NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After nearly two decades of negotiation, the nation's two largest Mennonite denominations overwhelmingly approved a merger Thursday that creates the 125,000-member Mennonite Church USA.
''We feel this is a hallelujah moment,'' said David Heusinkveld, a delegate from Wakarusa, Ind. ''We'll finally be able to stop working on the structure (of the denomination) and start actually doing the work.''
Delegates of the Mennonite Church based in Elkhart, Ind., voted 96 percent in favor of the merger. Those from the General Conference Mennonite Church based in Newton, Kan., favored it by 95 percent.
Many delegates expressed mixed feelings about the new membership guidelines, under which the church will not recognize same-sex marriages. Individual congregations and regional conferences will decide whether homosexuals will be allowed as members.
Some delegates said they voted ''yes'' despite disagreeing on the issue, saying they didn't want the merger to fail because of one issue. Church leaders said the new denomination will help unify efforts on mission work and political issues such as capital punishment and human rights.
The two denominations are among nearly 20 Mennonite organizations in North America. Some 10,000 were gathered here.
The Mennonites are sometimes confused with the Amish, whose lifestyle and religious practices stem from the same 16th century religious movement called Anabaptism.
But unlike the Amish, who live in close-knit communities and often use horses and buggies for transportation, Mennonites mostly live and work among members of other faiths and embrace modern technology.
Mennonites are known for their strong commitment to peace and voluntary service to people in need, including victims of natural disasters. Many Mennonites decline to participate in the military and some refuse to pay the percentage of their annual income tax that would fund military operations.
Kathleen Flake, assistant professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, said the merger will make the denomination stronger.
''It sounds like the old differences just don't matter anymore,'' she said. ''Why bear the administrative burden (of two organizations) and the schism, which is a spiritual burden?''
The vote was largely a formality. Delegates from both denominations voted in 1999 to reorganize into a Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. The Canadian groups already have merged.
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