I have learned who I am through my Mennonite experience. From my initial church youth group experience, short-term summer mission trips to Mexico with MB Mission (now Multiply), education at Fresno Pacific University and employment at Mennonite Central Committee, my values, my framework to life, my approach to work and my heartbeat—all inter-weave Anabaptist Mennonite values.
Rea is not the typical Mennonite Brethren surname. It is not reflected on Fresno Pacific University buildings or in the usual role call at an FPU class. I don’t have a family history and heritage that traces back to Russian, German or a colony in Paraguay, so I was often excluded from playing the Mennonite name game at new student gatherings or MCC staff orientation. Regardless of this experience, I am a Mennonite.
I am a Mennonite of Latino and African descent. My family history traces back to the early 1940s when the U.S. and Mexico extended guarantees to farm laborers known as the Bracero program. My paternal grandfather was one of these “Braceros,” a Mexican seasonal laborer admitted legally into the U.S. My family history also has roots in the slave trade in the Caribbean (Honduras and Roatan) with Negro-African roots in Ethiopia. My maternal grandfather was “Coolie;” he had Indian and African ancestry and was slave laborer on the trains.
Created in God’s image
A tessara is an individual tile, usually formed in the shape of a cube, used in creating a mosaic. If I choose to focus on a single tile, I only receive a small visual within the broader Imageo. I enjoy, value and have fallen in love with the mosaic of the Mennonite Brethren Church. I’m a tesserae to this mosaic, and we are created in Imageo Dei (God’s image).
Unfortunately, the discovery and learning that is part of my Mennonite experience has not always been joy-filled. Living in two communities with a strong Mennonite Brethren history—Reedley and Fresno, California— my church participation was easily overlooked or at times questioned, since I didn’t have two to three generations of Mennonite ties within the church. It was not said explicitly, but it often felt as if I was not fully a church member or part of the Menno family because I lacked that qualification.
My commitment and dedication to being a Christian began when I was in high school. I was blessed to find a group of friends at school that were part of a youth group, and they welcomed me in. I also had a youth pastor, Bob Rutherford, that was extremely supportive.
Bob had a unique style in that he would answer your questions with either more questions or in a way that would cause you to continue searching and learning. He was a middle school math teacher and baseball coach and looking back I’m sure all that teaching experience helped him be a great youth pastor.
As we read stories, passages and learned about Bible characters, Bob would often ask: Where do you see yourself in the story? What do you think God is trying to tell you through this? So simple, yet so profound.
Seeing myself in the story
There’s a passage that has always fascinated me and has shaped my yearning to know and draw close to God as a Christian. It’s the story in Luke 5:17-20 where Jesus forgives and heals a paralyzed man. “One day while Jesus was teaching, some Pharisees and teachers of religious law were sitting nearby. (It seemed that these men showed up from every village in all Galilee and Judea, as well as from Jerusalem.) And the Lord’s healing power was strongly with Jesus. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a sleeping mat. They tried to take him inside to Jesus, but they couldn’t reach him because of the crowd. So, they went up to the roof and took off some tiles. Then they lowered the sick man on his mat down into the crowd, right in front of Jesus. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the man, ‘Young man, your sins are forgiven.’”
Reflecting on Bob’s questions, God wants me to know that Jesus provides forgiveness and healing. I also find myself in many aspects of the story. Sometimes I’m the guy that mismanaged time, and I show up late (maybe Latino time, maybe value of community which caused me to be late) so I’m part of the crowd that is outside the house trying to get a glimpse of Jesus.
Sometimes I feel like I shine; I’m the host. It’s my house that everybody is gathered at, the Spirit shows up and folks receive healing. Maybe not exactly from being physically paralyzed and now able to walk—but spiritual, their heart once again able to receive of God’s goodness.
I don’t like to admit it out loud, but sometimes I’m the paralyzed man in need of all of it—forgiveness, healing and a community (a church) that is holding my mat so that I may receive and be face-to-face with Christ.
I’ve always desired to live, speak and connect with others as described in verse 20: “Seeing their faith…Jesus forgives and heals.” I want to have and display such faith. In this parable, it took a group, a community, a church to carry the mat and lower the paralytic through the roof. I desire for others to receive forgiveness and healing because of my faith. The beauty of this process, this transformation, is that it doesn’t matter if I’m male or female, educated or illiterate, tall or short, brown, black, white, green or blue. It’s my heart!
The courage to learn
I recall taking a college missions course that shaped my approach to work, ministry and missions. I learned to recognize how one’s framework and initial approach to doing church or ministry abroad while engaging some type of intercultural experience is complex if one wants to do it well. Coming from a dominant culture, a position of privilege, regardless of my skin color—my ethnocentric framework must be diluted. I must enter and engage with an open heart, open mind and open hands. We might also call this a listening approach that allows for values and dignity of the “other” to be less harmed and minimize the layers of privilege and power that could otherwise be present. I had to have the courage to learn so that by my faith others could heal. I see this listening approach in my work at Mennonite Central Committee, I see it as Anabaptist, I see it as Mennonite Brethren and I see it as Me.
Next time you hear the phrase, “U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches,” I encourage you to think of the many MB congregations— Hispanic, Slavic, Korean, Ethiopian, Filipino, Congolese, Japanese, Chinese, and Ukrainian. And that’s just in the West Coast region. Think of the beautiful prayers in native languages that we can hear just among U.S. Mennonite Brethren.
I invite you to have the courage to learn who are Mennonite Brethren. One thing I can tell you is that we are a mosaic! I’m a piece of this mosaic— a tesserae—and you’re a tesserae. The spectrum of churches and their richness are each a tesserae that is needed to complete the mosaic. When one is excluded, even unintentionally—their absence is felt. Will you have the courage to learn?