by Lora Steiner
When lunch was served to the delegates of the oldest Mennonite conference in the Western Hemisphere, the buffet table held Vietnamese egg rolls, fried tofu, peanut sauce, candied yams and fried chicken. Interpreters translated business agenda and updates into three languages. At the Franconia Mennonite Meetinghouse close to Telford, PA, where Franconia Conference began nearly 300 years ago, attendees sang hymns in Spanish and offered prayers in Indonesian.
Representatives from churches and pastors gather each November with conference staff to worship, welcome new pastors and congregations, discern future movements for the conference and learn about the ministries they support together. But for some, the event is also a reminder of how rapidly the face of the Northeast corridor–and Franconia Mennonite Conference with it–is changing. The churches of Franconia Conference range from Vermont to Washington, D.C.; including congregations initiated by waves of Swiss German immigrants who settled along the Skippack and Perkiomen creeks in the late 1600’s to two Indonesian-speaking churches in South Philadelphia filled with recent immigrants who arrived in the United States after riots in Jakarta in the late 90’s.
The gathering opened on Friday evening with worship. Gilberto Flores, who is a denominational minister with Mennonite Church USA, presented the evening message. Speaking on the theme for the event, “Centered in Christ, Embracing God’s Mission,” Gilberto encouraged the audience to consider the mission to which God has called the church, a mission that includes all people from all places.
“Mission has to be embraced, not discussed,” said Flores. “To walk on water, you just have to walk on water.”
The evening service included a time to officially welcome two new congregations, Nations Worship Center of Philadelphia and Peace Mennonite Church of East Greenville, PA, while newly credentialed pastors were introduced on Saturday morning. Items on Saturday’s agenda also included to in-depth discussion and affirmation of Vision and Financial Plan Team recommendations. Blaine Detwiler, pastor of Lakeview Mennonite Church in Susquehanna, PA, was affirmed by vote as the new conference moderator; he will replace Merrill Moyer of Souderton, PA. in January.
While those who gathered for the assembly recognized that with increasing diversity comes increasing challenges, they also found it to be a hopeful thing.
“There are a number of challenges, living in a traditional kind of church community which has long deep values,” says Noah Kolb, Conference Pastor of Ministerial Leadership “And trying to value them while we open ourselves up to new ways of experiencing God’s grace and God’s mission among us–there’s tension in that.” Kolb highlights that church leaders now come from many different places–not just from other Mennonite churches or institutions, but often from different cultures and countries.
“I think a lot of the hope that I find comes just from relating to these people and seeing God at work within them, and the desire to work together because there’s some common mission that we’re all wanting to move towards.”
Marta Castillo, an associate pastor at Nueva Vida Norristown (PA) New Life Mennonite Church, shares that hope.
“I see hope, as a new leader, in Franconia Conference, in our church, in the way God is working,” says Castillo. “God is the hope for me, because the things I expect will happen don’t always happen, but all these unexpected things I didn’t know God was already working on beginning to happen. There’s so much hope in the fact that God is bringing more and more people in the Conference that are not like us. In the Bible it talks a lot about ‘the others,’ the unexpected people that God used in miraculous and wonderful ways . . . Sometimes it is ‘the others’ that God needs in this place and in this time.”
“It’s all about trust in God,” says Yvonne Platts, who serves on the Conference board. “It’s all about listening, discerning and really trying to hear what messages God is saying for our church–and understanding that it’s not about us. Anything new can be uncomfortable. Unfamiliar territory can make us afraid. But if we just trust and lean on Jesus, he will guide us.”