Widening the Circle
Experiments in Christian Discipleship
Joanna Shenk was born in Springfield, Ohio, and raised in an evangelical, charismatic church where her father was the pastor. Although the church, Northridge Christian Fellowship, was a part of the Ohio Conference of the (old) Mennonite Church at the time, most families were not ethnic Mennonites. So Joanna grew up without much awareness of denominational affiliation and identified only as a Christian, not as a Mennonite Christian. As a child, since her father preached pacifism, she thought all Christians were pacifist and did not recognize pacifism as an Anabaptist-Mennonite distinctive. In 1996 her family moved to Dagestan, Russia, to live in the Tabasaran region as Christians sharing the love and grace of Jesus. Joanna and her family were the first Christians and North Americans to live in this mountainous village region. They were met with hospitality, curiosity, and a bit of suspicion. This formative experience opened a new world of cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding; it also instilled in teenage Joanna the need to believe in Jesus and share the good news of Jesus' message.
Midway through her tenth grade year Joanna returned to the States to finish high school at Bethany Christian Schools, a Mennonite institution, in Goshen, Indiana. This was a jarring shift after the years spent in Dagestan and illustrated to Joanna why she wasn't Mennonite. She felt left out of the close-knit social groups of young adults who had grown up together, and she felt her evangelical faith was not valued or understood by many of her classmates. Hence, she made up her mind to not go to a Mennonite college and instead enrolled at Huntington University (then College), in Huntington, Indiana. After serving as student body president during her junior year she spent the first semester of her senior year at Focus Leadership Institute at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. It was a confusing time for her and she came away with many faith questions.
In her last semester at Huntington she was introduced to the theology of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, in which she found space for her questions. Through encouragement from the few Anabaptist-minded professors at Huntington, she decided to further explore theology and her heritage at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana.
In 2008 she began her second year of seminary by moving into the Jubilee House (see Chapter 11) in Elkhart. It was a place of love, acceptance, and formation as she wrestled with what it meant to come from her family of origin as a woman and a follower of Jesus. Having found a theological home among Mennonites, she decided to become a member at Fellowship of Hope Mennonite Church. In 2009, she graduated from AMBS with an MA degree in Theological Studies.
Currently Joanna lives in the vibrant neighborhood of south central Elkhart, Indiana, where she is a part of a cohousing community, the Prairie Wolf Collective. She also helped to start Rise Up Farms, a permaculture farming initiative that seeks to connect people in Elkhart with locally grown food. Since 2010, she has been a cohost and coproducer of The Iconocast, a twice-monthly podcast hosted at JesusRadicals.com. Joanna also works with Mennonite Church USA's national staff as associate for interchurch relations and communication. In this role she is a writer, editor, and link between the denomination and other Christians who are interested in community and discipleship stemming from the Anabaptist tradition.