‘Our hope is to be an agent of change’ Winnipeg Church moving forward with ‘Inclusivity Statement’

“Our hope is to be an agent of change,” said Mary Anne Isaak, a pastor at River East Church. Edward Djan has more.

“River East Church is a Jesus community for the world. We invite everyone to join us in living out this mission as followers of Jesus in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition.” This is an excerpt from River East Church’s “Inclusivity Statement.”

At first glance, the statement and invitation seem uncontroversial. It then goes on to invite “all persons” to fully participate in the church, regardless of ethnicity, family status, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

It’s the last two identifiers, gender identity, and sexual orientation, that have led to the church facing expulsion from the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba.

“In Canada, we have a shared perspective that was put together, the last iteration was in 1999. What we all agreed to together, in 1999, the whole idea in terms of how to include members of the LGBTQ+ community wasn’t an issue. That’s not where we are today,” explained Mary Anne Isaak, team lead pastor of River East Church.

Isaak says the inclusivity statement came about after conversations her own congregation was having on how they would both follow scripture but also be an inclusive place to worship.

The process took about a year starting in 2019 with the congregation voting on the statement in 2020.

The congregation voted overwhelmingly, 94 per cent, in favour of it.

“The story started for us in the 90s, when there was a couple among us who were an LGBTQ+ couple. Some people knew, others didn’t, and it was a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ era. As time has progressed, our relationship with the LGBTQ+ community among us has evolved,” said Isaak.

“I think a number of different congregations are wrestling with a traditional view that excluded members of the LGBTQ+ community with an evolving view that says we can follow Jesus faithfully and be way more inclusive.”

As churches across the country try to become more inclusive, they are facing consequences for it, including being expelled from their church bodies.

“A lot of these church bodies are somewhat caught in the middle. They’re often led by representatives from churches from different places on a spectrum,” said Jeremy Bergen, an associate professor of religious studies and theological studies at the University of Waterloo.

The Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba suspended River East Church earlier this year. River East is facing expulsion with a vote set to take place in early 2024.

The church held a meeting Sunday for anyone from the Mennonite Brethren churches to come to learn about River East’s journey to becoming more inclusive.

Janet Schmidt is a parishioner at River East Church and has played an informal but integral role in trying to facilitate conversations about the church’s inclusivity statement.

“It (Sunday’s meeting) took the people watching on Zoom and in the congregation through that journey, how we did it, what were the steps. A number of people asked us ‘How did you do it, what was the journey?’ It was an opportunity for us to tell our story,” Schmidt said about Sunday’s meeting.

“River East Church is not perfect, yet we always talk, that is our commitment, which is to not shut down dialogue,” said Schmidt.

Whether or not River East is expelled still hangs in the balance, but Isaak says she will be at peace with any decision.

“Our hope is to be an agent of change.”

CityNews reached out to the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba but has not heard back at this time.

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