Feature

Mennonite Pride

Lessons in LGBT rights from a surprising source

Illustration by Chloe Cushman

On a warm day in July, thousands of people carrying rainbow flags, wearing colourful wigs, and waving signs flooded the streets of Steinbach, Manitoba. The prairie town’s first pride parade had been conceived as a small gesture of support by a resident whose child was being bullied for having two moms. But it soon made national headlines. Local Conservative MP Ted Falk—who attends a Mennonite church—declined to attend, citing a scheduling conflict involving a frog-jumping competition. He later clarified his position, saying he wouldn’t participate on principle. “I’ve been clear on this issue many times, and have made my position public on my values of faith, family and community,” he wrote on Facebook.

As it happened, on the day of the parade, a more consequential cultural shift was taking place behind closed doors. In an auditorium in Saskatoon, more than 500 representatives from Mennonite churches across Canada had gathered to discuss a resolution that would—if passed—crack open the door to same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT ministers.

The mood in the auditorium was tense. Over two days, delegates had endured three hours of open-mic discussion about the resolution on the table. Many people were close to tears, scraped thin, exhausted. Five members of the task force appointed to lead Mennonite Church Canada—one of the country’s largest and more theologically liberal Mennonite conferences—through this discussion sat in chairs on the stage, hands solemnly folded in their laps, no doubt wondering what would happen if the resolution were defeated. Would they just end up right back where they’d started seven years ago?

Illustration by Chloe Cushman

Mennonites started moving to Canada from the United States in the late 1700s, and from Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like many religious groups, they saw homosexuality as evil, one of the many reflections of the corrupt society they eschewed. They have never been a homogeneous community, though; today, more than sixteen distinct branches—or conferences—of Mennonitism exist in Canada alone (many more can be found around the world). Some reject cars and obey scriptural injunctions on hair and head coverings; others claim Jesus was a feminist and see the Bible as largely metaphorical.

In recent years, at least a dozen individual Mennonite congregations in Canada have publicly adopted statements condemning discrimination against or supporting the inclusion of LGBT people. But most Mennonite churches are still divided on the matter. What sets the Mennonites apart from many other Christian denominations involved in this debate is their democratic approach.

Eleven years ago, Robert J. Suderman, then the newly appointed general secretary of Mennonite Church Canada, decided to visit every one of the denomination’s 230 churches. After hearing tearful stories from Mennonites whose gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender family members had been shunned or silenced by the church, Suderman and his board agreed that the church needed to study the topic of homosexuality. But they knew change couldn’t come from the top.

Mennonites are descended from European Anabaptists, the anarchists of Christian history. In the 1500s, Anabaptists rebelled against the hierarchical authority of the Roman Catholic Church, contending that church membership should be voluntary, baptism should be a choice, and every believer could speak directly to God without the intervention of priest or pope. For such heresies, early Anabaptists were drowned, burned at the stake, and tortured with tongue screws. My own grandparents grew up on these gruesome bedtime stories.

Suderman outlined a process for discussing gay rights that would give every person a voice, respect the collective wisdom of the group, and avoid establishing a predetermined outcome. It was a plan that took seven years to execute. The process was laborious and far from perfect, but by the end, 78 percent of the congregations had participated to some degree. The outcome was the resolution on the table in Saskatoon.

In the room were official voting delegates from 126 churches belonging to Mennonite Church Canada, as well as hundreds of other non-voting congregants. Ben Borne, a gregarious twenty-six-year-old with neatly styled hair and a flashing smile, leaned back in his chair and fiddled with the name tag around his neck. As the debate dragged on, he kept pulling his ballot out of the square plastic sleeve that held his name tag and slipping it back in.

Borne was trying to be calm. Four years before, he had applied for a position leading youth programming for the churches in the Saskatchewan area. Borne was qualified for the post, having grown up steeped in Mennonite culture in Saskatoon. He preached his first sermon at the age of fourteen and has a degree in Biblical and theological studies from a Mennonite university. Teenagers seek him out at church gatherings, drawn, no doubt, by his quick laugh and attentive ear.

Borne is also gay. He came out first to close friends while attending Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. Later, he helped organize a support group for LGBT people on campus. Borne felt accepted by fellow students and certain faculty members. When he came out to his grandparents, who’d raised him, they told him they loved him. Their main concerns were that he’d get AIDS or “flaunt” his sexuality, which Borne understood to mean they didn’t want to see him in his underwear on a gay-pride float. He assured them that neither was a major risk.

When the youth position opened up, the person retiring from the job encouraged Borne to apply. “I said, ‘Yeah, this is what I really want. I can feel it.’” Borne applied for the job, and the regional office of the church flew him from Winnipeg to Saskatoon for the interview. Everything went well.

A few weeks later, he received an email from George Epp, then the regional moderator for Saskatchewan churches, informing him that the position had been offered to someone else.

Borne waited nearly two weeks before he responded. In an email, he thanked the hiring committee for considering him as a candidate. Then he politely refused to give up. “Folks like myself . . . will always be around at annual meetings, worshipping in our congregations, always putting God, the son Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit, and their beautiful church body, number one in our lives,” he wrote. “I have been encouraged by friends to leave the Mennonite Church, but I refuse to go. I’m terribly stubborn, don’t remind me. I know I am an Anabaptist Mennonite right to the core of my being. I’m here to stay and serve the church for a very long time, because that’s the kind of example the young adult generation needs today.”

He deleted the email he received in response because, he explains, he wanted to put the matter behind him. But he remembers that in it, Epp acknowledged that although Borne had the necessary skills and vision to do the work, fourteen pastors had spoken out against the hiring of a gay man to lead the youth ministry.

“There was absolutely, in our view, nothing that stood in the way as regards his qualifications,” Epp later told me. “But at the time, hiring him would have been more divisive than helpful. People might have withdrawn their kids from his programs.”

Sitting in the auditorium in Saskatoon, listening to the last-minute arguments for and against the resolution, Borne reminded himself that no matter which way the vote went, his home congregation would support him. Wildwood Mennonite Church in Saskatoon had already risked censure from the wider church body by adopting a public statement of non-discrimination. When a visitor to a nearby church attacked Borne with a homophobic outburst during a meeting, Wildwood’s co-pastors had intervened. Later, Borne related the events to his home congregation. “I shared my story and bawled my eyes out,” says Borne. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

He felt that the resolution now before them was frustratingly ambiguous. It didn’t amend the church’s official declaration that God intended marriage to be “a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” Borne wondered whether he should vote against the resolution because it didn’t address the hurt experienced by LGBT Mennonites. But he didn’t want his vote to get lumped in with those who believed gay marriage was a sin.

Two days earlier, during an open-mic discussion, a pastor from a church in British Columbia, a man with a jutting white beard and a black Hawaiian shirt covered with electric-blue palm trees, had stepped up to the microphone and begun reading from his phone. He quoted the book of Leviticus: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” The pastor continued in this vein for nearly six minutes, his volume increasing, his words becoming sharper and harder, until the moderator gently cut him off.

But just before he left the microphone, the man added in a breaking voice that his only son was gay. “We do things together. He shares his burdens and his sorrows. I honestly love and care for him and his partner, and if it would help, I would die for them.”

Outside the auditorium, people wept. For many LGBT Mennonites, the church is not a welcoming place. A former pastor who left her job after coming out as bisexual in her mid-forties told me that she has tried attending various churches in her area. “For people who are not straight, the face of God that loves us and created us is not allowed to be seen in the church,” she said. These days, she slips into the church where she used to preach and sits in the balcony.

Just before the vote, one man pointed out that the real issue was not whether to approve same-sex marriage, but “whether or not we believe that the Spirit of God can work in different congregations and lead these congregations into different places and that we can all still be together in that.” A delegate from Kitchener, Ontario, got up and pleaded for unity amid disagreement. As he made clear, this was no ordinary endeavour for a divided community. “The unity the Spirit brings about is a unity between people who were strangers and enemies and who struggle to be together. It is inherent in the nature of the church that it is not a harmonious club of the like-minded.”

I grew up in the Mennonite faith; my parents are missionaries. As an adult, I, like many others, shed the basic beliefs of Christianity and left the church of my childhood. Still, certain aspects of the Mennonite faith continue to fascinate me. Listening to the debate, I found myself astonished by two things. The first was this community’s fierce desire to stick together despite its differences. A handful of churches had left the denomination in recent years and another handful had declared their intention to depart if the resolution passed. But the majority appeared determined to find some way to stick together even in the face of internal dissent.

Also surprising to me were the passionate expressions of love for the church that I heard from LGBT Mennonites. As a heterosexual married man with a Mennonite last name, I can walk into any Mennonite church and expect a warm welcome, even though my commitment to the faith is much feebler than that of the LGBT Mennonites I interviewed for this story. They expressed a graciousness toward the church that I found difficult to fathom. They spoke of it with love, as though it were a mother who had hurt them over and over, but now, finally, was beginning to feel real sorrow and turn her face toward them.

As I glanced around the packed auditorium, I saw no hate. I saw love. I saw frustration. I saw fear. I saw people wearing rainbow buttons with the church’s dove-shaped logo and the words “We’re in this together.” I saw a room full of people who wanted to find a way to stay together even though they kept hurting each other, like a family in therapy.

Mennonites could be said to lag behind the rest of Canadian society—same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005; the United Church ordained its first openly gay minister in 1992. But it struck me that at a time when our culture seems increasingly to be fractured along ideological lines—as evidenced by the current American presidential race and the battle over climate change—Mennonites may offer an example of how to disagree. Their slow, consensus-based path to justice—for all the pain it involves—has the potential to bring more people along for the change than does the swift pendulum swing of electoral politics.

The resolution was read one last time before the vote. Its final wording was so vague as to sound almost meaningless to anyone outside this religious subculture (up to the last minute, scribes had been amending it). Yet it did imply that churches would not be disciplined for marrying same-sex couples or ordaining LGBT ministers:

“We call upon our family of Christ to respectfully acknowledge that there are those among us (congregations and individuals) whose careful study of Scripture and prayerful journey of discernment lead them to a different understanding on committed same-sex relationships than is commonly understood by readings of Article 19 in our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. We recommend that we create space/leave room within our Body to test alternative understandings from that of the larger Body to see if they are a nudging of the Spirit of God.”

Only someone who had been privy to the preceding years of arguments and tears—and who had read through the hundreds of pages of feedback the task force had gathered from congregations all the way from New Brunswick to Vancouver Island—could appreciate the delicate balance the resolution had had to strike in order to honour dramatically different beliefs.

The votes were cast, and the ushers gathered the ballot bags from each table. We sang a song from the Mennonite hymnal: “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying.”

The resolution passed with 85 percent of the vote.

The oppressor cannot liberate the oppressed, held Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire. The fight for liberation can be led only by the group that suffers the effects of injustice. The seven-year process hasn’t eliminated or even acknowledged the oppression experienced by LGBT Mennonites. Still, it has pushed open the door, allowing the change being spearheaded by LGBT Mennonites and their allies to go forward.

Just before the vote, Borne, a talented musician, stood on the stage directing the congregational singing. It was an image that stayed with me: a young gay man in khaki shorts and a navy polo shirt, smiling, his hands arcing through the air, giving shape to the beat, leading the assembly.

This appeared in the November 2016 issue.

Josiah Neufeld writes for the Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, and The New Quarterly.

Chloe Cushman (@ChloeCushman) works as an illustrator and visual journalist for the National Post.

SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER. Get the weekly roundup from The Walrus, a collection of our best stories, delivered to your inbox. Learn More »