‘We love each other despite our differences’: The story of ND9

“We shared what was on our hearts, the words that were needed,” said Bob Johnson, one of those seated at Nondelegate Table Number Nine–known in the common parlance of the 2019 Annual Conference as “ND9.”

By the close of compelling vision conversations, this table that had a “rocky start” marked by feelings of isolation over their differences had become a group that “wanted to love each other.”

ND9 is interviewed following the love feast at Annual Conference: (from left) Kenton Grossnickle, Carolyn Schrock, Bobbi Dykema, interviewer Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford of the Church of the Brethren News Services, and Bob Johnson. Photo by Jan Fischer Bachman

ND9 offered to share their story publicly because the group felt their transformative experience could be helpful to others and demonstrates the possibilities of the process. In addition to Johnson, who pastors Middle River Church of the Brethren in New Hope, Va., those participating in the interview included Bobbi Dykema, pastor at First Church of the Brethren in Springfield, Ill.; Kenton Grossnickle from Myersville, Md.; and Carolyn Schrock from McPherson, Kan. Two table members had to leave before the interview.

The group was careful to acknowledge not every table had a transformative experience. They had heard reports from people at tables where the experience had been painful throughout the conversation sessions. However, if one table could be surprised by unexpected relationship-building, perhaps there is hope for others–perhaps even the whole denomination.

The members of ND9 came to the conversation with their own feelings and thoughts, and at times with ill feelings toward each other. Over the course of the three days, their journey toward what ended up being “a wonderful way of listening”–as Johnson put it–was not easy. Some hurtful things were said, even if they were honest. After the first day’s conversation, one person said they wished another person wasn’t at the table. Another person was feeling pushed out, and finally told that to the group.

By the second day, things began to change. The honest expression of feelings–however hurtful–created a new possibility for openness and acceptance. “It’s so powerful to let you feel what you feel and say what you say and still love each other,” Johnson said.

By the third day, the group had decided to wash feet together during the love feast scheduled for that afternoon. When the time came for feetwashing, they went as a group to the area for the genders to wash together, inviting Johnson’s wife to join them. Each person in the group washed every other person’s feet.

The love and servanthood they expressed in feetwashing did not change who they were as people, and did not change their opinions, Dykema noted. But it was a symbol of a new willingness to be vulnerable to each other. “Our ideology hasn’t changed but our togetherness has,” she said.

Surprisingly, one of the things that brought the group together was a common concern for creation care–an issue usually assumed to be extremely divisive. The table shared a concern for farmers in their communities, some grew up on farms, and some are enthusiastic gardeners. They also shared a heart for trauma victims and people with addictions.

“We love each other despite our differences,” said Grossnickle, who noted that distrust was an obstacle they had to overcome from the start. He blamed the distrust on their fear of each other’s differences. It is important to understand that perfect love casts out fear, he said, quoting scripture. He added that it was helpful to realize they could listen to each other without fear.

“After our rocky time, I was praying that God would help us and then I felt the Spirit move among us,” said Schrock.

ND9 hopes the Holy Spirit will move in the same way among the wider church–in Dykema’s words, that the Spirit may “write this large.”

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