In the family in which I was raised, going to the theater was not acceptable. The one exception that was granted was to see “Mary Poppins” for a friend’s birthday party. The line, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” I have never forgotten. As a kid, the idea of taking nasty tasting medicine in order to feel better had little value. However, mix that same medicine with a little sweetness and somehow it was doable.
I grew up using my fair share of sugar. A good bowl of cereal ended with drinking the milk from the bowl with its clumps of sugar. I married into a Mennonite family who loves to bake and sugar was not sprinkled, but rather dumped into the homemade applesauce. Even fresh strawberries needed a little touch of sugar to bring out the flavor. No Mennonite gathering seems complete without food in general and specifically sweet baked goods. It seems many of us have a pretty large sweet tooth.
As much as I love sweets, I draw the line with coffee. I like it black. No sugar and no flavored creams. Though I love ice cream, I do not like any coffee flavors. Coffee is best when bitter. When a friend recently heard of my preference to keep sweetener out of my coffee, he commented that it fits my personality and pastoral approach. Perhaps this should offend me but his explanation seemed accurate. He suggested that I do not sugar-coat my observations and understandings. My friend affirmed me for being bitter and for providing space in which others can share of life’s bitterness.
An old movie, my love of sweets, and coffee preference seems like an odd combination to write about. However, it has given me much to think on. While I do not strive to be bitter, I do wish to be open to the bitter truth God has for me. I want to find ways to lower my defenses regarding what others say about me to hear the truth they offer. I long to expand my palate to those experiences that may not seem sugar-coated. I hope to increase my ability to sit with others in their bitterness without needing to eat shoe fly pie.
I am pretty sure I will keep enjoying sweets. I pray I can grow to embrace bitter as being equally good. I believe it is time for a good cup of coffee!
“The first duty of love is to listen.”—Paul Tillich
As part of our practices in this summer space in between, we’ve taken our conference staff meetings “to the margins”, which so far has meant meeting at Doylestown and Alpha congregations for an afternoon to eat, pray and learn alongside the pastors who work in those settings before engaging our regular conference staff agendas. We’ll go to Quakertown to learn about the work of Salem congregation’s engagement with partners and neighbors yet for our last of these meetings later this month.
These going to the margins meetings have felt like holy disruptions of our routine. We’ve received the gracious hospitality of Krista at Alpha, and Randy, KrisAnne and Sandy at Doylestown. We’ve had great ice cream and burritos. We’ve learned by listening to both the possibilities and struggles for ministry and life in one of the wealthiest communities in Bucks County, as well as what it feels like to work and hope just across the Delaware River.
I’m noticing some things that have been happening through our experiment. Some of these things might encourage our continued journey of “going to the margins” for the sake of the Good News. This is a small disruption, a monthly afternoon staff meeting. But breaking our routines invigorates our conversations and builds our relationships together, differently. We carpool. We talk differently and about different things because we are in different spaces. In navigating the logistics of simply going to a different location, we think differently rather than simply showing up in the same place. Our two meetings at the margins have been times when we’ve been highly engaged with one another, even when dealing with routine tasks and procedures (seriously). I look forward to what we’ll learn later this month. A few staff members have asked if we can continue this kind of meeting alongside congregations’ into the future.
Admittedly, it does cost us some extra time and mileage resources to get to these places, which I’d say is well worth the effort thus far. By eating together, we create a different rhythm of gathering that opens conversation differently. By listening and praying with the pastors in their settings, we’ve had opportunities to both bless and to learn. In going to the margins, we find what happens when we respond to Jesus’s declaration to go and then the transformation that happens when we listen to each other and in the midst, to sense the presence of God and discover our hearts are still strangely warmed together on the way in this time in between.
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, France in November, and in San Bernardino, California in December, many have struggled with the question of how we should relate to our Muslim neighbors. Tensions have remained high, exacerbated by the election season, and the answer to this question has reared its head in the form of some ugly anti-Islamic sentiment, including harassment and acts of vandalism against mosques in the Philadelphia area and around the country. Several congregations in Franconia Conference have asked this question in a different way: How can we relate to our Muslim neighbors in a way that is Christ-like?
Philadelphia Praise Center (PPC) is one congregation that has a long history of interacting with its surrounding Muslim community. Shortly after PPC was first started in 2006, Pastor Aldo Siahaan, himself an immigrant from Indonesia, reached out to the Imam of a group of Indonesian Muslims and offered them the use of the church building for evening prayers during Ramadan. They didn’t accept his invitation that year, but called back the following year and asked to use the space, beginning a longstanding friendship between PPC and what is now Masjid Al Falah.
Lindy Backues, an elder at PPC, joined the church when he and his family were deported from Indonesia after living there for 18 years. “I’ve been ‘sent home’. I know what that feels like,” he says in response to national comments against Muslim immigrants. “I don’t want to send Muslims ‘home’. They’re my friends. So at PPC, we’re trying to be different—to reach out to visitors and guests and the sojourner in our midst. In the process of receiving the other, we become who we are, because God received us when we were the other.”
Salford Mennonite Church also has a longstanding relationship with its Muslim neighbors which began when Salford reached out to them in friendship after the events of 9/11. Out of that gesture began a close relationship with a family from Lebanon who lives nearby. And in turn, that family has walked alongside and assisted Salford as it has resettled Muslim refugees from Iraq and Iran.
After recent Islamophobic rhetoric hit national news, Salford contacted the Imam of North Penn Mosque. “We had a meeting to express that as Christians we desire to have a relationship with him and his community,” says Joe Hackman, Lead Pastor. “We want to let them know that we’re there for them to offer support in whatever form they might need. As Anabaptists, we know what it is to be persecuted because of our faith. So it makes sense that we would want to protect other religious minorities who are experiencing persecution.”
For Doylestown Mennonite Church, which has recently become a co-sponsor for a Muslim refugee family from Afghanistan, the decision to reach out was simply an act of love, says KrisAnne Swartley, Minister for the Missional Journey. “This is just a way for us to live out faithfulness to Jesus.”
The Bible is full of verses regarding loving our neighbors. In Mark 12 as Jesus is questioned by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem they ask what the greatest commandment is, to which Jesus answers in verse 30-31, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” It is great to see Franconia Conference churches living their faith by loving their neighbors.
Esther Good is a member at Whitehall Mennonite Church.
In the spring of 2014, Doylestown Mennonite Church’s three-year experiment, called the missional journey, came to an end. We celebrated the many ways we tried our hand at living out God’s mission in our neighborhood, from soccer camps to storm kitchens during power outages, to community days to outdoor worship services, to prayer walking at our work places. With that part of our journey concluded, we began to ask, “What’s next?”
Leadership discerned that more equipping was necessary in order for us to move forward. At the same time, I heard that Tim Soerens and Paul Sparks, from Seattle Washington and The Parish Collective ministry, were doing tours and training all across North America and the United Kingdom. This was in conjunction with their new book, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community. We contacted them and set up a training day.
On Saturday, February 28, people from Doylestown Mennonite gathered with attendees from seven churches and two conferences. We mapped out our neighborhoods and reflected on what being faithfully present might look like there. Scattered throughout the day were stories of entering into God’s mission at work, at play, through our talents and passions, and through surprising moments when someone’s need connected with our abundance. Many of us began networking with others who live and work nearby, and whom we could partner with for God’s mission.
A significant take-away for our congregation is that formation and mission cannot be separated. We will be transformed as we continue to follow Jesus into our local parishes. Our lives will be changed, and that might feel uncomfortable to us. At times it is easy to approach mission, whether local or international, as something we do with the answers. Tim and Paul encouraged us to approach mission as listeners and learners, watching for where God was already at work, trusting that people’s deepest desires are God-given and good. As we listen and watch and learn, as we rub shoulders with people outside our usual social groups, we will certainly find God revealing new things to us and inviting us to see ourselves and others in new ways.
Another take-away for us is that this is slow work. Faithful neighborhood presence is not a program and it is not an event. Faithful presence is for the long haul. It is a long-term commitment to place and to people, to listening and connecting, to earning trust by being there over time, to working for the common good with our neighbors. Gone are the days when you could advertise an event or a special Sunday service and people would flock to the church to be part of the program, and a large part of me is thankful those days are gone. I’m becoming convinced that it is small things over large amounts of time, that yield the deep fruit of salvation, for those outside “the church,” and also for me. We are transformed as we journey along the way. All of us are. I am thankful that this weekend of training and fellowship marked another milestone along the journey of entering into God’s mission and being changed, for Doylestown Mennonite congregation and others as well.
Kris Anne Swartley is the minister for missional journey at Doylestown Mennonite Church.
The event grew out of Doylestown Mennonite’s own missional journey and looking ahead to what could come next for the congregation. Kris Anne Swartley, the main organizer of the event, says that she was interested in having Soerens and Sparks for a training day because they have listened to and learned from church leaders across North America, in churches working at local mission in their neighborhoods.
Tickets for the day are $25, and lunch will be provided. Space is limited, so early registration is encouraged. Register by calling or emailing the Doylestown Mennonite church office at 215-345-6377 or email@example.com.
When people think “urban,” chances are pretty good that Doylestown, Pennsylvania is not a place that comes to mind. Thirty years ago, it was a traditional farming community; now, it’s a well-off, artsy, suburban Philadelphia town. And yet, one congregation, Doylestown Mennonite, is incorporating a program traditionally geared towards urban congregations—the Mennonite Central Committee Summer Service Worker Program—to also reach out to a radically-changed surrounding community.
For the Doylestown congregation, having an MCC summer service worker is one of a number of initiatives they’ve begun in order to meaningfully connect with people in the community, moves that have at times felt stretching, and even risky. Over the last several years, says Pastor Randy Heacock, the church has opened its doors to various local initiatives, including a community garden and a peace camp, taking place this month. Derrick Garrido, who attends Doylestown Mennonite and is a student at Cairn University, spent the summer connecting with artists in the community, working to create space for artistic expression within the community and connect with those who might not have a faith community.
MCC started the summer service program in the ’80s, with the same focus it has today: To work in urban areas and provide employment and leadership opportunities to people of color. The goal, says program coordinator Danilo Sanchez (Whitehall congregation), is to allow people opportunities to stay in their home communities and churches and make a difference where they’re living now. Participants must be a person of color between the ages of 18 and 30, preferably enrolled in a university or college, and be connected with a constituent church of MCC, such as Mennonite Church USA or Brethren in Christ members. Some participants come through Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite colleges. Generally, a congregation submits a proposal first, and regional MCC coordinators review the application. If it is approved, applicants are then invited to apply to the MCC U.S. program. In the past, both Franconia and Lancaster Mennonite conferences have contributed financial support, and a number of congregations, such as Philadelphia Praise Center, have had someone in the program for the last several years.
This year, Mikah Ochieng worked at Philadelphia Praise Center, under the supervision of pastor Aldo Siahaan. Ochieng says he’s grateful for the opportunity to have been both a learner and a teacher in a community that has been so hospitable to him, and the one he calls home. When asked about challenges, Ochieng said that of course there had been obstacles, such as a small number of volunteers, but his experience has been that “what we lack in such resources we make up in our commitment to serve one another.”
“It’s a quality-over-quantity type of thing.”
New Hope Fellowship, in Alexandria, Virginia, has also participated in MCC’s Summer Service Program for many years. This year, Alex Torres worked with the church’s kid’s club, helped a friend of the congregation with a hip hop school, and assisted the Spanish-speaking community in a variety of ways.
Torres says he’d known others from the congregation who had participated in the summer service worker program, and wanted to make an impact in his community. He says his favorite part was working with the kids, and that he wanted to show them a different, more positive route than the one that’s laid out for many children in his community.
“Where I come from, there’s always a lot of not-so-good things happening… I pay a lot of attention to the youth around here.”
Over the last seven years, summer service worker participants at New Hope have chosen different areas: One worked in a homeless shelter, in part because that’s where he lived. Others who are bilingual have helped people navigate the system.
For New Hope’s pastor, Kirk Hanger, the one of the many benefits of the program is that the young adults are from the congregation—they know the context, the congregation and the community, and when it’s done, they stay.
“We get to continue to walk with these young adults and mentor them… and experience more of the fruit of what they’ve learned and done.”
Heacock says that his congregation has worked hard to figure out what it means to be missional—both in the community with relationships that already exist, but also, as he puts it, “How do we not just preserve it for us, but also use our space to be an outpost for the kingdom?”
“If the goal is to learn what God has for us in the midst of it, I really think there’s very little failure.”