On the Road: Hyattsville Mennonite Church 70th Anniversary

April 24, 2022
Luke 24:13-32

It was the fall of 1951…

Nelson Brunk’s wife, Ruth, still remembers how the announcement of the new slate of church officials was delayed that Sunday morning, while Pastor Shenk and another church elder met with Nelson in a small room in the back of the church to try and convince him to reconsider his decision to abandon the plain coat. Meanwhile the congregation sang hymn after hymn after hymn. After a delay of nearly an hour, the name of the new Sunday School Superintendent was announced and it was not Nelson Brunk. (p. 9)

… in December 1951 a group of nine Mennonite young people met in an apartment in Lanham to worship, fellowship and try to figure out how to proceed from where they were. They agreed it was time to set out on their own by forming a new congregation… (p. 10)

The first Sunday morning meeting was Feb 3, 1952… (p. 14)

          Today we are telling the story of our congregation. And we are telling the story of the resurrected Christ. For most of us, the story of Jesus is not new and yet we tell the Jesus story over and over because we keep learning from it, and it reminds us who we are and who we follow. Likewise, we tell the story of our own congregational origins to help remind us where we come from and how we are formed by that story.

It is strange how a story forms us, even when we are not there from its beginning. We know this about the biblical story, how we can find our own place in this ancient story from another land, how it can become our own faith story. The marvelous thing is that the same is true for our congregational story. It forms us as a church body – even as we are being formed by the Jesus story into Christ’s body. This is the power of stories; maybe this is why some people are so worried about stories and books these days, why there are people ready to ban certain books and stories, even burn them, though flame can not destroy what is written on our hearts.

Those nine young adults took a risk, to start a new church and it took a while, as it does with any new church, for the congregation to find its footing. Gene Miller, in the book Taking Root in Strange Soil, recounts that it was thought that Mennonites could not even be church in the city because urban soil was “too hard, stony, and shallow for Mennonite ideals to take root…” Thus said sociologist, J. Winfield Fretz, our own Sara Fretz Goering’s father. (p. vii) Of course that was before J Winfield had visited this congregation (and a few other urban churches) and saw that we have actually planted seeds in this hard red clay that is Maryland soil.

To get a fuller picture of our first fifty years, please read Gene’s book if you haven’t. I am only tugging on one strand of our story today.

Pastor Kenneth Good, the first full time pastor at Hyattsville Mennonite, is recorded as saying over and over that HMC needed to find its way to hospitality. He wrote in 1968 “Since we live in a time of ‘independence,’ when we no longer know the ties of community life, ‘barn raisings,’ ‘quilting parties’ and party telephone lies, but instead live in a city that tends to being impersonal, let us give ourselves to Christian hospitality…” (page 53)

          Here the Jesus story and the Hyattsville Mennonite story intersect. The grieving disciples are walking on the road, running away from the horrors of what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem. And a stranger begins to walk with them. The stranger is personable, somewhat sympathetic and begins to tell them all that they know about their faith tradition, all that they have forgotten even though they lived through it. It is not until they invite this stranger to eat with them, maybe even stay the night with them, that they recognize Jesus. It is in their practice of hospitality that Jesus is revealed. Suddenly it is obvious that he has been with them the whole time.

It was during the era of Kenneth Good, who preached hospitality, that the congregation opened the International Guest House at 16th and Kennedy St NW. This model of Christian hospitality hosted people from around the world and the US for over fifty years, closing in 2020. The Guest House was a place where hospitality was a concrete act of faith and servant leadership meant scrubbing toilets and baseboards, baking muffins and cookies. It was a house for volunteers and guests to learn from each other over coffee in the morning and tea at night.

According to Gene’s research, this is also the era when monthly potlucks started (on the second Sunday of the month) along with a church newsletter that introduced new attendees to the congregation. Over the years, as the congregation tried to understand what it means to be church where people come and go with such frequency, different approaches to hospitality were tried. There was an inclusion committee; there was a fun committee, there was even an assigned person to talk to visitors so they wouldn’t get overlooked – all of this in addition to the well-established hospitality committee.

But hospitality isn’t something a committee can solve. The disciples on the road experienced hospitality first hand and were changed by it, energized by it and then ran to share the gift of it. People who served at the Guest House experienced it and learned that hospitality is about how we approach each other, how we accept the people we meet, how we open ourselves not just to those we know but to the strangers that show up. These learnings from the Guest House filtered back to the congregation and we began to see that we could welcome strangers on Sunday morning and at the Warm Nights shelter; we learned to welcome people with different abilities from Jubilee Association and at the Day Center. Living out hospitality (instead of offering it by committee) opens possibilities for us to see Christ with us on the road, and in our midst. Hyattsville Pastor Kenneth Good, for as traditional as he was in the wild 1960s, understood the power of hospitality, that it can unite – and even – transform a congregation.

Gene’s book ends in 2002. We have been living the next chapters that will someday be written down. Gene writes about the congregational decision in1986 to create a process that educated ourselves about sexuality from psychological, sociological, medical and biblical perspectives. After this intense study, the first openly gay man was welcomed into membership. It seemed huge at the time but in subsequent years we discovered that welcoming one gay man, Jim Derstine, was only a first step on the road. Seventeen years later the congregation took a more public stance of welcome to LGBTQ people. Were we replaying some of those risks that nine young adults took when they stepped away from the familiar, traditional church?

The “trouble years,” as we sometimes call them, began gradually but came to a head when a pastor and then a few more people in Allegheny Conference, who took their faith very seriously, were concerned about Hyattsville Mennonite, about the way that anyone can worship and be a member here, LGBTQ or straight. These concerned conference folks took it upon themselves to bring “charges” against us. They said we were not interpreting church documents correctly, certainly not that the way other conference congregations lived them out.

In November 2005, after more than two years of committee meetings, letters and emails, small group meetings and regional meetings, it was time to vote. The delegates agreed: Hyattsville Mennonite was not doing church the right way. We would be placed under discipline until we repented. It was an attempt at a ban, to make sure that how we worshiped and worked as a congregation would not spread.

But the Power of God can not be shut up in a tomb, the Love of God cannot be contained in a church document or vote. Yes, we were sad, as we walked away from that meeting where the discipline was imposed. But we found that we didn’t walk alone. Like on the road to Emmaus, a fire burned in our hearts that could not be extinguished; in fact it only burned brighter as we received letters of support from across the Mennonite Church and beyond.

The Risen Christ miracle at HMC is that as we lived into ten years of discipline by the conference, as we broke bread with each other, we welcomed more people into the congregation. LGBTQ and straight folks came to join the congregation as we lived out a commitment to a more expansive view of church. This was and is a radical and reciprocal hospitality: straight and Queer people welcoming Queer folks into the church and at the same time Queer folks welcoming straight people into a fuller vision and experience of the Reign of God. Our faith as a congregation has grown and deepened as we walk the road together, as we understand the law and the prophets in new ways.

If the conference discipline was meant to stop our life of hospitality, it backfired. Some day I will do the research but anecdotally, we welcomed more Sunday morning visitors to worship in those ten years than we did before or since. (I guess people wanted to see for themselves what all the fuss was about here.) And our life together did not stop. We “rebuilt” the church to expand our hospitality to people with mobility issues, so that everyone could break bread together at fellowship meals in the basement. Already on the road to integration of queer folks, we took the next steps to bless the pastors to officiate weddings and we have all been blessed with Michelle as our associate pastor. Yes, there was hurt and anger in those years but there was also laughter and joy and love.

In March 2015, (once again after many meetings and letters and emails) the Allegheny Conference delegates decided that the denominational documents should be descriptive of church life, not prescriptive, and that allowed HMC to return to full membership in the conference. There was amazement as we left that meeting: the time of “exile” was over though true reconciliation after those trouble years would not come immediately or automatically. Like hospitality, reconciliation cannot be done by committee or a vote, it must be lived out and experienced.

Maybe enough time has passed that now we can look back and wonder at the gift of those years of discipline, how our congregational commitment to hospitality expanded. We learned in a deeper way what it means to walk together with those who are scorned and rejected. Walking with the Queer community during those years of discipline prepared us as a congregation to walk with immigrants who are derided and treated unjustly. Experiencing hospitality from the Queer community got us ready to walk with Life After Release and Court Watch. We might not have as many visitors on Sunday morning as we used to but we are living out hospitality.

Seventy years on, we are taking root in this strange soil of the city. Hyattsville Mennonite used to be a place for young people; when people hit retirement age they returned to softer, less stony, more familiar soil in VA or KS or PA. But now we welcome people into the congregation who have moved to the city to retire, to be near their children and grandchildren. We are taking root by getting to know our neighbors at the San Mateo congregation. We are taking root by learning about the Doctrine of Discovery and whiteness and abolition and what it means to be on this land of the Piscataway peoples along with people from across the globe. We are learning to take root – while walking the road, and encountering the Risen Christ in the breaking of bread (and sometimes anniversary cake.)

In 1952 nine young adults left one way of doing church to create another way of being church. It was a step of faith which became a journey toward a new story. Their story is not finished; now it is our story too. We are an inclusive Anabaptist community of faith, hope, and love, following Jesus and seeking equity, justice, and peace for ourselves, our communities, and our world. (HMC mission statement 2021)