Events mark reconciliation among Lutherans and Mennonites

By Mary E. Klassen

André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, and Kathryn M. Lohre, director of ecumenical and inter-religious relations, ELCA, at the April 10 Lutheran-Mennonite tree blessing service in Elkhart, Ind. In the background are Janeen Bertsche Johnson, Gayle Gerber Koontz, Betty Weaver and Kathryn Johnson. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

ELKHART, Ind. (Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Church USA)—A river birch tree with three trunks but one root system, standing in front of the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, Ind., became a mark of reconciliation among Lutherans and Mennonites at a dedication service on April 10.

At the service, André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, noted the one root system symbolizes the roots we share in God’s love and grace. The three trunks remind us that “as we grow in relationship we maintain our own identity even as Christ is always present with us as a third partner.”

This tree dedication mirrors tree plantings that have occurred in other locations worldwide that also signify the deepening relationships between Mennonites and Lutherans.

The ceremony was part of a daylong event that commemorated several decades of Lutheran-Mennonite dialogue. Participants in those conversations as well as in day-to-day interdenominational ministry were present, including representatives from the international dialogue, national denominational staff, regional synod and conferences, seminaries and lay ministry in the local area. Among the guests was Kathryn Johnson, Ph.D., who was instrumental in fostering encounters between the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and Mennonite World Conference (MWC).

In an evening lecture, Johnson briefly noted three decades of conversations between Lutherans and Mennonites to address the historic persecution of Anabaptists by the Lutheran Church. She described the July 22, 2010, service of forgiveness and reconciliation in Stuttgart, Germany. At this gathering, leaders expected to take a vote on an action to express repentance for the persecution, a vote that normally would have involved delegates raising cards to show their affirmation.

However, Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop and president of LWF, said, “This is a holy moment. We are asking for forgiveness for something that we did in the past, but even more, for its continuing legacy that we have never addressed. This is a holy vote; we should be voting on our knees.”

At an April 10 tree dedication that signifies the deepening relationships between Mennonites and Lutherans were (l. to r.) Rev. Steven Reshan, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Elkhart; Julie Stegelmann, co-director of Pathways Retreat in Goshen, Ind.; John Rempel, professor of theology and Anabaptist studies, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.; and Rev. Timothy Diemer, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Elkhart. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

Johnson reflected, “At that moment, the only people sitting were Mennonites. And everyone else was kneeling or standing.”

Johnson continued her presentation by sharing how “beyond our imagination this act of reconciliation has spoken to churches in ways that are far beyond addressing simply the persecutions in the 16th century. There’s a resonance, there is an appeal to the Christian imagination which continues to surprise us.”

In the discussion that followed Johnson’s presentation, Nelson Kraybill, pastor of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, asked how Mennonites should tell the stories of Anabaptist martyrs in this new era of reconciliation. Johnson recommended that the stories continue to be told, referring as an example to the story of Dirk Willems saving his pursuer from drowning and then being killed. “That’s not only a story of martyrdom; that’s a story of nonresistance in the face of evil,” she said. “To lose that story would impoverish the whole Christian family.”

Johnson emphasized that the important issue is how the martyr stories are told, reflecting discussions through the day in which Mennonite participants challenged each other to tell these stories as examples of faithfulness to Christ, rather than as “what those people did to us,” and to tell martyr stories of faithful Christians from other church traditions as well.

John D. Roth, professor of history, Goshen (Ind.) College, and a participant in international Lutheran-Mennonite dialogues, waters the tree planted in front of the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, Ind., by Lutherans and Mennonites at a dedication service on April 10. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

Participating in the events were John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and a participant in both the international and national levels of Lutheran-Mennonite dialogue; Donald J. McCoid and Kathryn Lohre of the office of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA); Gayle Gerber Koontz, professor of theology and ethics at AMBS and a participant in Mennonite Church USA–ELCA dialogue; William Gafkjen, bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the ELCA; Lois Johns Kaufmann, conference minister for Central District Conference of Mennonite Church USA; Daniel Z. Miller, conference pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference; John Rempel, professor of theology and Anabaptist studies at AMBS, who will participate in upcoming dialogue among Lutherans, Catholics and Mennonites; and André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA.

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Images available:
ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/AMBS_Andre-G-S_Kathryn-Lohre.jpg
André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, and Kathryn M. Lohre, director of ecumenical and inter-religious relations, ELCA, at the April 10 Lutheran-Mennonite tree blessing service in Elkhart, Ind. In the background are Janeen Bertsche Johnson, Gayle Gerber Koontz, Betty Weaver and Kathryn Johnson. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/AMBS_Andre-G-S_William-Gafkjen.jpg
Rev. André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, and Rev. William Gafkjen, bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, join in the opening prayer at the April 10 Lutheran-Mennonite tree blessing service in Elkhart, Ind. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/AMBS_John-D-Roth.jpg
John D. Roth, professor of history, Goshen (Ind.) College, and a participant in international Lutheran-Mennonite dialogues, waters the tree planted in front of the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, Ind., by Lutherans and Mennonites at a dedication service on April 10. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/AMBS_Kathryn-Johnson.jpg
Dr. Kathryn L. Johnson, professor of historical theology at Louisville (Ky.) Presbyterian Seminary and a participant in ecumenical dialogues between Mennonite Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, waters the tree planted in front of the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, Ind., by Lutherans and Mennonites at a dedication service on April 10. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/AMBS_Lutheran-Mennonite-participants-1.jpg
At an April 10 tree dedication that signifies the deepening relationships between Mennonites and Lutherans were (l. to r.) Rev. Steven Reshan, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Elkhart; Julie Stegelmann, co-director of Pathways Retreat in Goshen, Ind.; John Rempel, professor of theology and Anabaptist studies, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.; and Rev. Timothy Diemer, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Elkhart. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/AMBS_Lutheran-Mennonite-participants-2.jpg
At an April 10 tree dedication that signifies the deepening relationships between Mennonites and Lutherans were (l. to r.) Rev. Donald J. McCoid, executive for ecumenical and inter-religious relations, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Kathryn M. Lohre, director of ecumenical and inter-religious relations, ELCA; Leonard Wiebe, retired Mennonite pastor; and Dr. Kathryn Johnson, professor of historical theology at Louisville (Ky.) Presbyterian Seminary and a participant in international ecumenical dialogues. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/AMBS_opening-prayer.jpg
Gayle Gerber Koontz, professor of theology and ethics, AMBS, leads the opening prayer at the tree dedication celebrating Lutheran and Mennonite dialogue and reconciliation. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/AMBS_William-Gafkjen-waters-tree.jpg
Rev. William Gafkjen, bishop, Indiana-Kentucky Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, waters the tree planted in front of the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, Ind., by Lutherans and Mennonites at a dedication service on April 10. (Photo by Mary E. Klassen)