Today, Easter Sunday 2014, was a joyful day at Joy Mennonite Church, in that we welcomed 12 people as new members of our church.
But today also was especially joyful for me, because I joined Joy Mennonite Church on Easter Sunday 2004 (ten years ago).
Other than my decision to marry my wife, joining Joy was one of the best decisions of my life. Much of who I am today is because of this church, so I wanted to reflect back a bit about why I chose to join Joy in the first place, but also what my experience in the JMC community has been like over the last ten years.
Ten Years ago
I first started attending Joy in November 2003. I was a very unhappy second year law student, but I was also a recently fired part-time minister.
A bit of background might be in order here – I grew up in the Churches of Christ (the legalistic, acapella-only music wing of the tradition) but began to question many of the core ideas of the tradition in late high school and early college. I earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible from a COC-affiliated theological college but continued to explore my faith, which led me to a faith walk that emphasized Jesus’ life and teachings (which in time led me towards Christian pacifism) but also the power of Christian community as illustrated by the accounts of the early church in the book of Acts. My desire for deeper community led me to being part of several charismatic-evangelical churches (Hope Chapel and then Hope in the City in Austin and late Shekinah Fellowship in Oklahoma City) but felt increasing discomfort with the growing practice of mixing patriotism and faith in the evangelical tradition. I finally wound up back in the COC, in the congregation I grew up in, Newcastle Heights Church of Christ, about the same time I was starting law school.
During my first year of law school I was asked to serve as the congregation’s interim minister. This was a challenging experience, made especially difficult by the experience of being a full-time law student (and also experiencing significant depression), but I made the best of it. I focused my energy on preaching sermons that taught about the life and teachings of Jesus. By the end of my first year of service in the church, there began to be bubblings of tension in the congregation and finally a decision was made to hire another minister who had more of a heart for “evangelism” (a concept I increasingly struggled to believe in).
I was given another month of time to serve, but I ended up leaving the position earlier than planned as I had reached my breaking point. I couldn’t muster up the energy to keep preaching two times each week in that church. I needed to be in a church where I could be honest and frank about my faith journey.
Meeting Sadie Mast
Towards the end of my time at the COC, I met Sadie. I met her standing on a street corner protesting during the early days of the Iraq war. She and I talked for a long time about peace and faith. I expressed interest in her church and told her I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, but she told me that I should “grow where I was planted” and not leave. Still a connection was made and I was even invited to come speak at Joy as a guest speaker.
So, when a few months had passed and my time was ending at Newcastle, I wanted to go back to Joy. I was considering other churches but I felt a tug towards Joy so that’s where I began attending.
Becoming a Member
During my early days at Joy, the congregation was tiny. Most Sundays we had 8-12 people in attendance. There were very few children and no young adults (except for a college student in the area who started coming occasionally not long after I was a regular). But I liked the group nonetheless. They were accepting and friendly and encouraging to me in my faith journey. They also immediately let me serve, by letting me preach and lead singing occasionally.
Over the next few months I considered membership. Our pastor at the time, Moses (husband of Sadie), talked quite a bit with me about the decision. He explained that the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition took membership to be a very high thing and the choice was not to be made lightly. I read through the Mennonite Confession of Faith and did other reading in Anabaptist history, but primarily I learned about the Mennonites from Moses & Sadie.
One particular conversation stands out in my memory. We were eating at a cheap Chinese restaurant one Sunday after church, talking about the questions I had about the church. I told Moses that I didn’t think I believed in hell as a literal place anymore and asked him if that would be a problem? Moses’s answer was very reassuring: “I’m not sure I do either!”
And so on Easter Sunday 2004, I joined the church (along with Shirley Hughes, an elderly lady who has now passed on). I took the decision to join the church very seriously. I had been a part of many churches before but I knew something was different about my decision to join Joy.
Years of Growth
The next few years were tremendous days of growth for me. I began to live at the building of Joy Mennonite Church (we met and still meet in an old house in Northeast OKC. Our house has space for renters both upstairs and in a garage apartment) which introduced me into a deeper level of community. And I was given the chance (with a group of others in and out of the church) to form the Center for Conscience in Action, an organization that would be central in my activist life in the coming years.
During this time period Moses began to consider retiring as our pastor, so when the position opened, our congregation decided to hire two ministers, a pastor (who would do most of the pastoral and preaching work of the church) and a minister of peace & Justice (who would help to do some of the preaching, but also coordinate the congregation’s peace & social justice work). I stepped into the second role, while another member of our church, Norman (a former Baptist pastor), became our new pastor.
The next three years of service were challenging. There were some early tensions between the methods of the new pastor and our congregation, but in time things got better. The new pastor and I often did not see eye-to-eye (he was theologically evangelical, while I was theologically universalist) but we had enough common ground to work ok together.
And our congregation started to grow. First it was through Mennonite college students and recent graduates who were moving to our area who wanted to maintain church involvement, but later it was from refugees from other faith traditions who were drawn to Anabaptist practices and our non-traditional church community. It was a good time.
A time of crisis
And then the crisis came: by way of a fire that hit the church’s garage (and my upstairs garage apartment). This fire, for reasons I still don’t understand, set in motion a bubbling-over of tensions which had been dormant in the church. Our pastor decided that I needed to leave the church (as well as some of the other younger members who dared to think for themselves) because we had bad theology and/or weren’t willing to live up to unspoken standards of behavior that he had set. The nitty gritty account of these days is too painful to write even today, but I can say that it was a testing point for our church, and one that we barely survived.
Finally I submitted my resignation to the church, believing that I could no longer be a part of the congregation in its present state, however, the congregation instead voted to not accept my resignation. Norman instead left the church and formed another Mennonite church in the area with some of our members.
The rift in our church was deep and painful and the wound might have been lethal, but thankfully God had another plan in mind. It began at Zach and Britney’s house, when they provided me and the other displaced tenants of Joy Mennonite a place to live temporarily.
After things got bad in our congregation, Zach and Britney continued to provide a place of support for us through the times of trial. And so when our church was left pastor-less, it was obvious to us that Zach should be our next pastor.
And things have continued to evolve since then. Some folks have moved due to jobs and school needs, but others have joined us. We have grown in new areas of ministry, such as our gardens and our children’s programs, but also have deepened our involvement in other areas (most notably our music program). And I’m especially proud of the fact that our congregation has members who are actively engaged in the struggle against the Keystone XL Pipeline.
And even more recently our congregation has taken the stand of welcoming all to the table, including LGBT people. This was not an easy decision for our community to process through, but I’m very proud that we did it.
Our future is uncertain. We are a small church with a big mission. We don’t have enough resources and not that many people. And yet we keep going. I think the one thing we can count on is that we are not alone in this journey of doing our imperfect best to follow the difficult way of Jesus.
What Joy has meant to me
When I reflect on these last ten years, I have to think about what kind of person I might have become if I had not found Joy when I did. In 2004 I was discouraged and battered from my experience at the COC I grew up in. I was struggling to maintain my faith and didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. I frankly do not know if I could have maintained my faith without Joy.
I am certain that I would not have had the life of activism that I have had (practicing law in support of war resisters and conscientious objectors for the last 7+ years) if it weren’t for Joy. Joy gave me the encouragement to go for it, to seek to be a lawyer in an area that few practice in. I did have support and encouragement from other sources (most notably from the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild) but the drive and inspiration to do the work came primarily from my church.
Most of my closest friends today come from my church. I’ve kept a few friends over the years from other times and places (and am very grateful for those friends), but it was my Joy friends who have provided me my primary place of belonging and connection, particularly during the last few years. These are folks who accept me and like me for who I am, quirks and all. That is a powerful thing.
And it was Joy that prepared me for marriage and fatherhood. Partly it came from seeing the examples of married couples like Moses & Sadie (partners in activism and in life), but also from an unexpected source. Back in I think 2008, our then pastor Norman (yes, the same minister I later had conflict with) counseled me that I should get a dog as a way of treating my depression (to supplement the other things I was doing). At the time I thought my life was too busy to get a dog but he was insistent and finally gave me a dog! The experience of dog ownership for me (this was the famous but now-departed Sandy the Peace Dog for those who knew her) was a transformative thing. It did help me with my depression but it also cracked the door open for me to be more open to relationships and even parenthood. I can’t help but think that our old pastor and that dog helped me to be ready for marriage.
And frankly that dog also was a loyal companion for me during some dark days of struggle, times when I was taking on too much work for the cause of peace. I was burning out but as it sounds that dog kept me from giving up. Having her with me on the road for my cases was a wonderful thing.
And so I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m thankful for my Joy friends but especially for Moses and Sadie (who I now think of as my adopted grandparents) and for Zach and Britney (for pulling us together as a community when we most needed it).
And I’m grateful to be part of a church that is not scared of questions, that is ok with my doubts and my explorations of other faith traditions. It is this freedom that fundamentally keep me plugged into this creative faith community.
And I’m thankful for God who is always at work, even when we aren’t expecting it.