time in 2006 when an invitation for the first such meeting came to MCC from Iran. MCC saw the invitation as an opportunity to witness, he said. “We wanted to give (President Ahmadinejad) a glimpse of God’s kingdom.”
By meeting with Ahmadinejad, said Davis, MCC was taking a stand against the dehumanization of the enemy. In a meal together with the Iranian leader MCC would create a sense that “what we saw across from us was a human being—not beyond the touch of God.”
Davis recalled MCC conversations with U.S. congressional representatives who had expressed fear of meeting the Iranians. “We are afraid to be the first to meet with this man,” the representatives had told MCC. By meeting with Ahmadinejad, MCC could open the way for other conversations and witness to the reality that “Jesus’ way is not the way of fear.”
In deciding to meet with the Iranian president, Davis said, MCC leaders recognized that “in human terms it was naïve and would be misunderstood and misused,” but they felt that by failing to act in faith “we would limit the power of God.”
The dialogue that followed Davis’s remarks was moderated by former FPU president Richard Kriegbaum. Several people who stepped to the microphone expressed support for MCC’s engagement with Iran. A few raised cautions about MCC’s involvement in what they viewed as “political activity.”
In conversation after the forum, many participants who had come with reservations about MCC’s involvement with the Iranian leader expressed satisfaction that their questions had been answered.
Leon Thiessen, who chairs the board for the West Coast Mennonite Men’s Chorus, was one such participant. He had received an inflammatory e-mail notice accusing MCC of inappropriately “honoring” Ahmadinejad. The message had concerned him and he did not know how to respond.
He came away reassured that MCC was doing the right thing and reminded that the purpose of the event was peacemaking dialog, not to honor any person. In a letter to Men’s Chorus board members Thiessen reflects: “As I sat and listened to the information at the meeting, the first image that entered my mind was that of Jesus having dinner in the home of a tax collector, while the religious establishment stood outside and criticized him.”
“Even when it may seem to run counter to political agendas,” he advises the board, “we must remember that we are citizens of a Heavenly Kingdom, and our first allegiance is to the Eternal King.”
More information on MCC’s meetings with Iranian leaders is available on MCC’s website: mcc.org.
Sat, November 8, 2008
by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest for MCC, MCC reports