NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) ⸺ On Aug. 1, Stanley W. Green, outgoing executive director for Mennonite Mission Network, will pass the baton to Michael J. Sherrill, PhD. Mission Network sponsored a webinar to mark this milestone, "Advancing God's mission: tending the vision, today and tomorrow."
During the June 11 webinar, the two leaders shared their perspectives, hopes and prayers regarding the leadership transition. Laurie Oswald Robinson, editor for Mission Network, moderated the evening's conversation, focusing on Green and Sherrill's history and future with the organization, as well as fielding questions from the online audience. Below are some distilled excerpts from the evening.
What has been most satisfying to you in your respective roles?
Green: I have been greatly privileged and honored to have been given the opportunity to lead in the mission initiatives of Mennonite Church USA for the past 20 years almost, and prior to that, an additional eight years with one of our predecessors, Mennonite Board of Missions. In the course of this time, I have had the wonderful privilege of making friends and visiting with many of our loyal supporters and friends. There is little that can equal having a job that allows you to participate with God and others in bringing healing and hope and the restoration of creation to God's intended purpose.
I was asked once what makes me cry? It is having been granted the opportunity for a quarter-plus century to join in worship with sisters and brothers in cultures around the world with whom I share a common passion for bearing witness to Jesus Christ. I'm filled with joy when I know that I am in the presence of sisters and brothers in whose presence I will be when, one day, we are together with God.
Sherrill: One of the deepest joys for me as director for Asia and Middle East has been connecting with our workers and witnessing their work around the world. I have seen and sensed God at work, as the Holy Spirit has moved in the most difficult of circumstances and most remote corners. Praying and worshiping together with these partners are sacred moments that bring you to tears because they so grab your heart and is so deeply moving. I have felt a profound joy in knowing that God is indeed at work all over the world, and we get to be a part of it.
After returning from administrative trips, I have been energized to keep finding the way forward with my colleagues in the offices of Elkhart and in Newton and with dispersed staff. A joy washes over me when I think about how all of us as staff, along with donors and friends, are connected and committed to Mission Network. We face deeply challenging times, including the current pandemic and a growing engagement with systemic racism issues. And yet, even in this uncertainty, I cannot push away the sense of hope that we are not alone. God is walking with us, and we are on this pilgrimage together.
What is the most profound move of God you have witnessed up to this point in your ministry?
Green: One of the moves of God I am most grateful for is the creation of Mennonite Mission Network out of the union of the former General Conference Mennonite Church and the former Mennonite Church, which is now Mennonite Church USA. We faced real questions about how the mission activities of the church would be carried forward from three former agencies: Mennonite Board of Missions, Commission on Overseas Mission, and Commission on Home Ministries. And to an extent, there was a fourth culture, Third Way Media, which became a part of MennoMedia. We experienced anxiety over whether these four cultures would facture and split before we got off the ground. I praise God for bringing us together to form a single team from dispersed locations. Though we were working from different places, we shared the same space in terms of serving the mission commitments and goals from across various regions of Mennonite Church USA.
In that same vein, I am also grateful for the generosity of donors who helped us by sharing the resources needed to fund a new building for all of Mennonite Church USA's agencies on the campus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. This was a major undertaking, and it drew upon the unselfish contributions of many people. I'm so grateful for the savings this has meant for us and the space it has provided, even though now, we are all working from home. Yet, it's a comfort to know that when this is over, we will have a congenial space to go back to.
Sherrill: Though I have witnessed many amazing moves of God, one really swept me off my feet and floats to the top. On one occasion about a year and a half ago, I was visiting an unregistered church in a jungle area of southeast Asia. They have a regular place where they meet in secret. I was privileged and honored to be there, sitting on the floor with them in a prayer time. I couldn't understand the language, but I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit honoring their heartfelt prayers. A translator passed on to me a message from one of the women in the gathering. She said, "This is an area of heavy persecution, and so that is why we meet in secret. If we were to be found out, we would go to prison and do hard labor. And yet, we don't pray for an end to the persecution. We pray that the Lord would keep us faithful in persecution."
I praise God for this total abandonment to God's Spirit, and that energized me and inspired me so deeply, and I find it unforgettable. And there are many other things like this happening, especially in areas of persecution. Many are suffering for their faith, and that is very hard for us in the Western context to even imagine what it is like. So, it was always a gift to be in their context and to witness how powerfully the Spirit moved in their context of suffering.
What do you feel Mission Network's response needs to be in the context of our very fragile and troubled world ⸺ including the current pandemic crisis and the worldwide protests against systemic racism?
Green: I came to Mennonite Board of Missions back in 1993 in the wake of the uprisings in Los Angeles in response to the beatings of Rodney King. With all the attention of the media and people at various levels of government, I was sure we were going to transform the situation of injustice and inequality that existed then. How sad that almost 30 years later, we are still dealing with the same issue.
It's easy for people to become cynical and despair in the face of the tragedies we've seen, especially in light of the death of George Floyd. And yet, I believe God is still calling us to be agents of healing in a time of pandemic and agents of hope in a time of cynicism and despair that has come to so many. Mission is about investing value in every individual human being. It's what Jesus did. And it is that to which we are called in our mission of extending the fullness of life to every person. This crisis we are facing in our country is causing alienation and great hurt, and we are called to making dismantling racism an essential part of our mission. The current world situation persuades me that the work to which we are called is needed now more than ever. And it makes me grateful for those who are willing to partner with us to advance God's purpose in our times
Sherrill: Mennonite Mission Network exists for a reason, and that is to be agents of healing and hope. This means reflecting and repenting and listening in a deep way to the voices of suffering and pain. Paul Tillich once said that the first act of love is to listen. There's a really good word in the Japanese language to indicate actively, lovingly listening ⸺ nesshin ni kiku. This phrase is a combination of three words ⸺ head, heart and hear. It means to listen with a warm heart, or to listen with a warm spirit. And that connects to the meaning also in the Hindi greeting, namaste. In English, it means the spirit in me greets the spirit in you. It indicates a mutual appreciation for the other, a deep respect for the other person as precious in God's eyes.
The sentiments from those two cultures point me back to Genesis 2:7 and the creation of the first human being. God took clay and made a figure. But how did that statue become a living human being? The breath of God. God breathed into it and the clay figure became alive because of God's breath, God's Spirit, God's presence with that person. If we look at ourselves and put our thumb on our wrist, we feel a pulse. This is the heartbeat of God. God's Spirit is in us. That means that every human being on this planet is precious and is created in God's image. Each person is created to be loved. And so, our calling to be agents of healing and hope is really centered on love ⸺ love of God and love of neighbor.