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Preaching peace

By Terry Rombeck (Contact)

The United States is occupying Iraq.

Israel and Hezbollah are bombing each other.

The prospect of conflict with nuclear-weapon-pursuing North Korea and Iran peeks its head over the horizon.

And, this week, new discussions start about bringing democracy to Cuba — and whether that would involve force.

Into this world, Joanna Harader has become a pastor in the Mennonite Church, a denomination so rooted in pacifism it’s often more of a lifestyle than a philosophy.

These are interesting times to be a Mennonite.

“Unfortunately,” Harader says, “there have been too many interesting times. Being a peace church too frequently puts you in an interesting position.”

Harader started June 5 as pastor at Lawrence’s Peace Mennonite Church. The 31-year-old is hoping the church can become a more vocal and visible advocate on peace issues — both on the international and local levels.

“It’s a role we should be taking more and should be doing more about,” Harader says. “Our people do have a passion for peace and justice issues.”

‘Spiritual home’

Harader wasn’t always a Mennonite, though her friends often told her — based on her beliefs and home library — that she ought to be.

A native of Wichita and a graduate of Olathe South High School, Harader is the daughter of American Baptist ministers. She started coming to Peace Mennonite in 2001, when she was a master’s student in Kansas University’s English department.

She already had an undergraduate degree in English from Emory & Henry College in Virginia, and a master’s in theological studies from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She kept teetering between a career in ministry and a career in academia.

Harader came to Peace Mennonite, which meets at Ecumenical Christian Ministries, 1204 Oread Ave., after reading an article in the paper about it being an “open and affirming” congregation for gays and lesbians.

She came to appreciate the service and mission work the church does on a regular basis, often collecting clothes or supplies to send to those in need.

“With the Mennonite values of peace and justice and simplicity, this is very much a spiritual home for me,” she says. “This was a church I could be excited about. It’s doing what a church should be doing.”

Pastoral calling

Eventually, Harader got involved as an active lay person. She enjoyed helping to plan services enough she decided to go back to seminary in 2004, this time at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan.

She wanted to pursue a master’s in divinity, the degree most pastors receive.

Peace Mennonite’s pastor position — which is half-time — opened up this summer with the departure of interim pastor Kathy Neufeld Dunn, who moved to McPherson. Harader decided to apply.

She remains a seminary student and expects to finish in the next two years. In addition to school work and pastoring the church, she and her husband, Ryan Ellett, have three children — 9-year-old James, 7-year-old Jasmine and 23-month-old Grace.

The decision to hire a “homegrown” minister eased the pastoral transition, says Roger Martin, who serves as the church’s moderator, its top lay position.

“We got a chance to know Joanna at several different levels of being at Peace, as a fellow congregant and as a person who had a family,” Martin says. “In a way, it’s pleasant, because there’s less of that kind of expectation that this person will be a saint.”

He says Harader’s educational background also made her a good fit with the congregation, because nearly all of the 60 or so members have college degrees and many have advanced degrees.

“She’s a manifestly good person,” he says. “She’s very centered and very mature for a person of her relative youth.”

Peaceful activism

Harader calls her pacifism “intuitive.”

Growing up in the ’80s and watching evidence of the nuclear arms race on TV, she just couldn’t grasp why that made sense.

She points to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as the bedrock for her pacifist beliefs.

“It’s the whole idea of loving your enemies, and that the ways of the kingdom (of heaven) are not the ways of the world,” Harader says. “(Jesus) responded to violence in a peaceful manner. He didn’t advocate hate to anyone, even though they were brutalizing him.”

That doesn’t mean all Mennonites are always absolute pacifists. Martin, who started attending Peace Mennonite around 1997, says advocating pacifism even when it might, say, overthrow a ruthless dictator, is a difficult concept to grasp for most Mennonites.

“That’s the hardest moment for any of these people, including myself, to face — the most difficult decision,” he says. “The ideal is to never raise a hand against anyone, but in that commitment there’s a tremendous tension because we live in a world where there’s human pathology — psychopaths and sociopaths — and we don’t know what to do with those pathological people. That’s my biggest problem with being a Mennonite. That’s the toughest nut to crack.”

Dorothy Nickel Friesen, who as conference minister is the top official in the Western District Conference of the Mennonite Church USA, which includes Lawrence, agrees that pacifism is a starting point for Mennonites, though some do choose to serve in the military or support military actions in other ways.

She says conversations about peace issues tend to occur more in Mennonite churches as conflicts arise around the world.

“I suspect we’re shaped by the world as much as we shape it, whatever the topics are,” she says. “I think when things heat up, our witness heats up in some ways.”

But Roberta Hofer, a Peace Mennonite member since the 1970s, says peace issues are always at the forefront at the church.

“I know there are a lot of across-the-board pacifists,” she says. “I personally believe there is no such thing as a just war, and certainly this war (in Iraq) isn’t. ... I feel the Mennonite church definitely has something to offer the rest of our culture. It reminds me of Vietnam.”
More information

* Mennonite Church USA
* Joanna Harader's humor column
* Western District Conference of the Mennonite Church

Common bond

But Harader says advocating for peace isn’t just about international conflict. It also can be about fostering civil conversations within the Christian community.

She points to what she calls “the elephant in the room” at many Mennonite meetings: gay and lesbian issues. Peace Mennonite is one of a handful of churches that have issued statements declaring they’re open to having gay and lesbian members.

Harader says the Lawrence congregation is a bit of an anomaly in the Mennonite church, because many Mennonite congregations tend to be liberal when it comes to peace issues but fairly conservative when it comes to social issues such as sexuality or alcohol use.

“I think Mennonite churches in smaller towns have been influenced by the conservative evangelical movement,” Hofer says. “Sometimes I think they forget where they came from. It’s important not to get caught up in support of the popular conservative stands on issues like anti-abortion or anti-gay marriage. We don’t think those are the issues.”

Even with those divisions, Harader likes that all Mennonite churches have something in common: their theology of peace.

“We disagree a lot,” she says, “but there is that identity of peace. It’s something everyone can agree on and work together on.”

Joanna Harader

Position: Pastor, Peace Mennonite Church. Started June 5.
Age: 31
Family: Husband, Ryan Ellett; children James Harader-Ellett, 9, Jasmine Harader-Ellett, 7, and Grace Harader-Ellett, 23 months
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from Emory & Henry College in Virginia; master’s in theological studies from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; master’s in English from Kansas University; currently pursuing master’s in divinity from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan.

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