Small and welcoming Mennonite Fellowship is probably a lot more progressive than you thought

And they don't shun technology or modern dress

CINCINNATI -- If you've ever been to Sleepy Bee in Oakley, chances are good you've seen -- maybe even parked by -- the small brick church at the corner of Brownway and Minot avenues.

There are two signs out front. One announces this is the home of the Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. The second, in three languages, declares, "No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor."

You might not realize the signs that popped up in yards all over in the wake of divisive immigration reform originated with a Mennonite congregation. Locally, they've been distributed by Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship pastor Renee Kanagy.

And right now, you might be wondering what else you don't know about the Mennonite church.

Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship sits at the corner of Bronway and Minot avenues in Oakley. You've likely seen the church, though you might have the wrong impression of the Mennonite faith.

'Will you wear a bonnet?'

The Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship is a congregation of about 140 members who travel from all over the region -- Dayton, Kentucky and Clermont County -- to worship at the Oakley church. On any given Sunday, you might find 70 people, many of them families with young children, singing in the pews.

About a third of the fellowship's members came to the Mennonite congregation from other faiths. Some of these, like Anne Hevener, came first because they married someone raised in the Mennonite faith. Just before Hevener's wedding, a coworker very seriously asked, "So, will you have to wear a bonnet after you get married?"

This common misperception comes because, like the Amish, the Mennonite faith was born out of the anabaptist movement.

Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship is part of Mennonite Church USA, one of 40 different Mennonite organizations in the U.S. All Mennonites are anabaptists, "rebaptizers," which means they believe only adults can make a decision to follow Jesus, and the church rebaptizes adults who already have been baptized as infants.

However, congregations like Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship are not closed groups, like the Amish or "Old Order" Mennonites. They don't shun technology or modern dress, but they do believe in peace, personal responsibility and social justice.

It's those beliefs that made Hevener interested in joining Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.

'Every person is responsible'

The local congregation is at the progressive end of a very wide spectrum of Mennonites. The variety  arises because of what Edward Diller, a member of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship and a former moderator for the national organization, calls an ethos of "communitarianism."

"Every person is responsible and capable for listening and learning, but the community is there to ground you," Diller said.

In practice, this means every congregation member is expected to listen to and engage other church members, and every member is encouraged to be an active part of the church. There is no choir; everyone sings in multi-part harmony. Church members give sermons, lead study groups and organize community service programs, such as the community dinner Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship has offered for years in Oakley.

Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship hosts a community dinner from 5 to 7 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday each month.

"It's a church that really invites participation," Hevener said.

Women have served in leadership roles since the 1980s. Local pastor Kanagy said she grew up seeing women lead in her Mennonite congregation.

Communitarianism also means that each congregation can come to its own decisions about practices and beliefs, Diller said, and congregations and conferences within the larger group don't always agree.

In January, a conservative Pennsylvania conference broke away from Mennonite Church USA in January over the issue of same-sex marriage. The local conference believed marriage could be only between a man and a woman, while the national organization has issued a resolution of forebearance, calling for grace and love and saying, basically, we need to continue to talk about this divisive issue.

Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, meanwhile, wrote a statement last year that welcomes every person, regardless of gender, race, income or sexual orientation to the church. Hevener's daughter, Caroline, helped craft the message, and the work reminded Hevener of the value the fellowship places on all church members, especially young people.

"It's not that they will be the future of the church," she said. "It's that they are the church right now."

Ten Thousand Villages is a fair-trade store in O’Bryonville that has been a significant part of the outreach of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. Started by Karen Diller, its mission is to provide a fair income to third-world people by marketing their hand-crafted items and telling their stories in the US and Canada.

Celebrating the arts

The Mennonite Arts Weekend, which the Cincinnati fellowship has organized for 26 years, is another example of the congregation's progressive and service-oriented nature.

The event really began in 1989 at the national Mennonite conference. A small group reserved a room with seats for 30 people for an ad hoc meeting about arts in Mennonite culture; 300 people showed up that day, including Hal Hess, a Mennonite and opera singer and conductor from Cincinnati.

"So many of us wanted connection," Hess said. "We're artists, but we may not share it."

Traditionally, Mennonite people might sing in church or make things that could be considered art, such as furniture or quilts, but those things are prized for usefulness and purpose. Art for art's sake or art for display was not encouraged.

"You could never call attention to it," Hess said. "If you showed what you did, you were being sinful."

Of all the people who came to that meeting of artists, only those from the Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship took action. Hess and a handful of others began planning and, in 1992, welcomed 12 artists and an audience of about 75 people to the first Mennonite Arts Weekend.

"It began as a place of refuge," Kanagy said. "A kind of prophetic voice, leading the way and breaking down barriers."

This year, Feb. 2-4, the fellowship expects to attract about 200 people to a weekend of performances and workshops -- all open to the public. The crowd is large enough the fellowship has to borrow another church, Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian, for the event, and author Sofia Samatar also will speak at Joseph-Beth. All the presenting artists will be paid a stipend as well as travel costs.

As the church has changed, Hess said, the original motivators for the Arts Weekend feel less important.

"Now," he said, "we just celebrate the art and artists."

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