Joel Miller, who for the last 10 years has served as the pastor at Columbus Mennonite Church, is aware that members of the Mennonite faith are often viewed as isolationist, tracing this idea 500 years back through the church’s establishment.
“We’re a peace tradition from our founding, emphasizing the peacefulness of Jesus,” Miller said in early January over coffee in Clintonville. “That’s who we’ve been. And that, unfortunately, has often looked like a separatist approach. And it’s not an unfair comparison with the Amish, because we’re related historically, and being apolitical is one of the options.”
And yet, in late December Miller led a coalition of members from Columbus Mennonite Church in delivering a letter to Sen. Sherrod Brown calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. And this week, Miller joined a national contingent of Mennonites in Washington, D.C., where on Tuesday the group delivered a petition to members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The petition, signed by more than 5,000 members of the Mennonite Church, asked members to endorse Rep. Cori Bush’s Ceasefire Now Resolution and to publicly demand a permanent ceasefire and the release of all hostages.
“We were shocked and horrified by Hamas’ brutal attacks against Israeli citizens on October 7. And we are horrified by Israel’s continuing attacks on Palestinian citizens,” reads the petition. “We cannot turn away. We cannot keep quiet. Our faith demands that we speak out.”
“We feel like it’s important to engage politically and socially, in nonviolent ways,” said Miller, who described the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the first in a series of political awakenings that have compelled him toward action. “And in that, I opened my eyes toward systemic injustice, and the idea that peace can get in bed with the status quo. I mean, [Dr. Martin Luther] King talked about this all the time: You have to disrupt the status quo to move toward justice. And that doesn’t always feel peaceful.”
Miller’s interest in the Middle East predates current events. Since young adulthood, he has made multiple trips to the West Bank, and the experiences, he said, helped to put a human face on a situation that previously felt “abstract.” The visits also accelerated his call to action, with Miller sharing that he initially hesitated to take his most recent trip in November 2015 because he didn’t want to be responsible for what he might see in his time there.
“If you see something, it becomes part of one’s responsibility,” said Miller, who noted that the Mennonite Church has also acted more broadly in Hebron, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, working with Community Peacemaker Teams that accompany Palestinian children through checkpoints. “When you visit a place like the West Bank, you encounter undeniable stories. It’s hard to argue with someone whose house has been demolished, or someone whose kids have to go through a checkpoint to go to school. It’s not about ideology or taking sides. You’re just encountering people. And you have to deal with that and incorporate it into your understanding of the world. … And I think that firmed up some convictions I had about using my time and energy for justice.”
Beginning in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, Miller said the events in Gaza became a regular point of discussion among churchgoers following Sunday service. In this time, known as the sharing of joys and concerns, space is given for the community to offer gratitude or to raise issues both local and international. In the days that followed, Miller also reached out to colleagues at local synagogues, expressing his grief and extending prayers to his fellow faith leaders, who in that moment were tasked with helping their congregations navigate a heavy mix of fear, grief and loss.
“A pastor’s work is very local, in many ways,” Miller said. “But I’ve also learned pastoral care is directly related to all of these other political realities.”
Throughout his time in Columbus, Miller has continued to take direction from the members of his congregation. He said the church talks about shared leadership, and that part of his work includes creating space for other people to step up. “And in the Mennonite church right now, there’s a lot of energy around this particular work,” he said. “And a lot of it has galvanized around calling for a ceasefire and building relationships locally with those most affected. And that feels empowering, and like it’s a call that’s coming from beyond me. I put a lot of stock in the call of the community.”
While his focus is on his own congregation, Miller said he has moved with an awareness of other faith communities impacted, and in particular the city’s Jewish community, whose faith leaders he informed about the December letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza prior to delivering it to Sen. Brown.
“I think everyone is losing right now. I think what the Israeli army is doing in Gaza right now is, in the long term, bad for Jews and bad for Israel. I think it’s sowing poisonous seeds,” said Miller, who continues to hold space for the pain suffered both by Israelis at the hands of Hamas and by Palestinians in the ongoing bombardment. “I want to emphasize that these calls to stop this madness, they’re done with the hopes of a better future for Israelis, for Jews, for everyone seeking a better existence. And I think that's something that can get lost.
“Someone within the Mennonite action had a really nice image I’ve been thinking about, and she talked about how we need to act with both hands. One hand is held up and saying this has to stop. This violence has to stop. And the other hand is an open hand. And it’s open to listening and learning and conversation. And I think that captures nicely what we’re trying to do.”