What a whirlwind of a week.
For those of you who don’t know, I spent last week at orientation for the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program through the Presbyterian church. Although DOOR/Dwell was originally a Mennonite program, it has since done a merger of sorts with the YAV program. I could have applied through MMN, but I decided not to because it required 6 references instead of 2. So, Alicia (my college roommate who is serving with Dwell in Denver) and I found ourselves at “YAV Camp”, a 7 day orientation program for our years of service.
I felt uncomfortable and angry many times during the week for various reasons, but there were also many learning experiences and blissful moments with my small group & other new friends that I absolutely loved. Maybe I’ll reflect on that later.
First, though, a big learning opportunity for me: feeling like a Mennonite spy infiltrating a week in the life of a Presbyterian young adult.
A cliché chronological montage of my emotional state this week:
Tired. Annoyed. Grateful. Taken Aback. Hopeful. Frustrated. Angry. Disillusioned. Fuming. Confused. Patronized. Snarky. Rebellious. Over it. Embarrassed. Misunderstood. Tired. Over it. Slap-happy. Grateful. Let it gooooo, let it goooo. Euphoric. Friendly. Giggly. Sad. Relieved. Motivated.
I must admit that I was not looking forward to orientation week. I knew that there would be many hard conversations about cultural competency, sexual misconduct, racial dynamics, living simply, and dealing with conflict in intentional community, but what I didn’t expect is the amount of culture shock I felt just by being outside the Mennonite world.
Here’s the fact I had to face this week: the world does not always (or usually) work like Eastern Mennonite University. Here was a group of young people who looked like me (overwhelmingly white, middle-class women) on the surface, but who had, in many ways, been raised in a different world. I was really struck by the subtle differences I felt. Maybe it was just that the rhetoric was different… Maybe it was more. I don’t know.
I was really impressed by how progressive the speakers and organizers of the “dis-orientation” session were in regards to their inclusion of the LGBTQ community, their commitment to justice, and their fervent resistance to the temptation to feel like a “white savior” when entering the communities that we are serving within. The welcoming and accepting language was cool, and it actually took me off guard at first. I think the Mennonites, as an institution, have something to learn from the Presby’s when it comes to acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
MCUSA talks about how we can be welcoming to our queer brothers and sisters, but PCUSA just plain IS welcoming to them. That feels different.
But I think that’s also partly what made me uncomfortable: what felt to me like a lack of critical conversation and push-back in the large-group setting.
In our small groups and in one-on-one conversation, I heard people mentioning little things that had bothered them or that they had disagreed with during the sessions. I wondered why they hadn’t spoken up when the speaker asked for questions or comments. I wondered if challenging the PCUSA leadership in public was scandalous, not commonplace.
So I asked one of the speakers whether he thought that PCUSA, as the overseers of the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, was more hierarchical than I was used to as a Mennonite.
“Everyone is more hierarchical than the Mennonites…” he started out.
Okay, okay. That’s probably true.
One thing that I absolutely LOVE about the Mennonite church is its non-hierarchical approach to institutional governing. I have always felt encouraged to invite those in power to coffee, where we might engage in a conversation that included me both learning from them and challenging them. My friends and I have already done this with my Mennonite College President, as well as the Executive Director of MCUSA. I recognize, though, that those on the margins of the Mennonite church (ESPECIALLY queer individuals) might not feel this freedom to the same extent, and that’s obviously a problem.
But back to my question: does the culture of PCUSA discourage individual public dissent?
The speaker explained that the United States government was designed around the Presbyterian church’s governing systems. Here’s what I gathered: each Presby church is governed by a “session”, or a group of elected representatives of the congregation. Regional groups of churches are known as “Presbyteries” (think conferences). Groups of Presbyteries are grouped into larger “Synods” (think states). Each of these governing bodies is created from members of the Sessions of member churches. Then, the national gathering of PCUSA is called the “General Assembly”, where selected Session members vote on church matters. The General Assembly must be majority non-clergy.
So does the Presbyterian Church take a top-down approach, thereby discouraging input from laypeople? Not even a little bit; it’s a system of representatives.
But here’s something interesting that the speaker told me (and don’t forget that this is just my memories of the opinion of one man who was speaking with me casually, so take all this with a grain of salt!):
If a particular church has a suggestion for the Presbyterian church at large, they are discouraged from going directly to their Synod leadership team. Instead, they are asked to share their idea with their Presbytery, gain support, and approach the Synod as a group who can bring things up together.
He said that Mennonites tend to be more interested in personal change within the individual, whereas the Presbyterians believe change happens best when you work within the system at an institutional level. That’s why Presbyterians are often active in politics, and Mennonites are not.
He said that he loves the way that Mennonites talk about community, and that he wishes the Presbyterians would get in on that lingo. The Presbyterians would be perfectly suited to create community because of their dedication to the group. He thinks that the two groups share a common goal, but differ in their approaches to that goal.
Another example of a common goal that I gathered was that Mennonites and Presbyterians are both very focused on “justice”. Mennonites, however, take up the stance of non-resistance and pacifism, whereas the Presbyterians ascribe to the just-war theory for extreme situations. Nevertheless, both faiths are striving for universal shalom in the ways they know best.
The group dynamics in that room of 79 mostly-Presbyterians were different than they would have been had they been Mennonite, but that makes sense. We share different backgrounds and different stories. I just needed to take some time alone to remember my roots. It’s hard to stay grounded when you’re surrounded by new, unfamiliar trees, but it’s an extremely important self-care practice.
There are things that I would have done differently if I had been putting on the orientation, but that’s life. I’m glad I don’t plan the whole world, because I would never grow.
What I can hope for is the strength and the courage to challenge “the system” (whatever that happens to be at that moment) without getting angry or vengeful or disillusioned. And that’s really damn hard. It’s hard within the Mennonite Church and it’s hard in other settings.
I’m grateful for the conversations that I had with the speakers, organizers, and other YAV’s because I gained a lot of self-awareness about the preconceived notions and expectations that I’m carrying into this program: some of which are good and some of which need to go. I’m also grateful for Alicia, who was my rock and confidant through it all.
So, I did a little recon on the Presbyterian church, but my scope could only be anecdotal. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more than I do! 🙂