Sharing Our Story
Historical Dimensions of Integration
The following is an address given by Nelson Sheifele at the integration of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada. Remembered as a moving message filled with inspiration and hope.
"I would like to begin 450 years ago when a religious revival swept Europe. Our Anabaptist forebearers were on the leading edge of that world changing movement and the Anabaptist family grew rapidly for a time. Due partly to severe persecution and partly because of the humanity lodged in the hearts and minds of some leaders, the family became tragically divided and scattered. It scattered across Europe into Asia and into North America. Eventually God saw fit to bring three streams of that family into what is today Ontario in three relatively independent migrations.
It began with the Swiss Mennonites coming from Pennsylvania, They were followed by the Amish migration from Europe and then, in this century in the early 20's, the Russian Mennonites fleeing from a nightmare of revelation were welcomed by their Mennonite cousins who were already well established.
Each group, as they came, settled in their relatively distinct enclaves with little, if any, vision to participate in the lives of the others. However, God, through geography and history and experience, through the passing of time, and through the gentle and not so gentle prodding of visionary leaders, had another storyline for these people.
As I look over the history of the last 70 or 80 years, I cannot help but believe that there has been a divine intervention in the lives of our conferences. How for example do we respond to the many positive experiences that we have had together in such organizations as Mennonite Central Committee? How do we explain the rich cross fertilization that was provided by the Ontario Mennonite Bible School & Institute for the old Mennonites and the Amish? Have our institutions such as Conrad Grebel College only been historical accidents? Were the joint mission efforts of the 60s, and 70s especially, only the disjointed dreams of a few conference mission leaders? Was the fact that our three peoples found themselves living in relatively close proximity in Southern Ontario with it's prosperity and excellent road system only a geographical coincidence? I think not.
Let us never be of such a secular frame of mind that we cannot believe that God has worked among us whether we have been conscious of it or not. Surely through the eyes of faith we can affirm that in all of these events and settings, and many others that we could highlight together if time permitted, God has been at work gently, but firmly, preparing three streams of the Mennonite family for something. For something very special to join together in a united celebrative witness to our unity as one family of faith - to restore the unity lost to our forebearers back in the 16th century through division and persecution.
It is that vision that has kept me going for the last number of years in working at integration. Over the years, we have worked together in numerous settings, we have studied together in our schools, our colleges, and our seminary. We have learned to respect each other. Our cultural differences have dissolved as we have become Canadianized. We have learned to appreciate each other's heritage and even celebrate them. Our children have inter-married. Our emerging congregations and churches have pleaded for one mother conference rather than be relegated as the step children of several. God, through his providence and grace has given our conference families a rich mosaic of common and shared experiences to which we have needed to respond. He prepared the soil carefully and over the years planted many integrating seeds and nurtured their growth with the gentle rains and the warmth of common experience. It has now become our honoured task, even our holy task, to reap the harvest of God's tender and patient nurturing.
Some of our leaders had visions of something new already in the 60's and some before that. The Inter-Mennonite Conference, begun in 1973, served to bring many more of us together in enriching ways. In 1978 an exuberant call to join together went out to our congregations from the annual Inter-Mennonite Conference sessions held in Elmira, ON, but we stumbled and we fell. The time just didn't seem to be right and yet the dream and the conviction could not be stilled. The flame of God's Spirit kept working among us and prodding us and then suddenly -- it happened. A series of minor crisis and numerous frustrating events, which I can not take time to describe, resulted in a calling of a special meeting of the three conference executives on December 19, 1984, less than three years ago.
That evening at the Erb Street Mennonite Church in Waterloo will always remain in my mind as an historic moment which proved bigger and mightier than any one of us as individuals or as conferences. In one evening, barriers, which to that point had always seemed insurmountable, began to evaporate and everyone seemed ready to move ahead and to try again with an integrating process. Had we been Abrahams or Jacobs that evening we would surely have built an alter in that place as a symbol that God had visited us.
In the past three years we have worked diligently to structural integrate our three families. Again and again we have been awed and amazed at how quickly and how readily things have slipped into place. It almost felt like God had stopped the mouths of any lions who might easily have, at any point, devoured our fragile emerging structures and peoplehood.
Today we are turning the key to enter the new structure that we have created. After three years of building, it is not a perfect structure. There is no doubt that the roof is going to leak in several places and some of the doors won't fit right. There is still some carpeting that has to be laid and, in fact, we might even wish that we could redesign some of the rooms. But it is livable.
What we must never forget is that it is only a structure. We now need to make it our home. It will only become a home if we can hold onto the vision that I have outlined -- that God has brought us to this place through our history for a purpose. It will only become a home for us if we continue to build relationships of fellowship, love and trust -- under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
That is the challenge for all of us. Let us remember that the most beautiful cathedral in the world is surely a mockery to God if there is no unity or love or kindred spirit among the people who worship therein. Let us therefore not spare ourselves in nurturing growth as a family of God in Eastern Canada. We have been led through a lengthy journey of courtship. I pray that we can have a rich marriage as the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada. Amen."