MennoCon23 connects two teachers through MEA
Written by Jolene VonGunten for Mennonite Education Agency
ELKHART, Ind. – When Kristel Kennedy came to the Mennonite Church USA Convention (MennoCon23) in Kansas City, Mo, last July, she wasn’t expecting to emerge as a leader and organizer for Mennonites who work in public education. She just knew it was hard sometimes being one of the only Mennonites in her public school in Pennsylvania. On a whim, she stopped by the Mennonite Education Agency (MEA) booth and started a conversation.
“Mennonites who work at Mennonite schools receive a lot of support for their faith,” Kennedy said. “They can talk openly and freely about their convictions and how their faith intersects with issues in education and current events. Public school teachers have to be much more careful.”
A day later, in a moment of serendipity, Lyn Carlson visited the MEA booth at MennoCon23 and asked a similar question. “What support exists from the church for Mennonite educators in public schools?” Carlson was currently working at a public school and was struck by the contrast with a Mennonite school where she had taught previously. “Having worked in Mennonite education for almost ten years before returning to public ed, I wondered if there were other Mennonites in public schools who needed a place to belong together too,” she said.
Turns out, these two women, who had never met, and who shared the same love of teaching, were from the same town in Pennsylvania and lived only a few miles apart. They had each traveled to the same convention with the same questions on their hearts. And they were each drawn to the MEA booth seeking answers. Two common yet separate worlds, pulled together like threads ready to be aligned into something new.
Back home after MennoCon, MEA staff picked up those threads. Kennedy and Carlson agreed to an introduction, and MEA put them in touch. These conversations led to a brainstorming session with two other teachers with MEA connections from Indiana, Yasi Bouwman and Hannah Bachman. The group imagined an online gathering of Mennonite educators from across the country, having real conversations together about what it means to live out their faith (or not) in public school settings.
“Anabaptist Mennonites believe that following Jesus is central to daily life, and we embrace nonviolence and peace over nationalism and war in response to human conflict,” explained Kennedy. “So, what do you do about saying the Pledge of Allegiance or in response to the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, or controversies over racism, book-banning, and Critical Race Theory? These are real issues that Mennonite public educators face daily.”
The first online gathering of the Mennonite Public Educators group was held in October, and about 20 people showed up. Many more sent word that they were interested in attending future gatherings. Three more meetings are planned, the next scheduled for January 25, 2024, at 7pm Eastern time. The topic? Critical Race Theory, Social-Emotional Learning, and book banning.
In addition to hosting conversations about hot topics educators face, relationships have emerged as a primary goal of the group, not surprising since Mennonites value community deeply.
Carlson hopes to build a sense of community for educators across the country. “We hope this group can be a place where we can talk freely about faith issues in a public education context and gain mutual encouragement, support, and learning,” she said. “Having that Mennonite connection is meaningful.”
For Kristel Kennedy, this is a big step in the right direction. “I hope this is just the beginning,” she said.
A beginning imagined by two strangers from Pennsylvania, who were brought together through chance encounters with MEA, a thousand miles from home. If one of the goals of MennoCon is to build relationships and community, it struck gold with these two Mennonite women with hearts for teaching and connection.
The virtual gatherings are open to anyone working in public education who identifies as Mennonite. Participation is free but registration is required. To receive registration information, contact MEA at info@MennoniteEducation.org.
MEA is the education agency of Mennonite Church USA and is headquartered in Elkhart, Indiana. The agency partners with Anabaptist Mennonite programs, schools, colleges, and seminaries to fulfill the educational mission of Mennonite Church USA.