Progressive Brethren Gather in California

Photo by Randy Miller
A colorful banner hangs from the bell tower at La Verne (Calif.) Church of the Brethren to welcome participants to the fifth annual Progressive Brethren Conference.

More than 150 Brethren from across the US gathered at La Verne (Calif.) Church of the Brethren Oct. 26-28 for the fifth annual Progressive Brethren Conference. The weekend of worship, workshops, music, study, and celebration was built around the theme “Holy Work: Becoming a Beloved Community.”

A colorful banner hung from the church’s bell tower as conferees registered in the courtyard Friday afternoon, beneath cobalt skies and in shirt sleeve weather brought on by warm Santa Ana winds blowing westward from the desert. The event got off to a rousing start with “Annual Conference: The Musical,” which featured show tunes fitted with new lyrics–some taken verbatim from Conference floor dialogue.

Workshops the next day led by Abigail Fuller and Katy Brown Gray of the faculty at Manchester University, provided an overview of recent progressive and conservative dynamics in the United States–both in society and in the church. The workshops offered data showing a gradual shift toward openness and acceptance in the culture and the church, although the church tended to drag its feet behind the culture, they pointed out.

This was the first Progressive Brethren Conference to take place west of the Mississippi, and the first since the newly formed Open Table Cooperative assumed a leadership role along with Womaen’s Caucus and BMC (Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests). In previous years, Voices for an Open Spirit had been instrumental in coordinating the conferences. VOS announced at Annual Conference this summer that it was discontinuing operation after 10 years and transferred the reins of leadership to others in the progressive movement.

“There have been times when these conferences have been places for lamenting, for wondering, ‘What are we doing to do now?’” said Daisy Schmidt, chair of Womaen’s Caucus. “This year, it feels like we’re moving forward.”

Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries and author of the best seller book “Tattoos on the Heart,” told conferees at Sunday worship that reconciliation and genuine connection–“becoming a beloved community,” referring to the conference theme–can and does happen. “There is reason to hope,” he said. “I’ve seen former gang bangers work side-by-side. And when you work with someone, you get to know them. And when you get to know someone, you can’t be enemies.”

— Randy Miller is editor of the Church of the Brethren “Messenger” magazine.

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