The eighth iteration of the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre’s (TMTC) biennial graduate student conference, which featured twenty-two student presenters from fifteen different institutions across North America, impressed with both the range and quality of the theological conversations it generated. All but three of the sessions were concurrent so I will concentrate on the sessions that gathered us together, all of which were informative and engaging. The first of these, facilitated by Sarah Kathleen Johnson, was entitled: “Shaping the Sung Theology of the Future Mennonite Church.” In addition to being a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame Sarah is the worship resources editor for Voices Together, a new worship and song collection for Mennonite churches in North America. She shared with us what kind of work the Mennonite Worship and Song committee has been doing and how its members are trying to make this hymnal as inclusive as possible, seriously considering how race and ethnicity, class and economic status, ability, gender and sexuality, theological diversity, colonialism and nationalism influence our theology and faith community. Time was set aside to ask questions and offer advice to the committee as well. Through this gathering, we were reminded that what we sing shapes our theology, hence we need to be mindful of the theology behind each song and critically consider if it is something that we would like to hold on to or let go of. Moreover, through our engagement in this session we made a contribution to the new hymnal project and that our concerns and voices will be given attention.
On the second evening of the conference, we were delighted to have Lydia Neufeld Harder, former TMTC Director and current Senior Fellow, as the keynote lecturer. Lydia presented some important points from her recently published book The Challenge is in the Naming: A Theological Journey (CMU Press, 2018). We were also pleased to hear from Kimberly Penner, a recent TST PhD graduate and TMTC Research Fellow, and Maxwell Kennel, a TMTC associate and doctoral student at McMaster University, as they responded to the lecture. Lydia shared her experience and her challenges as a feminist Mennonite in the academic world. She then encouraged us as the young scholars and future church leaders, and told us that our work and study as theologians are meaningful and honorable. That encouragement and affirmation were profoundly helpful and unique to this conference.
The last session of the conference was a workshop led by Carol Penner, Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, entitled “Conferences, Experiences, Interpretations,” and she brought to the session the ability to encourage relaxed interaction amongst the attendees in a way that made everyone feel particularly welcomed. During this time, as a whole group, we reflected upon all the sessions, lectures, and dialogues we had throughout the conference and shared in small groups. We also discussed what we have learned, some takeaways, and challenges, and how all these relate to our studies and our faith. This workshop gave us an opportunity to reflect on our experience. In other conferences, I would always leave overwhelmed with new insights, having lacked the time to digest and ponder them deeply. Yet, this workshop allowed that space and Carol graciously assisted us with the process.
What startled me the most was the prayer gathering that we had each morning. I expected that only two or three people would appear but I was wrong; more than twenty people came. Of course, not everyone attended but a large number of people joined. The theological dialogues brought us together as did the prayers. The prayers reminded all of us the main reason why we chose to study theology and why we have gathered at this conference. It even helped me to realize that we are not merely colleagues in theological studies but sisters and brothers in Christ who are serving Christ’s body.
Whether involved in conference preparation, paper presentations, or serving as moderators, graduate students themselves took on the work of organizing and staging the conference, led by a planning committee. Kyle Gingerich Hiebert, the director of Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre, facilitated the planning in a way that the conference would benefit the students and provide opportunities for them to serve. Several of the Conrad Grebel professors were also with us at points throughout the conference and took an interest in our papers, in our theological work, and provided positive feedback. Above all, the students who made the effort to join and serve the conference enriched our time together and made this gathering a wonderful experience. I hope and pray that this spirit of collegiality continues into the next of these conferences, which is scheduled to take place at Eastern Mennonite University in 2020, and that the theological projects that we are currently wrestling with individually and together as emerging Mennonite theologians will contribute not only to academia but also to the church, and to the world.
Hyung Jin (Pablo) Kim Sun, TMTC Associate and doctoral student at Emmanuel College