From July 2-6, Hyun and Sue joined thousands of Mennonites in Kansas City, Missouri, for the 2019 Mennonite Church USA convention. The convention is a biennial event that draws together Mennonites from across the United States and around the world for worship, fellowship, workshops, business meetings and more.
Sue was the preacher during the Wednesday evening worship services. You can read excerpts from her remarks below.
Forty years ago, I immigrated to the United States. Our family moved to a small suburb northeast of Los Angeles where there weren’t many Asians. Most of the kids were friendly, but I do recall one incident in 3rd grade when a school bully came up to me, walked in a circle around me, and said, “Ching chong, you Chinese chink!” I didn’t know what to say, but my face burned red and my heart palpitated. My best comeback was, “I’m not Chinese!”
Her response? “Well, then you are a stupid Japanese!” (said as she squinted her eyes and slanted them with her fingers).
My heart beat a little slower and I responded more calmly. “I’m not Japanese!”
“Then what ARE you?” she demanded.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to respond to her ignorance of Asian geography, but I did. “I’m Korean!” I shouted proudly.
She looked at me blankly and asked, “What’s that?”
Although these days I don’t regularly get blatantly racist questions directed at me like I did on the playground when I was eight, I do still get that quizzical look sometimes that communicates, “What ARE you?” when people ask me about my denominational affiliation. My Korean friends have no idea what a Mennonite is. “What’s that?” is their usual response. My friends who have heard about Mennonites are also confused, because they have a certain perception of what a Mennonite should look like — the head covering, plain clothing— and well, it’s not Asian.
I joined the Mennonite Church not because of the unique fashion statements, the quilting, the potlucks, or even the four part singing. What drew me and my husband to the Mennonite Church was the reputation Mennonites have of offering a faithful peace witness as followers of Jesus. We heard about a small group of folks who, for over 500 years, have tried to seriously follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and this intrigued us.
It intrigued us because my husband and I were born in a place where civil war had ravaged a country, its people, its land, its very heart and soul.
The war had directly impacted my family even though it happened before I was born.
You see, my father was 17 years old in 1950 when the Korean War broke out and he was drafted. My introverted and quiet father was thrust into a war. He took arms and saw things that a 17 year old shouldn’t see. And that damaged him. For the rest of his life, he suffered from PTSD.
Back then, there was no terminology to diagnose him. When I was growing up, we didn’t understand what was happening. All we knew was that he got a little weird. Our family didn’t talk about it because mental illness was a taboo subject, especially in an Asian culture. We didn’t want to bring shame or dishonor to my father.
The scars of the war have been branded on the lives of our parents and our grandparents, and that trauma has been transmitted to us and our children. Sixty-nine years later, North and South Korea are still divided, and the Korean Peninsula is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world with nuclear capabilities to start a world war.
Given this background, Hyun and I wanted to learn how Mennonites understood peace and what Jesus had to say about peace. We wanted to understand how to live in this violent world of perpetual war. What is the role of the church in a world where violence seems to increase power, and peace seems hopelessly idealistic? Is peace even possible?
We came searching for answers, but the Mennonite community wanted to hear my story. And today I have been invited to talk about peace.
Honestly, it’s hard to talk about peace. We are living at a time where we are so divided that we cannot talk about giving water to the thirsty and food to the hungry without controversy. We cannot talk about family separation without fearing how another person will respond. We are afraid of each other and our future together. And into this chaos, Jesus enters and says, “Peace be with you.”
We can theologize about the significance of this declaration. We can talk about the new creation shifting through Christ’s resurrection. We can celebrate that Jesus coming and saying peace be with you is a declaration that the powers of violence and chaos, death and destruction, will not get the last word. Jesus will get the last word.
But in the most basic sense, “peace be with you” is a traditional greeting. Jesus shows up and says “Hey guys! What’s up?” He greets them in an earthy and ordinary way, in their language and meeting their cultural expectations. He returns to say, “Hey guys, I’m back. The movement is not dead. It’s very, very alive.”
Greeting is powerful and it opens up a new way to connect.
For example, my husband has made multiple trips to North Korea (NK). And, not surprisingly, people in the church where my husband and I co-pastored got nervous about his trips. Will he be safe? Will he be able to make it back to the US? They were more nervous about him making the trip to North Korea than me!
So the weekend before he went to NK, he asked our church: Can I send a greeting to the church in North Korea? If I have the chance to visit the official NK church, and yes, there are official churches in NK, can I say, “In the name of Jesus, on behalf of Mountain View Mennonite Church, we send greetings and bless you.”
They weren’t so sure because we had differing views within our congregation on NK. He asked again and again until he received a reluctant yes.
And when he went to NK, he did have an opportunity to give a greeting at Bongsu Church. And there he had an opportunity to speak. And he said, “Mountain View Mennonite Church, in the name of Jesus, they send their greetings and blessings.” And they responded with a resounding AMEN!
It’s such a simple thing to exchange a greeting, but it is powerful. Hyun was not a diplomat, but a simple Mennonite pastor doing what he could to send a greeting and return a greeting back to our church. These face-to-face exchanges and greeting are essential in peacemaking.
Although we are small in numbers, Mennonites are known across the world for faithfulness in recognizing that peace and reconciliation are at the heart of the gospel. I think what makes the Mennonite peace witness unique is that we have the gift of tradition and stories that have embodied our faith.
So how will we share these beautiful and messy stories, these embodied stories, of peace so that the peace of Christ can be shared?
John 20 shows that peace begins by being present. Notice before Jesus greeted the disciples, it says that Jesus came and stood among them. Jesus stood among the disciples who were traumatized and deeply afraid.
We also see a more intimate picture of Jesus in the earlier chapter of John 20 when Jesus came and stood with Mary. We see Mary weeping and lamenting that her Lord is gone and that his body has been taken away. While other disciples are running around trying to figure out what has happened, she sits, sighs, breathes, and cries. She sits there offering the gift of her tears, her vulnerable words, and wanting to see her Lord. We see through Mary the gift of lament for herself, for her community. And Jesus stood with her, and he called her by name.
Peace begins with Jesus who stands among the traumatized. Peace begins with Jesus sitting with Mary’s tears and the disciples’ fears.
You cannot move quickly through peace. You cannot sanitize, minimize, or hasten the pain, loss, and fear. We must be fully present and see the broken world as it is. It is through prophetic lament that peace begins.
Like Mary and the other disciples, it is when we recognize the presence of Christ that we, too, can be fully present. We can sit with our pain and the pain of others because we recognize that Jesus is there. That Jesus is here. It is through this gift of standing among and sitting with our own fears and the fears of others that peace can be embodied.
This “with-ness” is a powerful way to be a peace wit-ness. This picture shows some of my with-nesses in the Mennonite church who have taught me how to sit with my fears, to name them, and how to follow the Prince of Peace at all costs.
Mennonite Church USA, many of us are fearful. We are fearful for the future of the church. We have experienced loss and confusion. Sometimes it is so painful to see what has happened to the church that we have sanitized, minimized, and hastened.
Let us pause, sigh, breathe, and cry so that we can truly see. And as we lament, we may see Jesus standing with us, and in so doing we can receive the gift of peace that he offers to us. Move slowly and listen intentionally throughout the week and hear the cries from our communities and congregations. This is where the peace work begins.
Secondly, not only can we embody the gift of peace with our presence, but also with our proclamation.
Sometimes we hesitate to proclaim and to speak the hope and the gift we have received. We hesitate to talk about Jesus and proclaim his name. We hesitate because we have seen the name of Jesus and Scripture used as a weapon to provoke violence. We have seen the misuse of Jesus’s message so much that we shy away from Christian language all together. This is understandable, but I believe the Mennonites have a significant voice and a message to speak into the larger Church when it comes to understanding the peace of Christ. We need courage to share where our peace conviction comes from. We have a message to proclaim with our actions and words.
Just yesterday, I met with people in our denomination who have seriously taken this call to peacemaking with words and action. We recognized that Mennonites do not have the corner on peace. However, we do have a distinct gift to contribute, whether we are organizing in our local or global communities. We need to continue to wrestle with who we are, what we are doing, and how we can better connect to do the work of peace.
I want to end by telling you about a friend who has helped me to understand this embodied peace in the midst of fear.
Sung Hwan Kim is a dear family friend. He is a woodworker and the founder of Cana Creation. Sunghwan is also an ordained pastor. Two years ago, ReconciliAsian formed a team to travel to North Korea. Because of the travel ban imposed by the US, we were unable to go into North Korea, but the team still decided to go to the border of China and North Korea.
We went up to Mt. Baekdu, the tallest and the most sacred mountain in the Korean Peninsula. For Sunghwan, his primary goal was to find pieces of wood from this famous mountain. It was a cold 18°F, but he was able to pick up a few pieces of a fallen branch.
A few days later, his family and my family flew from China to Jeju Island in South Korea. Jeju Island is the southernmost island in South Korea. There he found some pieces of fallen branches.
When we returned to Los Angeles from Asia, he worked with two pieces of wood—one from Mt. Baekdu and one from Mt. Halla—to create the Reconciliation Cross.
When I shared this story with my friend, Shannon Dycus, she said, “Well, this cross embodies peace, doesn’t it? We go to the edges, gather what we can, and create. You guys went to the edges of these two different mountains, gathered the fallen wood branches, and made this beautiful cross.”
This is what all of us are called to do. We are to go to the edges: to the places where the marginalized people are. Some of us here are marginalized people. It’s not just somewhere over there. We go to them, these places where people are hurting. And we gather. We gather what we can: the stories and songs. We listen. And then we create something and bridge things together. Jesus will surprise us and invite us to create something new.
Friends, we need this promise of peace embodied in this cross: the cross of the resurrection that gives us the power and the peace to embrace each other. Our church needs this cross at the center of our work.
Although the United States is not physically divided like North and South Korea, we are a divided people. We need to embrace that although we are a historic peace church, there are places in our church that have grown apart. Our call is to not to walk away from each other, but to meet and embrace. We need to embrace until we see the image of God in the other. This embrace is the sign of peace. To embrace each other is not to minimize our differences, but to see that our differences, like the texture in this cross, make us more beautiful.
Christ’s embrace is wide and vast. And in the process, we will be surprised to see peace where it was not expected.
Friends, we have work to do. Let’s embrace the fact that even in our division, Jesus embraces us. He’s gracious to extend the gift of peace. We need the resurrection energy by embracing Jesus and one another.
Church, let us widen and deepen the container so we can lament, for that is where peace begins. Let us recognize that peacemaking work is to be embodied in our actions and words, and that this will take us to the edges to gather, to create, and to embrace.