I was born into a Mennonite Brethren family, and I didn’t fully understand its significance until I grew up, so to speak. I am here to share publicly why I am grateful for the Mennonite Brethren church worldwide. I have celebrated often that I am part of this incredible denomination and my prayer is that you will come to understand more fully what a spiritual heritage we have.
In 1976, I was asked by the U.S. Conference to attend the National Association of Evangelical (NAE) convention in Washington, D.C. as a representative to the Women’s Commission. This involvement has truly opened my eyes to the value we as Mennonite Brethren offer the world. I will share three stories that I hope will begin your celebration of what Mennonite Brethren have meant to the world and why we must celebrate as we move into the future.
Story 1: At one NAE convention I ended up sitting beside Billy Graham at the opening banquet. During dinner, our conversation led us to talk about his denomination, and he asked me what denomination I represented. When I told him Mennonite Brethren, he looked at me with amazement, pointed around our table and said, “You probably have one of the richest heritages of all of us sitting around this table.”
I could hardly respond. I didn’t know what to say.
Story 2: As I became more involved with NAE, they asked me to join an eight-member team that would represent the U.S. at the fourth United Nations Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, in 1995. Our team was led by the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. The team included most major mainline denominations, and I represented the evangelical constituency.
I was asked to serve as the chaplain on the team. The second week we were there, I was asked to lead the one-hour Christian worship service in the prayer tent. I had various members of our team read Scripture, pray and share testimonies and we all sang. Our tent was jammed full, with people standing outside.
At the close of the service, two Anglican priests from New Zealand came up and asked, “Madam, of what faith are you?”
“Have you ever heard of Mennonite Brethren?” I asked.
One of the priests looked at me and said, “What are you doing here? You’re people of the Bible!”
Story 3: The NAE asked me to move to the World Evangelical Alliance and serve as chair of its women’s commission. This endeavor began over 12 years of travel to every region of the world. Within the first year, I realized that we had to address abuse against women in the church around the world. The WEA president asked me to address this and that began a five-year study by a 19-member task force put together of people from every region of the world. I know why God called me to this task: I was a victim of abuse myself at age 10 by my school teacher, who was a member of my church.
Again, my MB heritage had huge significance in this whole picture. When meeting with all of the European alliance leaders, including Russian, Bulgarian, German and all the Scandinavian leaders, I was always welcomed and invited to speak. Why?
NAE president Gordon Showell-Rogers said to me, “Winnie, I am so grateful to God that you are the head of the NAE Women’s Commission because as a Mennonite Brethren I can take you anywhere in the world and you will be respected and welcomed to speak.”
Three lessons from three stories
Let’s celebrate and be thankful for our past. And, after we take time to celebrate, we must move forward with this foundation and recommit ourselves to three things that can be drawn from these three stories.
- We must carry on the incredible MB heritage that Billy Graham was talking about.
- From the second story, we must continue to be people of the Bible. It must be the central theme of our message. Mark 13:31 says God and his Word provide the only stability in our unstable world. This makes the third point possible.
- We must continue to live a vibrant testimony of godliness, loving God and then loving everyone else. Our forefathers’ testimonies were ones of serving, giving, helping, caring, loving, assisting, humility, hard work, faithfulness and honesty. There are many more worlds I could use—words that I heard from people around the world. I want to be known for that today! Don’t you?
We have not celebrated our heritage as we should have. Have we told our children the story that our forefathers have paved a way for a people to make a world-wide difference, a world-wide impact?
Living in harmony, encountering God
Psalm 133:1 says, “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony.” I chose this passage because of the word, “harmony.” Harmony is a pleasing combination of sounds in relationship to each other. How does this apply today?
I believe we must live out our faith like our forefathers did. Our country’s only hope is the church. The church’s only hope is Christians living like Christians. Christians can only live like Christians when we see, know and experience the God of the Bible.
By experiencing God, I mean to have a profound encounter with him, an encounter that is in harmony with his Word and a relationship so close that you have total belief in every promise written in God’s Word.
My prayer for myself, for the church and for our conference is that we make knowing, seeing and experiencing God our number one priority in life. I want to know God like never before so that I can be a catalyst for hope in my country. That’s what our forefathers did, and they impacted the world.
Practicing what we believe
My prayer for our Mennonite Brethren church is Habakkuk 3:2: “I have heard about you, Lord. I am filled with awe by your amazing works. In this time of our deep need, help us again as you did in years gone by.”
Only God can restore life to something that is dying. If you find that your heart has grown cold to God, that the spiritual life of your family or your church has waned, it is not your activity but your relationship with God that brings life.
God has promised that we can have a vibrant, abundant life if we live by his Word. I have that life! Why? Because I have a relationship with God. That gives me confidence to believe God will always do what he says, so I continue to believe and walk by faith—and miracles happen.
I close with one paragraph from a letter written by a MB soldier about to come home to America after World War 2. This paragraph strikes me hard.
“It has been said of the modern church that it is in a state of suspended animation. It is neither a force for good nor against evil. We see people go in and out of the church on Sunday and hear nothing more about it till we see them go in the following Sunday and nothing comes of it…. I have seen many soldiers die for our freedom of worship and you are not even willing to live for it…. Oh, that you Christians would begin to practice what you preach and that your lives begin to take on some semblance of your profession.”
This article is adapted from Winnie Bartel’s keynote address at the 2018 USMB National Convention held July 26-28 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The theme of the convention was “Celebrating our diversity and unity.” Bartel spoke Friday morning, July 27.