A call of courage and confidence, not comfort

Jenifer Eriksen Morales

jennifer.jpgI was eight years old, but remember the moment clearly. The table at the front of the sanctuary was set, and the Alpha congregation was silently praying. I tried to pray, but was overwhelmed by the stirring within and around me compelling me to go to forward. I followed the movement of the Spirit and left my chair. Although my parents said I could not take communion and had to wait until I was older and baptized, my need to follow the pull of Love was strong. I walked over to my pastor, knelt down next to him, and whispered, “Uncle Henry, I love Jesus and Jesus loves me. I know I’m young and not baptized, but I want to follow Jesus and I need to be a part of Christ and this church. Please, can I take communion?”

Pastor Swartley swept me up in a giant hug. He interrupted the congregation’s prayer, told them what I said, and asked those who agreed I could participate to stand. The entire congregation stood. Many had tears in their eyes. I don’t remember the taste of the bread or the grape juice. But I recall being included at the table and the embraces from the body of Christ following the service inviting me to know and follow Jesus. In hindsight, I realize as I awaited the congregation’s response, I was looking at a church in the midst of a moment of divergence. History, tradition, polity, faith, and past, present, and future experiences collided with my question. This was a significant moment in my spiritual journey and for the congregation who later decided to regularly include children at the Lord’s Table by serving crackers and grapes.

Because I was blessed to be raised in a home dedicated to the Christian faith, and a Mennonite church, my journey in life and faith are interrelated. While I can name situations where a deeper understanding of God, community, and self emerged, I have no “testimony” but rather numerous stories of God at work in, around, through, and in spite of me as the Holy Spirit continues to call. I was pushed to transcend various comfort zones in my choice to attend Eastern Mennonite University. A semester in Central America opened my eyes to issues such as poverty, racism, international relations, and literacy. Living and worshiping with a Catholic family helped me see spirituality through the eyes of others and challenged my Mennonite understandings.

In the middle of my tenure at EMU God called me to short term mission work in Bethlehem, the West Bank. This proved arduous, as I experienced turmoil from the political situation, cultural differences, and difficult team dynamics. Though I learned much and gained a deep love and appreciation for the historical and worldwide church, I returned to EMU doubting myself, my faith, and my God. Friends and the campus pastor supported me through this painful experience. In the end, my relationship with God, and my Anabaptist identity deepened. Remarkably, during this tumultuous time God continued to work. I discovered an interest in working with people from different countries, and my friends encouraged me to pursue pastoral ministry. A seminary course, “Growing Churches,” awakened a passion for church growth and redevelopment. Though I was certain of my calling into ministry, I struggled with my role as a woman due to the tradition in which I was raised.

Instead, I began coordinating an adult and family literacy program. I entered this job ill-equipped and hesitant. Through God’s wisdom, guidance, and grace, much determination, a passion for the people and community I served, and a supervisor who taught and mentored me to lead confidently, I developed the skills necessary to provide leadership for the program through a time of transition which led to rapid and sustaining growth.

In the meantime, my home congregation at Alpha was going through a difficult period and the congregation gave me space to lead. They allowed me to bring ideas that enabled the small church to subsist in a new and meaningful way with ample opportunities to hone my preaching and teaching skills. Their trust was both humbling and empowering. Though the church didn’t traditionally support women in ministry they came to understand and respect my call. The same people to embrace me as a called child also helped me embrace and test my calling as a woman leader. Their support gave my husband and me the courage to move our family to Indiana so I could follow God’s call to study at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, IN).

While at AMBS my faith became more grounded in scripture and theology. I was able to discern and claim my passion and gifts for teaching, working interculturally, and leadership. I found this most visible in the area of growth and development. I realized a need in the church for support during times of transition and felt specifically called to work in this area as an interim pastor and a resource person. I am committed to helping church leaders develop practices that enable congregations to cope in the midst of change. Through opportunities to study, worship, and serve with congregations in transition and turn-around, I have seen God at work reconciling, transforming, and equipping congregations.

The many stories I hear of God at work in Franconia Conference congregations as they participate in Jesus’ mission are exciting. I sense a dedication to following God’s call to the continual process of learning and growth along with the vision, passion, grace, and courage required to do so. I am attracted to the rich history, the ever-increasing diversity, and the commitment to “equip leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission.” I suspect at times history, tradition, polity, faith, and past, present and future ideas and experiences collide. But I am certain God is at work creating and recreating, restoring and renewing. For this reason I look forward to ministering with and in the congregations of Franconia Conference.