A few days ago, here in Hutchinson, KS, I went with my aunt for her weekly chemo treatment at the local clinic. We were waiting in front of the elevator when the door opened and three elderly ladies disembarked. Upon seeing us, the one immediately exclaimed, “Oh, my ladies from Yoder!” The next one saw us and exclaimed as well, “Oh, I love Yoder. We spend a lot of money in Yoder.” And they chattered away about Yoder without giving either of their subjects the time or airspace to say, “Well, actually, we are not from Yoder. We are from Hutchinson.” (Yoder is a small town about 12 miles southeast of the Hutchinson area. The Amish in that area are more “well-known” by tourists than the Amish in the Hutchinson area).
Anyone from Yoder will quickly correct you if you think they are from Hutchinson. Anyone from Hutchinson will do the same. We are quite different, in our minds anyway. But to the non-Anabaptist outsider, we are basically the same.
I experience the same thing when in Thailand and a fellow American discovers my roots. A common remark is usually similar to this, “Oh, then you must be from Pennsylvania!” And such comments follow such as, “I’ll bet your mom makes the best shoo fly pie.” When I say, “No, I am actually from Kansas, and I don’t think my mom has ever made shoo fly pie,” their brow inevitably wrinkles and they blink several times as if to say, “She is confused by her transplant into Thai culture. She actually is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and eats shoo fly pie on a daily basis, but she is simply confused.”
Actually, I have only been to Lancaster twice in my life, which would come as a shock to the aforementioned fellow Americans, who consider Lancaster to be the hub of all that is Amish and Mennonite. And it probably is.
My second time in Lancaster was just last month at REACH, which is an Anabaptist missions conference held every 2 years in Lancaster, PA. REACH is a stark reminder of how many different stripes of Anabaptists exist. I should make sure to say that not all the people who attended REACH this year were from Lancaster and I am sure thousands of Lancasterites did not make it to REACH.
I am sure that the ones who organized REACH this year did not do it to show off all the different sub-denominations of Anabaptists that exist. I am sure that they planned REACH in order to give God glory. And it certainly did.
But forgive me if I marvel a little. After spending 7 and a half years in the tropics of Thailand where the sighting of a Mennonite causes no less excitement than a UFO streaking across the night sky on a summer’s eve, it is overwhelming to spend 2 days at a mission’s conference with 2500 Anabaptists.
It is rather like eating 5 meals of pizza after subsisting on rice and spicy minced pork for 2 years.
Or like drinking a gallon of chocolate milk after you have been drinking Pepsi all your life.
Or like reaching a desert island in the middle of the ocean after you have been at sea for 5 years. You should be overjoyed at being on land once more, and you are with one part, but another part of you longs for the jostling of the waves once more.
Doing REACH is especially mind-boggling if you do it while you are jet-lagging after an 11 hour time change. Jet-lag has a way of bringing out the worst in you, whether it is feeling totally void of emotion and energy at 2 in the afternoon, or whether it’s giggling helplessly and immaturely at an ill-timed comment during one of the regular sessions at REACH.
Even with all of the overwhelmingness, I really did enjoy REACH.
The three things I enjoyed most was reconnecting with old friends, making new ones, and attending the breakout sessions. I got to stay at my friend Abby’s house, and go out to eat with my childhood friend, Tina. I got to see Judi and Barbara and Diana and Rosa. And I will stop listing names there, because soon I will offend someone for not putting their name on the list.
Then there was meeting new people. People that stopped by the INVEST booth who knew so and so who used to live in such and such a place. People who were friends of a friend, or who had spent time in Thailand years ago, or parents of a friend, like Amy’s mom and Abigail’s parents. I met someone I had been told various times I should meet, and then found out she had been told the same about me.
And the breakout sessions. The general sessions were good too, but the breakout sessions tended to be more informal and specifically tailored. I got to listen to my good friend, Janelle, speak on mentoring young women, and then another good friend, Carolyn, speak on discovering steady joy in a life of following. Another of my favorites was a workshop by Allan Roth, on the advantages and disadvantages of being an Anabaptist on the mission field.
Between all these delights, I sat behind the table at the INVEST booth and watched all the different tribes and kindreds and tongues of Anabaptists stream past and enjoyed talking with some of them. Being on the more conservative end of the Anabaptist spectrum at a mission’s conference has interesting consequences because of the tendency to be put in a box. I find this strangely enervating, and yet at the same time exhausting, since shattering preconceived notions can be somewhat exhilarating and yet you do get tired of jumping out of the boxes that hundreds of people put you in. Can I not just be me and not the box you put my church constituency in? Yet, I realize that Anabaptists thrive by placing people, and figuring them out, and well, putting them in boxes. I do the same and in some ways it is a natural human instinct. One of my teachers once called it a survival instinct.
Once REACH was over, we spent a groggy evening at Janelle’s house and then she drove us back to Abby’s house.
That night I went to sleep dreaming that I was trying to find a breakout session in the church where REACH was held, and using Google maps to find it.