Learning experiences at Phoenix 2013 to combine study and action


By Johnny Kauffman and Annette Brill Bergstresser

ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Church USA)—In addition to traditional convention activities such as worship, seminars and fellowship, Mennonite Church USA’s July 1–6 convention in Phoenix will include 53 “learning experiences.” Depending on their content, they are either two or four hours in length and will be held primarily on Wednesday, July 3, in the afternoon and on Thursday, July 4, in the morning.

Convention planners say that while each learning experience is unique, the events share the common goal of offering an extended time for in-depth study or participatory and experiential learning to deepen faith and discipleship.

“Learning experiences offer a chance to dig deeper and to leave convention with new skills and insights,” says André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, who has planned the learning experiences with Iris de León-Harthorn, director of transformative peacemaking, and Hannah Heinzekehr, convention planning coordinator.

“Whether you engage Bible studies on immigration, explore the hard teachings of Jesus, learn how to lead difficult conversations, check out church planting possibilities, or take salsa lessons, you’ll encounter an amazing range of opportunities—with incredible resource people from across the church and beyond.”

He notes that learning experiences are different from most seminars in that they are more like a training event than a lecture, adding, “Wednesday and Thursday alone are worth the trip to Phoenix.”

The addition of learning experiences to the convention schedule stems from the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board’s (EB) eight-month discernment process in 2010 about whether to continue to hold the 2013 churchwide convention in Phoenix as had been decided in 2009. Concerns had been raised that the setting would not be welcoming to all potential convention participants due to Arizona’s anti-immigration law, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB1070), which passed in April 2010.

As a result of the discernment process, the EB adopted 11 specific commitments related to immigration and the churchwide priority of undoing racism and advancing intercultural transformation. The learning experiences are one of the ways Mennonite Church USA is working to fulfill these commitments.

“In preparing for Phoenix, we knew that we were going to be working on some really big issues, and that one-hour seminars would not allow us to get at some of the important pieces of these issues,” says de León-Hartshorn. “We wanted the Phoenix convention to be a place where people could think deeply, and theologically, about them and to consider questions they could be asking. I’m really excited about the learning experiences and hope we might continue to offer them at future conventions to help us engage the issues the church is facing.”

Sample learning experiences include:


  • Stories from Immigrant Congregations: Mennonite pastors Sunoko Lin and Olufemi A. Fatunmbi and other leaders of immigrant congregations
  • Walking With the Stranger: Working for Fair and Humane Immigration Policies: Tammy Alexander and Saulo Padilla, Mennonite Central Committee staff members who specialize in immigration issues
  • Our God is Undocumented: Ched Myers, biblical scholar, educator and social justice organizer
  • Love Crosses Borders: Immigrant Justice and Christian Hospitality: Anton Flores-Maisonet, cofounder of Alterna, a Christian missional community in LaGrange, Ga.
  • Holy Conversation: A Dialogue about 21st-Century Immigration: Jim Perdue, a United Methodist Missionary for immigration and border issues
  • Discussion About Undocumented Youth: Isabel Castillo and Viridian Hernández, community activists
  • The Arizonification of America: Joe Rubio, a lead organizer from the Valley Interfaith Project (VIP), a diverse coalition of 40 congregations in metropolitan Phoenix working to build community

Undoing racism and advancing intercultural transformation

  • Bafa Bafa: This fun and interactive game will help participants appreciate cultural diversity and examine their attitudes and behaviors toward cultures different from their own culture of origin.
  • Communities of Hope: Transforming Stories: Ruth Yoder Wenger, member of the Racial Healing Task Group, will help participants explore how stories shape perceptions and vice versa, and how transforming stories help congregations grow as communities that welcome racial and cultural diversity.
  • Salsa dancing: Daniela Lázaro of Iglesia El Centro, Colorado Springs, Colo.
  • Naming and Transforming the Victim Mentality Among European Heritage Mennonites: Elaine Enns, Ruth Yoder Wenger and others from Mennonite Church USA’s Racial Healing Task Group

Christian formation

  • Practicing the Way of Jesus: Mark Scandrette, author of the book by the same title, will help participants explore how to renew their active practice of the way of Jesus through risk-taking and collective group experiments.
  • God’s Salvation Story: Marion Bontrager, Bible and ministry faculty at Hesston (Kan.) College, will present core components of Hesston College’s Biblical Literature course in connection with Year of the Bible initiatives.
  • Shalom Activist: Pursuing the Inner and Outer Journey: Noel Moules, a founding member of the Anabaptist Network UK (Britain and Ireland) and creator and director of the network’s Workshop program for applied spirituality
  • Biblical Storytelling Shaping Kingdom Citizens: Pastors Barb Moyer Lehman and Weldon Nisly
  • Bible Memory for Life! Rachel Miller Jacobs, congregational formation faculty at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.


  • Healing the Spiritual Wounds of War: Carolyn Holderread Heggen, psychotherapist and trauma specialist
  • Mennonite Martial Arts: Learning the Use of Assertive, Nonviolent Force: Steve Thomas, Tim Peebles and Vern Rempel, three Mennonite martial artists
  • Gun Violence:  What Can Christians Do?: Fred Kauffman, Curtis Book and Mike Martin of RAWtools

Church Planting

  • Church Planting Retreat: As the Father Sent Me, So I Send You: Mauricio Chenlo, denominational minister for church planting with Mennonite Church USA/Mennonite Mission Network; Jaime Lázaro and Hyun Hur, pastors; and Gerald Shenk, educator
  • Mennonites Going Multisite?: Jim Tomberlin, a pastor and pioneer in the multisite movement, and pastors Howard Wagler and Jim Ostlund of Journey Mennonite Church in Kansas

As part of the learning experiences offerings, Everence is sponsoring a film festival of feature-length films and documentaries that explore issues of immigration and antiracism. Opportunities for discussion will follow each showing.

A complete list, as well as more in-depth descriptions of the learning experiences offered at Phoenix 2013, can be found at http://convention.mennoniteusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Learning_Experiences_FinalCropped.pdf.