César García: “We are blessed to be blessed”

MWC general secretary talks with CL editor about unity, diversity and USMB involvement in the global Anabaptist community

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César García’s MWC appointment as general secretary in 2012 marked the first time a leader from the Global South has served in this leadership role.

César García, general secretary of Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and his wife, Sandra Báez, pastor and executive assistant to the general secretary, spent a day on the Tabor College campus in late March. While in Hillsboro, García gave a presentation to faculty, spoke in several classes, met with students for lunch and dinner and talked with CL editor Connie Faber.

García, a Mennonite Brethren church planter, pastor and professor of Bible and theology from Bogotá, Colombia, was chair of Iglesias Hermanos Menonitas de Colombia (Mennonite Brethren Churches of Colombia) and secretary of the MWC Mission Commission before joining the MWC staff in 2012. García’s MWC appointment as general secretary marked the first time a leader from the Global South has served in this leadership role. The couple lives in Kitchener, Ontario, where MWC offices are currently located.

While USMB prioritizes involvement in the International Community of Mennonite Brethren, we are also part of MWC. Faber’s conversation with Garcia focused on what Mennonite Brethren gain and contribute to the global body of Christ and is excerpted here.

CL: I think sometimes we wonder how we fit in this big, global Anabaptist family. What do you see as the benefits for U.S. Mennonite Brethren of being part of the global inter-Mennonite body?

García: The benefits are the same regardless of your Anabaptist background as Mennonite Church U.S., Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren or Conservative Mennonite. All MWC members share the practical consequence of our shared biblical call to unity.

The apostle Paul speaks in the book of Ephesians about the intentionality we should have as disciples of Jesus to keep the unity of the Spirit. Unity is a fact. We are not called to manufacture unity or to create it with our own efforts. It’s something that the Holy Spirit produces. Our invitation is to keep it.

In Ephesians 4:13, Paul says there is a time when we will reach the stature of maturity of Christ. But we do not reach maturity in Jesus if we are not one with Jesus’ followers. So, we need each other.

Coming back to your question, if you are living in North America, it will be a huge impact to know how disciples of Jesus are following Jesus in a context of extreme violence, like in Myanmar. What does it mean to follow Jesus when your life is threatened? When you have real enemies that can kill you.

On the other hand, when you are facing questions about post-modernism and how to be a Christian where people don’t believe in one unique truth, where people have lost faith in the church and institutions and where people don’t know about Jesus. Then it makes sense to learn about following Jesus in a place like the Netherlands that has been dealing with those questions during the last decades, and where you find churches that are growing in that context.

If you are part of a middle-class church where everyone has a regular job with good, or at least average, income, and a car and a house, then it makes sense to hear what it means to follow Christ when you are dealing with extreme poverty, like churches in Malawi, for instance.

And for those in Malawi, they need to hear what the meaning of following Christ is when you don’t need to pray for food, because you actually have a good job with good salary. How do you follow Christ in that context?

We need each other. If you are only in one context, you don’t realize your own blind spots. You only discover them when you are out of that context.

Diversity is all over Scripture—in Ephesians and Galatians, Corinthians, the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke. You cannot get this diversity if you are only in your own small local congregation. The New Testament doesn’t speak about local congregations acting independently. It speaks about this multicultural richness of the body of Christ.

CL: How do you see MWC members practically supporting one another?

García: Our churches in an African country that I cannot mention because of security issues are dealing with persecution. When it’s illegal to be Christian and you are in jail, you need the support in prayer of all other churches around the world.

Or, as it happened with our MB churches in Peru some years ago, if you are facing a natural disaster, you need the support of others. Sometimes the needs are so overwhelming and so huge that you need the support of every member of Anabaptist family—Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, Conservative Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren—helping to rebuild the houses and church buildings of thousands of people in Peru.

We also need the global body if we want to have a bigger impact in the world. When we think about wise management in church planting or mission, it doesn’t make sense to duplicate efforts. What if we coordinate? What if we talk with each other to be sure that what we do doesn’t end up duplicating efforts?

There are pragmatic reasons why it makes sense to be one. But we are one not because of benefits, but because it’s God’s will; it’s what we are called to be. Without real unity, the witness to Christ is diminished. When people that don’t follow Jesus look at the church and find division or fragmentation, that doesn’t make sense. How is that different from the world of non-faith?

César García, general secretary of Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and his wife, Sandra Báez, pastor and executive assistant to the general secretary, spent a day on the Tabor College campus in late March speaking in classes and talking with students and faculty. Photo: Michael Klaassen

CL: As general secretary, what have you learned personally about bringing about this kind of unity? What are some of the practical things that you have seen when dealing with so many cultures and theological viewpoints.

García: It is amazing for me to see is that we are not as different as we think. When we compare Mennonite Brethren with Brethren in Christ or Conservative Mennonites, it’s amazing how similar we are.

Sometimes, there are local congregations that belong to one conference that have more in common with local congregations in other conferences. And when we make those comparison globally, then the similarities are even more evident. You will find churches in some countries that belong to one conference, and when you see them, you will say, “Well, they actually fit better in this other conference.” So, that’s one thing: we are not that different as we think we are.

Another thing is the natural human tendency, which I will say is a natural human tendency marked by sin, of division or fragmentation. We see that right at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis. Once sin is in the world, in the human race, we see deep division between Adam and Eve. And the next generation is even worse with the killing of Abel by Cain.

It’s clear that one of the first consequences of a life that is distant from God is division and fragmentation. And we see that in our churches. When we disagree about something, we go the way of fragmentation and division. I’m saying this not because it is easy to go a different direction. My natural tendency is to not want to speak with some members of my own family because we disagree deeply about several issues.

That’s the reason why unity, which is different from uniformity, is a miracle. Unity assumes components that are different from each other and is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. When God is moving and we are open to that movement, then there is unity. It may be that differences about beliefs, behavior or ethics are still there. But unity can overwhelm differences.

I have also learned that divisions and fragmentations are usually the result of our human tendency instead of something that God is inviting us to. Division has to do with sin or fear, with thirst of power or competition, with lack of maturity or understanding about the church.

And that’s difficult for us as Anabaptist because we usually think that the faithful thing to do when there is a disagreement is to divide ourselves, right? If we are faithful, we need to separate ourselves from others because they are wrong. But the Bible calls us in a different direction. We need to somehow challenge our way of justifying divisions and start to actually believe what Jesus says in his prayer that we may be one for the world to believe.

CL: Are there some things that Mennonite Brethren have that are unique or of distinctive value that we bring to the table of the global Anabaptist church?

García: Yes, there are. When there is an MB church that is not committed to the global church, the global church is losing a very important part of the body of Christ. I have seen how God has called many Mennonite Brethren to be leaders that serve the global Anabaptist church and even beyond. It is fascinating to see how many Mennonite Brethren have worked in a way that has blessed Anabaptist global bodies in different ways.

So, when there are Mennonite Brethren that think we should not be so committed to the global church, then the global church is missing important gifts that God has for the global church through the MB family. The MB family has a very special mix of Anabaptist identity when we think about peacemaking, when we think about community, when we think about service.

Mennonite Brethren mixed core Anabaptist values with the Pietist movement and brought to Anabaptism an emphasis on spiritual disciplines, worship, praying and dependence on the Holy Spirit. This mix, which is not exclusive of Mennonite Brethren, is something that blesses enormously the Anabaptist family and that many, many Anabaptists value and see with appreciation.

When I think about the MB family, I immediately remember the verse in the Bible that says, we are blessed to be blessed. Mennonite Brethren have a lot to give to the Anabaptist world. When we see the history of Mennonite World Conference, we can find Mennonite Brethren from Congo, Portugal, Germany, Canada, the U.S., Colombia, Paraguay and India who have contributed in key leadership positions. I think it’s a call to serve, not just a random occurrence. The Anabaptist world is blessed by the MB contribution and has been for many years. And when there is a lack of interest in doing that, the global church loses a lot.

 

 

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