I have flown domestically and internationally dozens of times, and I can think of only one meaningful conversation I have had with a seatmate. That is, until last week, when I had my second most interesting in-flight conversation.
A 20-something young woman fell into the seat beside me on a budget airline on a flight to Florida. Her accessories seemed expensive, and she apologized as she climbed over me, balancing bags, a hot sandwich, Starbucks, and a loose pair of pale pink heels. “Sorry!” she gushed as she arm-wrestled her posh belongings under the seat in front of her, disappearing under her blonde hair. Before consuming her sandwich, she very noticeably crossed herself, and I admit that I was not expecting this religious expression based on her appearance.
I pulled out a conspicuous book to read. (I was wading through George Marsden’s brand-new third edition history text, Fundamentalism in American Culture.) It’s a thick book, and the bold headings throughout make it very clear that one is reading about religion.
Half-way through the flight, she couldn’t resist: “May I ask what you’re reading?”
Me: “It’s George Marsden’s Fundamentalism in American Culture. It’s his new third edition where not only does he highlight how evangelicalism has been shaped by fundamentalism in American history, but he brings it all the way up through the Trump administration and discusses fundamentalism in America even in the last decade.”
I couldn’t read the look on her face when I mentioned Trump, so I chalked it up to her breeding that she did not comment further on that reference.
“I see it says Christian civilization there on the cover.” She pointed to the cover art. “Are you an evangelical?”
“Oh, um, I suppose, kind of. I participate in a Mennonite church. Do you know what that is?”
She nodded yes, and then smiled brightly: “I’m a Catholic missionary.”
I couldn’t have been more surprised, nor less wrong in my judgment of her appearance as “wealthy, entitled, Gen-Z spring breaker.”
“I serve as a missionary to students in [certain big city] at [unmentioned Ivy-league school]. So I’m in ministry to Greek students. You know fraternities and sororities?” She laughed. “I minister to students in these societies and come alongside them and do life with them and answer their questions and I invite them to mass, like they can go to daily mass with me if they want, and we do Bible studies, and normally, within that, I connect with just a few students who have the capacity for leadership, and really build them up, and then they are able to lead out in their own Bible studies. We really adopt the model that Jesus used. I mean, he interacted with hundreds of people, but really only 12 of them knew him well, and within that there were the three. So that’s the model my ministry follows. I just, it’s so wonderful, because I came from West Virginia University,”
I butted in: “Cool, I graduated from Ohio State!”
“Really?” she gushed. “I totally applied there! It was one of my top three schools! Anyway, I came from West Virginia University, which is an affluent party school. Like only 60% of people graduate. It has to do with wealth and partying and drugs, and, I don’t know, it’s great to be a part of a ministry at [unmentioned Ivy-league-school] that actively enters that world. I mean, I kind of know that world just from being at WVU. Greek life is a lot!”
She talks about her experience in Catholicism at WVU, and her spiritual director who had a profound impact on her, and how she ascribes to traditional Catholicism. I ask her if she attended grad school, and she says that she is looking at Augustine Institute, as her ministry offers scholarship to students to attend there. She mentions that for now, her work is part of the re-evangelization efforts within Catholicism to its own youth. As she speaks, it becomes clear that she found Catholicism as an adult. I ask her what drew her to Catholicism. Her eyes widen, “Do you know ‘Theology of the Body’?”
Me: “It sounds familiar?”
“Basically, Pope John Paul II (that’s three popes ago) – like, his whole life work was about the body and human sexuality, and how it points us to God and how we learn about the divine through the body and human sexuality. (The people at the Theology of the Body institute are so wonderful! I learned so much about marriage, faithfulness, sexuality, to include masculinity and femininity…) Anyway, I found it so compelling, partly because I came from a broken family, lots of sleeping around, and we had none of that, and I found it so, so beautiful. That, and also the Eucharist and everything in John 6. Do you know John 6?”
I mean, yes, I know John 6, but couldn’t quote it. She speaks about how strange it was, how strange in Jesus’ culture it would have been for him to tell his disciples to eat his body.
“And I mean, you don’t really get this unless you read it in the Greek, but it has this idea of ‘gnaw on my flesh,’ this really active, thoughtful action. And then there is the incarnation. Do you all take communion?”
“Yes, we do.” I smiled, thinking about our rare spring & fall communions compared to regular mass. “We take it twice a year.”
“And is it substantial or symbolic?”
“For us, it is symbolic.”
She nodded, smiling.
“Anyway, tell me all about Mennonites! I know nothing about them. And where are you guys? Like in the U.S.?”
“We’re all over. Name an American state, and I’ll tell you in what city there are Mennonites.”
“And what are guys?”
Grasping, I mumbled something about Menno Simons and Zwingli and the Reformation, and then I highlighted some key distinctives which separate Anabaptists from Catholics and possibly other groups, including believers’ baptism and a decentralized church governance which (supposedly) steps away from church hierarchy in favor of consensus-style leadership and more democratic ways of being. And of course, pacifism and nonviolence.
“So what is your dogma? What are your creeds?”
“Welp,” I said, “we have them, but I argue that your regular conservative Mennonite, that is, your regular lay person, would not know what they are or be able to quote them. There are confessions of faith, and deeply buried historical catechisms (like the Waldeck catechism), and there are creeds, but your average daily Mennonite is not familiar with them. I happen to have a keen interest in what will happen to the future of our movement if these elements are not resurrected. I am very interested in liturgy, and I believe that we are getting to the end of something, if our people do not get back to some of these things.”
Later in the conversation, I told her that our pastors don’t go to seminary, and she thereby lost her mind. “How in the world does that even work?!”
I smiled and perhaps my eyes twinkled for I have had the same question at times. I also added, “To our people, orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.”
I mentioned that these dynamics are similar in our educational institutions. “I should explain to you the state of our schools.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“It is common practice in our conservative Mennonite schools for teachers to begin teaching right out of high school. Most teachers do not go to college.”
Her mouth dropped open.
I went on, “I mean, some schools are working to change this. For example, I taught at the only accredited conservative Mennonite school in the United States. I also helped to start the first A.P. program at a conservative Mennonite school in the United States.”
“Yeahhhh!” she cheered.
Later she asked about the difference between Amish and Mennonites and said how her grandmother knew a Mennonite man, and also about marriage practices with the Amish and if they really are allowed to sleep together before they get married. And I said that there are a whole heap of things that I don’t know about the Amish, and I couldn’t say.
Of course she asked about the Bann and how that could even be Biblical, and I told her that excommunication, as it is practiced, probably comes from readings in Paul where it says to expel the immoral brother and treat him as you would an unbeliever (that is, of course, after Matthew 18 reconciliation had been attempted).
(At that point in the conversation, I couldn’t remember if Paul actually says to “expel the immoral brother,” or if that was just the heading of that passage in my study Bible growing up.)
“Well yeah, but how do you treat an unbeliever? Why would you treat him differently?”
I said that I supposed it had to do with the passage about doing good especially unto the household of faith. (Or that that is how some would explain it.)
“That’s like indicating you wouldn’t do good to an unbeliever. To me, that just does not make any sense, because Jesus’ whole ministry was one of invitation and hospitality!”
“Ah,” I said, “but don’t you practice excommunication?”
“No!” she said.
“But you have closed communion, don’t you?”
“What do you mean, ‘closed communion’?”
Me: “Not everyone can take communion at any time. There are things which keep people from taking communion.”
Her: “Well yes, but in that moment, you are still Catholic!!”
She explained how communion is only for members of the Catholic church because of what is believed about the Eucharist. “We wouldn’t want to give you Jesus’ body and you not know what you are eating!!”
Then she explained venial sins versus mortal sins. That is, if you sin by not picking up your trash and littering, you won’t go to hell for it. But a mortal sin is where you know something is wrong to do, like very very wrong, like murdering someone, and you choose to do it: “I am going to do this thing.” While you are in that state of unconfessed mortal sin, then no, you do not take communion.
I mentioned that some Mennonite churches have closed communion and some have open communion (related to church membership), and that I grew up with open communion.
A bit later she asked about attire and head coverings and dresses, and since she seemed comfortable throwing around Scripture, I mentioned where Mennonites draw their teaching: I Corinthians 11.
“Oh yes,” she said, “I know. As a traditional Catholic, I cover my head, too, in church.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised!
At one point, feet-washing came up. “Do you practice feet-washing?!” she asked excitedly. I assured her we did.
“I have to show you this video!” she rummaged for her phone. “Do you know [unmentioned sports team that is regularly in the news because of dynamics of gender]? I actively work with that team. So, so many good things are happening. I can’t tell you everything, but I have to show you this video of ______________ getting their feet washed.” She played a video, showing high church ornamentation, and a priest kneeling and washing the feet of several people wearing skirts.
In the conversation, it became clear that she comes to her work honestly. She would ask simple conversational questions, and then very quietly ask bold, direct questions, to which you felt compelled to respond. Like her very carefully asking, “How do you experience singleness?”
Which I quickly turned around on her because I was dying to know how she sees singleness being viewed in the Catholic church, and whether she thinks singleness holds a higher position in Catholicism compared to evangelicalism, due to beliefs about vocations like being a nun or being a “consecrated virgin living in the world.” (If you don’t know what that is, Google it!)
There isn’t time here to bat around her response, nor to discuss our next topic – what it is like to be a woman in a traditional community – but I can say that she listened very carefully, asked probing questions, and at the end said, “I want to be clear. When you use the word ‘traditional’ to talk about your experiences as a woman in your community, I mean something completely different when I use the word ‘traditional’ when speaking about being a ‘traditional Catholic.’ You must know that I am referring to theology and orthodoxy.”
I smiled knowingly: “Oh, for SURE. I’m completely aware.”
I was struck, though, by her nearly instant ability to discover similarities and differences in our use of terminology and to graciously and humbly recognize our different experiences of that word.
I wondered, then, if that is how some of these memorable and meaningful connections are formed. And if that – as I asked in September’s blog – if that is one of the keys to connecting with those on the margins.