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You’re not alone; reflections on the Mennonite World Conference in Asuncion, Paraguay (July/09)


Our limited Spanish vocabulary was enough to teach Leonardo, an indigenous Paraguayan man, how to play Dutch Blitz.

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Interior shot of convention floor and balconey
We gathered as a large group in the sanctuary for two worship sessions each day.

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September 17, 2009
-Melanie Schellenberg

ASUNCION, Paraguay —I’m the kind of person who normally needs ‘alone time’ every once and a while to relax, re-focus, and think things through. However, spending July travelling through South America – where ‘personal space’ is not a part of the local vernacular and hostel rooms are cheaper the more bunks they cram in to them – meant a significant decrease in alone time.

This was especially true of our time in Asuncion at the Mennonite World Conference (MWC), in the middle of our trip. The 6,204 of us in attendance at the conference were certainly well looked after (thanks to logistics and planning that I fear would have puréed my brain if it had been me in charge!), but with a group that large you are bound to feel at times like part of some sort of large herd of livestock being corralled into lines for registration, translation headsets, or lunch. Looking back on my experiences at the conference, I realize that the ‘extreme togetherness’ we felt there was in itself a gift and a lesson.

One speaker at the MWC reflected on how gathering together is implicit in human nature. We are wired to desire to get together and celebrate the commonalities that draw us to each other – whether these commonalities are family ties, political causes, common interests, or a common faith. When we gathered in the Centro Familiar de Adoracion’s enormous sanctuary as a group of over 6,000, it was difficult not to be moved by the notion that we all came from all over the globe – and from many different cultures, languages, and socio-economic realities – to worship our God together.

The theme of the conference was “Come Together in the Way of Christ.” Being together at the MWC was an opportunity for the global Mennonite church to gather to celebrate our unity, which comes from our faith in Jesus Christ. Despite our shared faith, however, the differences between the many different conference attendees were at times all too palpable.

The language barrier, for example, made communication difficult – although the translation team did a fantastic job at the worship sessions and workshops. Also, we heard many speakers and presenters from parts of the world where war, poverty, and injustice are all too familiar. Hearing the passion in speakers’ voices about the social issues their people and their churches face made me realize how different the journey I walk here in Canada is from the journeys of Mennonites in the D.R. of Congo, China, or Colombia – yet we are still called to walk together in the same Way of Christ.

One of the songs we sang in our worship sessions was “You’re Not Alone,” a song by Bryan Moyer-Suderman. The chorus goes:

You’re not alone; we are one body.
You’re not alone; we stand with you.
You’re not alone; your time of suffering is our suffering, too.
But I know a day is coming when we will be rejoicing anew.

Singing this song’s simple, beautiful melody in unison with more than 6,000 others, and reflecting on its profound words, was a powerful experience for me. It reminded me of how beautiful and how challenging God’s call for unity is. Unity in the body of Christ requires solidarity when certain parts of that body face hardships. We are called both to suffer alongside and rejoice with our Mennonite sisters and brothers around the world.

At the MWC I also realized that although sometimes my desire for ‘alone time’ is well-needed and healthy, it can at times be an attempt to ‘shut out’ everything and everyone else so that I can focus solely on myself and my own thoughts and feelings. Being reminded at MWC that I am part of one body in Christ helped me to remember that my life is only one thread in the tapestry of “the big picture.” My faith and my daily works are not solitary offerings, but part of a much larger movement in the way of Christ.

I encourage each of you to prayerfully consider taking opportunities to visit a new part of the global church. It is an unparalleled experience which offers fresh perspectives on how we can walk together on the path Christ set out for us.

Melanie Schellenberg and her roommate, Natalie Wiebe, attended Mennonite World Conference in Asuncion, Paraguay, and spent some time travelling to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, and Peru before and after the event.