We’re in the process of changing the name of our church from “Northern Virginia Mennonite Church” to “Daniels Run Peace Church.” What does being a peace church look like? Our Mennonite tradition has a long heritage of saying no to war because we can’t reconcile Jesus’ command to love our enemies with killing them. Along with the Quakers, the Church of the Brethren, and many other conscientious objectors we insist that war is never the answer. A personal example is that I registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and served our country as an orderly in a mental hospital.
Refusing to go to war is a powerful witness to God’s love but it’s not enough. We need to also actively promote peace in our community. One way in which our church does that is through supporting the Fairfax County Student Peace Awards program, which awards high school seniors selected by their school for their peace and justice initiatives. We also support the organization Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence. Each year we place a “Memorial to the Lost” on our church lawn remembering all those killed by gun violence in the metro DC area.
There are many ways to be a peace church. For instance, our church garden, caring for Daniels Run, and restoring our woods are all kinds of peace efforts. One of the biggest challenges to being a people of peace is to know how to respond when we have personally been harmed. Being in that gay nightclub in Orlando or loving one of those who was killed would mean having to live with a nightmare for the rest of your life.
This mass shooting happened almost one year after Dylan Roof, a troubled young man filled with white supremacist ideology, killed nine people during a Bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Among those killed was their beloved pastor Clementa Pinckney. Shortly after this horrific tragedy some church members and relatives of those murdered surprised lots of people when they said that it was their Christian duty to forgive Dylan.
Jeffery Brown from PBS recently interviewed pastor Betty Deas, the new pastor of Mother Emanuel. Betty is such a warm person with a wonderful smile. Jeffery asked her how the congregation was doing and she responded that they are slowly progressing but still grieving. She said it’s so good when people can start laughing again.
Jeffery then asked her about those expressions of forgiveness. Her response is a wonderful example of the gospel in action. She told Jeffery that forgiveness is more than an emotion, it’s a choice. We choose to not respond in kind or to try to get even. Sure, our emotions are still raw and it’s okay to be angry and to want to withdraw for a while. If she ever has the opportunity to meet Dylan Roof she will tell him that Jesus loves him and that there is forgiveness and life beyond the horrible thing he did.
A woman recently came to talk with her about what happened. The woman seemed withdrawn and Betty reached out to hug her. The woman responded, “Before you hug me, I need to tell you that I’m Dylan Roof’s aunt.” Betty, responded, “You still need a hug don’t you?” They hugged and then they talked.
Betty said that Charleston still has a long way to go in race relations but they have already come so far. She talked about the wonderful way in which all kinds of people responded to the shooting with an outpouring of sympathy and love. It brought the whole community together across racial divides.
That’s the power of love and forgiveness—a power much stronger than fear and hate. This is our identity. It’s who we are as followers of Jesus who obey his command to love our enemies. And that’s what a peace church looks like.