I remember the first time I was introduced to Dirk Willems: the Anabaptist who escaped and then turned back to rescue his persecutor who was drowning, got caught again, and later was burned to death. When John Driver, one of my history professors at Goshen College told me the story for the first time I thought, “What a fool!”, and to me, even more foolish were the Anabaptists and Mennonites who thought he was a hero for turning back and rescuing his enemy. However, after revisiting Dirk’s story time after time, I made a correlation between Dirk’s actions and Jesus’ message of how the Citizens of God’s Kingdom were to treat enemies (Matt 5:38-48). Dirk’s “foolish” reaction made a lot of sense.
The decision to go to Arizona has been like walking over thin ice for our church body. Perhaps it seems foolish to go to a place so unwelcoming, that is so hot in mid-summer, and where we can get burned – literally! However, our Anabaptist history and theology is deeply rooted in seeking justice and promoting peace in centers of struggle, and Phoenix, being one of the present centers of struggle, will allow us to rethink our allegiances at this point in time. Going to Phoenix is an invitation to revisit and reclaim once again who we are as Anabaptists and Mennonites in the 21st century, and where our loyalties are in the midst of so much socio-politic-economic instability. I believe Phoenix is an opportunity to revisit and practice upside-down Kingdom theology as a body, and put into practice our missional statements.
I have been in Arizona three times in the past six months. Walking in the streets and desert of Phoenix and Tucson, I have envisioned many witnessing activities that will reflect our “hunger and thirst for righteousness”, and that will speak to the injustices that our immigrant brothers and sisters in AZ, and across the country, are facing. I’ve also envisioned with excitement acts of service – hand in hand with local congregations and partners under the Phoenix sun – that will help restore hurting communities, build bridges and invite Arizonans to experience the foolishness of the Gospel!
As an immigrant myself, talking about immigration issues in Phoenix will be important. But I have learned from my friends in AZ of many other issues they are facing: AZ is blessed with a large number of reservations and native people. There is need for justice and grace where there has been such a history of disgrace, displacement, and injustice. In a desert, issues of the consumption of resources – like water – are huge, so we will need to watch our water consumption! Enormous wildfires and parching drought have brought many environmental issues. Unemployment and social hardships are constantly increasing. Racial injustice and marginalization is widespread. I hope we can learn, educate, and speak to all these issues as well.
Needless to say, as a Hispanic Mennonite and as an immigrant, I will miss my brothers and sisters who are undocumented and will not be able to
attend from our congregations. I hope my brothers and sisters who have documents and privilege will join us as we carry the suffering for those who cannot come, “because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5:3-4) – a hope much needed in our immigrant congregations. I will also miss those who are from all our Mennonite ethnic/native groups and cannot attend due to immigration issues, economic hardships, and other issues of privilege which affect us, but I hope that our conversations about going to Phoenix and our time there will allow us to increase their participation in the future.
I can’t wait to be in Phoenix 2013 and to claim a citizenship like no other: one that claims that the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s and destroys all barriers and walls of hostility. It is my hope that as fellow citizens from near and far we will find the perseverance and character to extend grace in the centers of struggle with hope – even if it looks like foolishness to be “Citizens of God’s Kingdom”.
Saulo Padilla currently attends Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor in Goshen, IN. He has served in this congregation since 2001 as musician and is currently a part of the church council and leadership transitional team. He is originally from Guatemala, became a Mennonite at the First Hispanic Mennonite Church in Calgary when he immigrated to Canada in 1986, and is currently applying for permanent resident status here in the U.S.