Weldon D. Nisly

The Emergence of the “Bridgefolk” Movement

July 12, 2002


My roots are an Iowa farm in a Mennonite community not too unlike this monastic enclave and not too far south of here.  I am the pastor of Seattle Mennonite Church.

This place & this gathering is a four-fold fruition of an amazing dream for me, a dream long dreamed and fulfilled beyond my wildest imagination.  The “first fruit” of the dream was that last year from January to May, Marg and I were on sabbatical here at the Ecumenical Institute of St John’s Abbey.  This monastic community has become a wonderful spiritual home for me.  A “second fruit” has ripened in part due to our sabbatical here.  It is that we are here together in this first true Catholic Mennonite Bridging gathering.  I am awed and blessed by our presence together in this groundbreaking event.  I am deeply grateful for each one of you who is here in this “midwifing” moment as we await and attend to the birthing that God is setting before us.  It is gratifying to know that still others wanted to be with us in this time and place and hold us in prayer.   Earlier this week as I was on retreat here at the Abbey, I had the opportunity to meet another retreatant, Trappist Abbot Basil Pennington, who assured me of his support for this Bridging venture and of his prayers for us as we meet.  A “third fruit” of my dream is the presence of six other members of Seattle Mennonite Church here in this Bridging moment: Marg, Pat, Ann, Brenda, Marilyn, and Karen.  And there were still others from Seattle Mennonite Church who wanted to be here with us on this Bridging journey.  It is a transforming moment that we don’t yet know what all it means for our community of faith.  One thing I believe that it means for us at Seattle Mennonite Church is that never again can this Mennonite Catholic bridging journey be considered Weldon’s “oddity or odyssey” alone.  The “fourth fruit” of this dream is that this Saturday in the Evening Prayer of the Abbey, I will make my vow of Final Oblation as a Benedictine Oblate of St. John’s Abbey.  The sharing of this journey and dream is my introduction that points to the Bridging vision as it has unfolded thus far.

I wish also to express my awe & gratitude to God and to this monastic community, especially Abbot John, Fr. Rene, & Fr. William.   Without you this wouldn’t be happening.

Building a Catholic Mennonite Bridge for the new millennium

On Friday morning, March 23, 2001, eight of us were guests of Abbot John in the Abbot’s Parlor here at St. John’s Abbey.   This event took place in the middle of the 5 months that Marg & I were here on sabbatical at the Ecumenical Institute last year.  Joining us for a weekend Catholic Mennonite Bridgefolk planning retreat were Lois and Ivan Kauffman, Gerald Schlabach, Stanley and Marlene Kropf, and Nancy Brubaker.

Abbot John graciously welcomed us to the monastery and to this Bridging journey.  He began by pointing to the tapestry on the wall and telling us the very important story depicted there.  It is the story of Benedict visiting twin sister Scholastica in Italy 15 centuries past.  Annually they would meet for heart-to-heart conversation.  On this occasion, night was drawing near.  Propriety demanded that Benedict must leave such conversation and return home to the monastery before nightfall.   But Scholastica pleaded with Benedict to stay and talk into the night.  As he hastened to leave, she offered fervent prayer to God and the heavens opened and the rains came down — conceivably like the torrential storm of Wednesday morning here in Minnesota.  Then Scholastica said to Benedict, “Now go home if you can.”  He stayed and they conversed through the night.

Sisters and brothers, for most of a millennium, especially the past half millennium, the church has been living under storm clouds of division and distrust.  Members of the proliferating factions of the Body of Christ have stayed at home or run away from conversations with each other for the security of our own tradition.

Today we live in a new millennium calling for new conversations and renewed connections as members of the Church and witnesses to Christ in the world.

We have only just begun this Bridging journey.  The conversation and connections will continue through the stormy night.  Scholastica’s daring prayer and confronting word is personal and universal: “Now go home if you can.”

We are not going home.  Whatever storm may come our way, it too shall pass.  We have entered a daring new level of conversation with the hope and promise of the dawn of a new day in the church.

Bridging as a metaphor for the task set before us

A few years ago Ivan Kauffman, Gerald Schlabach, Marlene Kropf, and I were envisioning the possibility of a whole new way of “crossing the Catholic Mennonite divide.”  We were searching for a metaphor for this dream.  In this exploration, the word bridging or bridge-folk became the guiding metaphor.

About a decade ago I was fascinated by a new bridge being built in Cincinnati, where we then lived.  It was a bridge that connected downtown Cincinnati with Northern Kentucky.  I have often held that bridge in mind as we proceeded with this bridging dream.  Three matters struck me about that new bridge across the Ohio River.

  • First, the bridge-building started by constructing sturdy bridge pillars deep into the ground to the bedrock of both shorelines. On top of those sturdy pillars the bridge was built reaching out until it connected precisely at the center.
  • Second, the bridge was designed to be a simple and effective bridge that neither clashed with nor dominated but connected the two sides of the river.
  • Third, this bridge connected two very different cultures: one an urban Midwestern city center dominated by a financial, legal, business, political character, the other by a Southern, blue collar, rural character. Two histories, so close in proximity, were colored by distance and distrust flowing both ways across the Ohio River. This new bridge offered a new and effective connection between two very different communities who had much to offer each other and needed each other for a viable healthy future.

The vision set before us we have called a bridging task.  We have already been crossing that bridge.  Some of us have crossed over from one side to the other in one way or another.  Some of us are conversing and traversing across the bridge.  Some of us find ourselves more and more at home on both sides and thus not quite at home on either side as it has been known.  For most of us this has been a personal and even lonely journey.

Now finally we are exploring more openly the place and meaning of a bridge between Catholic and Mennonite worlds so very far apart and yet so close together in our ancient future faith.  Emerging is a Catholic Mennonite bridge built on deep sturdy pillars so that the bridge does not clash or dominate but is safe and effective to connect two parts of the Church being drawn toward new relationships and reconciliation.  In doing so we begin to pray anew and live in a new way Christ’s prayer “That all may be one….”

The Bridging Journey

While some of us met at Laurelville 3 years ago, this is the first true Catholic Mennonite meeting of this kind in history.  After this weekend we have a new communal story to tell.  But to this point the Bridging story is primarily a personal one.

I want to share 4 personal Bridging steps to this day and place.  Perhaps you will find some parallel steps in your journey to this Bridge as well.   Certainly you have some bridging interest and experience because you are here at this groundbreaking gathering of Catholics and Mennonites in this non-institutionally sponsored event.

A first clear step for me came just over 25 years ago during the last year of my Peace Studies at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS).  I had the life-changing experience of being in Bogota, Colombia, for 6 weeks studying in a new institute for cross-cultural and global consciousness and to learn to “do theology” in a new way and new context.  This Institute was founded and led by Peter Stuckey, a Mennonite “missionary kid” who grew up in Latin America and is now church leader in the Colombian Mennonite Church, and Rafael Avila, a Colombian Catholic activist Liberation Theologian.  It was truly eye-opening for me and was my first exposure to another culture and to another way of “doing theology” in a Latin American Roman Catholic world.

A second step took place over the next years after seminary.  During the early 80’s, I was on the staff of the Mennonite Central Committee US Peace Office, working on disarmament matters.  Much of that peace ministry was with Sojourners in Washington, D.C., and with groups like Pax Christi, a Catholic peace ministry.  Sojourners was not Catholic, but was a uniquely Evangelical, Anabaptist, Protestant, Catholic peace-making community.  At Sojourners I gradually discovered that the activism of peace-making wasn’t the heart of the community life, although it was the most visible and public life.  The heart of the community was the liturgy – the community coming together to worship God, however successful or discouraging peace-making efforts were for the day.  At Sojourners we discovered the spiritual power of sacramental worship undergirding all authentic Christian peacemaking.

Another piece of that liturgically rooted peace-making discovery came during the years I was pastor of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship in Cincinnati.  Much of my pastoral ministry was in peace-making related to Central America through Witness for Peace, Pledge of Resistance, and Pastors for Peace.  Here Mennonites worked closely with Catholics, especially from the New Jerusalem Community, a lay Franciscan community founded by Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr.  For a decade almost ever peace action that took place in Cincinnati grew out of our two communities, Catholic and Mennonite, plus the local Friends Meeting (Quaker).  My greatest awakening during these years was to gradually become conscious of how profoundly formative it was to have our peace-making efforts grow out of and return to not only the liturgy but especially the Eucharist.  It was an evolving consciousness that we aren’t in this alone and we don’t do it on our own.  It awakened in me a deepening hunger for the bread and wine of the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s Table.

A third step, became some of the earliest steps of the conscious Bridging movement.  By God’s providence, I had become acquainted with Ivan Kauffman in the early 90’s.  Some of us attended a Believer’s Church Conference on the Lord’s Supper at Ashland Seminary in Ohio.  I invited Ivan to attend with us.  A few of us, including John Rempel, Marlene Kropf and I, were dissatisfied with some of the proceedings in that conference.  We later planned another smaller Mennonite event at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.  We called it “Conversations around the Lord’s Table.”  Again I invited Ivan Kauffman to join us for this Mennonite exploration of the meaning and practice of communion for Mennonites.

Clearly something was emerging for us that evoked a new wrestling with worship and eucharist and peacemaking and bridgebuilding.

In the meantime, Ivan and Gerald had been carrying on intense Catholic Mennonite conversations.  They invited Marlene Kropf and me to join them.  A whole network of conversations and connections emerged with many of you and others.  Our conversations and dreams began unfolding in this grassroots Bridging effort.  Out of those relationships and explorations grew the Laurelville Mennonite Catholic Retreat for 25 of us in August 1999.

The fourth Bridging step for me, which brings us to this time and place, is perhaps the most important specific step to date.  It is the one with which I began.  Abbot John’s gracious Benedictine spirit and vision led him to extend this Benedictine hospitality to us.  He said “Let us be a home for the Catholic Mennonite Bridging movement for a time.”  That offer to host a Catholic Mennonite Bridging gathering then led to a commitment and investment give leadership to the Bridging vision as we meet here offer the next few years.  Last November, Gerald, Marlene, Ivan, and I met here with Abbot John, Fr. William, and Fr. Rene, for a weekend of planning this first Bridging event.

The Meaning of Bridging

And here we are taking this new concrete step toward “Creating Peacemaking Communities for the New Millennium: Catholics and Mennonites Bridging the Divide.”  It is the paradox of “unintentional intentionality” as we follow the dream that God has set before us even when we never set out to create a bridging movement.  It is “unintentional” in that I never set out intentionally on a Mennonite Catholic Bridging journey.  Yet looking back along this path there has been amazing continuity and clarity even when we know not what the future holds.  But we know God holds the future as we intentionally and faithfully awaken to and live what God has set before us.  This Bridging vision has and will take a great intentional commitment to continue connecting these two great Christian traditions.

In this new century and new millennium our task is to be the Church as servant to the world.  This Catholic Mennonite Bridging task is to be sign and witness and an instrument of the reign of God already but not yet.

We have no formal rule or discipline other than the prayer that is in your packets which we have begun our sessions with here this weekend.  It is a prayer that God placed on Gerald’s heart, which he shared with us when 8 of us were here on retreat that turning point March weekend last year.  We urge you to pray it often knowing that others in this Bridging community are also praying these words.

In this Bridging vision, I am reminded often of the poet T. S. Eliot’s inspiring words near the end of the 4th of the “Four Quartets:”

We shall never cease from our exploring,

And the end of all our exploring,

Will be to arrive at the place where we began

And to know the place for the first time.

Terribilis est iste locus: “Full of awe is this place.”  Thanks be to God!