All posts by Conference Office

Encouragement in the Bay

by Jerrell Williams, Associate for Leadership Cultivation

Joshua So, pastor of San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church, second from left, along with his wife, Anita So, with Steve Kriss, Leadership Minister Jeff Wright, and Jerrell Williams. 

(Reprinted with permission from The Mennonite)

This past week I got the chance to accompany Steve Kriss, Franconia Mennonite Conference executive minister, and Jeff Wright, Franconia Conference Leadership minister, on a trip to San Francisco to visit San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church (SFCMC). This is a Cantonese-speaking congregation of around 35 members that is considering joining Franconia Mennonite Conference.

After worship, we talked with Pastor Joshua about his expectations of Franconia Conference and how he envisioned the relationship. The theme of encouragement came up repeatedly. Pastor Joshua wanted encouragement and support from Franconia Conference. He wanted to know if Franconia Conference would be in relationship with his church and continue to encourage the members, even though they are far away. If it joins Franconia Conference, SFCMC would be the only Cantonese-speaking congregation in the conference. We attended worship with the congregation and spent a day with Pastor Joshua and Anita, his wife, in the Bay area. The congregation was lively and hospitable; everyone greeted us when we came. We met several members of the congregation during lunch and heard their stories and experiences in the United States.

This experience showed me the importance of encouragement for churches. SFCMC has felt alone for a long time. Its biggest request from us on this trip was that we check in with them and encourage them. Whether we’re there physically or we send them a text on a Sunday morning, they want to know we are praying for them and thinking of them.

Worship at San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church.

 

Hearing of the needs of this congregation made me think of Paul and how he wrote letters to different churches. These letters sometimes were ones of correction for when the church lost its way, but many of them included words of encouragement to congregations. Paul saw it as important to send encouragement to the church whenever he got the chance.

All churches at times need support and encouragement from other churches. Franconia Conference can play a huge role in encouraging and connecting its congregations. Being a conference isn’t only about keeping churches in order or in line. Most of the work is being willing to be present with them. Churches need to know they are being prayed for, thought of and loved. Sometimes a reminder is all we need.

A Journey Towards Intercultural Engagement

by Mike Clemmer, Leadership Minister

One of the priorities of Franconia Conference as put forth in 2012, is to be more focused in our congregational work on intercultural engagement. Specifically, as stated on our website, it is “networking and cultivating intercultural ministry relationships that work cross-culturally while building further capacity toward mutually-beneficial relationships among ministries and congregations.” I wondered, as I read this statement, “How are we doing at that?”

My mind goes to the early church in Acts. They modeled this same type of intercultural engagement that is envisioned by our Conference leaders. Along the way, the Church in Acts experienced some messiness and struggled in areas of communication, arrogance, and life practice as they worked at developing mutually-beneficial relationships that cared for people of all cultures equally. Indeed, they were aided greatly by an amazing filling of the Holy Spirit, but as they engaged with their call to make disciples of all nations, the result was that the church grew quickly. Is the church in Acts an accurate model as to what our intercultural engagement in Franconia Conference is supposed to look like?

There is no doubt that the make-up of our Conference has changed dramatically in the past several decades. We are becoming more and more urban, more white-collar, less “white” then before and definitely less Swiss-German – at least ethnically speaking. These changes have caused 

some small bumps in the road for Conference, related to communication and the practice of worship amidst the diversity, but it has also led to some rich new understandings of our faith and life together. I believe this diversity is a direct result of the vision put forth from the Conference. I applaud many of our congregations for their intentional approach to connecting with other churches that are completely different, culturally. Indeed, we have worshipped together, ate together, and prayed together – and everyone involved is better for our continued work at intercultural engagement.

My congregation, Towamencin Mennonite Church, recently partnered with Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia for an outdoor baptism service. Centro’s pastors – Fernando and Letty – and I spent a lot of time working out the details of the worship, translation,  transportation needs and the details of a joint meal together. There seemed to be so many hurdles to jump over in the planning process. Yet, we all desired to be together and believed that through this service, both of our congregations would experience God in a powerful way. The commitment of the Centro congregation to this service touched the people of Towamencin greatly, as 130 persons made the trek from South Philly to Telford and joined another 130 persons from Towamencin. The balance in the attendance numbers may have just been a coincidence, but for us as pastors, it was God’s reminder that we both bring value to the table in equal ways and we have a lot to learn from each other.

We baptized 10 persons in the Branch Creek on that beautiful July morning. We had earlier agreed that the words spoken during the baptisms would not be translated as to not disrupt the flow of the event. So, we all watched and cheered each other on in English and in Spanish, as persons declared publicly their commitment to Jesus. Then the Spirit interrupted the service in a powerful way. Just as Pastors Fernando and Letty were preparing to baptize their own daughter, Pastor Fernando abruptly stopped speaking in Spanish and with a tear-soaked face spoke in English and said, “I am sorry for my emotion – but you must understand how great this event is for us: to baptize our own daughter!” Every person from Towamencin connected instantly with the human condition of being a parent and seeing our children make a public faith commitment. At that moment, there were no intercultural differences, no struggles with language – only a coming together fully as two churches, one without any barriers.

Following the baptisms we enjoyed a feast together: chicken BBQ along with the best guacamole ever and salsa. We also agreed together that this will be a yearly happening.

In the weeks after this service, I have been talking to many pastors and congregations who have had similar awesome experiences of intercultural engagement. My question to them is, “Now what?” Do we just go back into our weekly routines as individual churches serving in our local communities, or do we dare to be more regular with our interactions with one another? The Acts church certainly broke down many cultural barriers along the way, yet still displayed many incidents where the church flourished in its own cultural space. In fact, for the early church, intercultural engagement was still always a work in progress.

Perhaps that is how we should look at the vision of our Conference towards intercultural connectedness – as a continual, ongoing work in progress. There is no question that we have much to learn from one another. I think we simply need to recognize the value of being with one another, and then the opportunities to do things together will happen. Most of all, we need to see each other as partners in the same vision with all sides bringing the gifts and abilities to the table equally, on a level playing field. This is the biggest part of the journey of bridging cultures together. It is a necessary one, and at times a messy one. I am thankful that our Conference reminds us all that it is a highly valuable and important journey for our Conference churches to engage in. 

It’s Not About Me

By Eszter Bentch

I thought I knew that serving, ministry, and most of what I do is not about me. I also thought I knew how to serve others. It turns out, the only person I really think of is myself and I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did about doing ministry.

This summer I was given the opportunity to intern for both Whitehall Mennonite Church and Ripple, as well as Ripple’s non-profit, Ripple Community Inc. in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I wanted to gain experience working in a church setting to explore my potential desire and calling to work as a pastor or in some other form of ministry. These churches, located in and outside of Allentown are not your typical Mennonite Churches. Whitehall is a community of relatively few members, about half of which are Karen people from Myanmar, many of them refugees, and many other people who experience poverty or intellectual differences. Ripple, in inner-city Allentown, is also a small community but with a very big impact. Ripple, as a church and non-profit, worships and works with people experiencing homelessness or in extreme poverty.

Through my time among these communities I learned a lot and gained helpful experiences. I put together many orders of worship, taught Sunday school, led children’s time, led worship services, got to know people, read many books, worked in a garden and even got to preach my first sermon! Through all this, I was trying to figure out what future God was calling me to. I was also trying to navigate balancing work, family, and friends. This meant that I was primarily thinking about myself. Due to the nature of what ministry is, I found that it’s really easy to be pretty self-centered and not realize it. I’m helping and interacting with people experiencing homelessness and other hard situations … all I’m doing is thinking of others! Yet, amidst my supposedly selfless work the thoughts in my brain were ‘what am I learning?’, ‘am I making someone uncomfortable?’, ‘will I still get home in time?’, ‘is this what I want to do in the future?’, and often ‘what does this person think of me?’ Now, I don’t think these questions are wrong to ask and wonder about. It is often important to be aware of how you’re coming across to another person and to be reflective, especially in ministry with people very different from you. However, these thoughts were using up the mental energy I could have used to care well for those I was encountering. God gave me gifts of empathy and being relational, but I wasn’t able to use them for His glory when I was only thinking of how using them would benefit me!

Another thought I often had was ‘How am I serving this person?’ Though that in itself is not necessarily a bad question, I was caught in a serving ‘for’ mentality instead of a serving ‘with’ way of viewing ministry. Though this was something I had heard about, I did not fully understand it until this summer. When we serve ‘for’ other people we might accidentally do it with a ‘better than thou’ attitude. We might not consciously think of ourselves as better than the person we are serving, but it can come across that way to those we help and can even build a savior complex. When I was interacting with people around me with the attitude of ‘how can I help you?’ it put a divide between me and the person: me as the helper, them as the person needing help. It limited the genuine and equal relationship I could have with them. Additionally, nobody wants to be helped by someone who comes charging in without learning about their situation first, without learning how best they could be helped.

Thankfully, God did confront me about the way I was going about ministry. At some point I caught myself thinking ‘will this person’s problem make me have to work late?’ and I was horrified. I wanted to stop thinking about myself and truly serve ‘with’ people. However, I had trouble getting myself out of that habit using only my own strength. It wasn’t until I read one of the most popular Bible stories in the Old Testament during a discernment group that I truly understood the selfless heart of ministry.

Whitehall had set up a discernment group to pray through and talk about the future of the church. At our second meeting we read through the story of Moses and the Burning Bush in Exodus 3. Though I’ve known this story since I was a little kid, though primarily through the animated classic The Prince of Egypt, I realized something brand new. When Moses responds to God’s call to him in verse 11 with “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”, God’s response of “I will be with you” completely ignores Moses’ question. Though God’s response is comforting, He does not acknowledge Moses’ excuse or reassure him by telling him of his gifts or qualifications to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Instead, God talks about Himself. Moses says “Who am I” and God essentially says that who Moses is, whatever qualifications he does or does not have, is completely irrelevant. God could have called somebody else to save His people! What matters is who God is. This helped me realize that not only should I not be thinking of myself as much, but that it’s just not about me. I wasn’t able to shift my focus onto other people well by myself, but God helped me do so once I finally turned towards Him.

Ripple’s annual retreat day at Spruce Lake.

Though being involved in ministry is about other people, it is still mainly about bringing glory to God. God is at the heart of ministry. When we keep our gaze on our Father we will be able to better see and love the people He puts in front of us. Learning this allowed me to love and serve my new friends at Whitehall and Ripple better. I was able to learn how to serve ‘with’ people, not ‘for’ people, when we focused on God together. Then we could come together to work at their and others’ restoration from a place of mutual understanding and friendship. We could truly serve God together. I hope God never lets me forget that ministry is not about me.

Eszter Bentch is a senior at Wheaton College (Illinois) where she is majoring in Psychology with a minor in Biblical and Theological Studies. In addition to her studies she is an Assistant Resident Director of a dorm and works as a supervisor in Wheaton’s fundraising department, Phonathon. While at college she attends College Church near Wheaton. Her home congregation is Souderton Mennonite Church. Her internship this summer was made possible through a partnership of Franconia Conference, Souderton Mennonite Church, Whitehall Mennonite Church and Ripple.  

 

 

Faith and Life Through Communion

By Jerrell Williams, Associate for Leadership Cultivation

On August 8 and 9, around 30 credentialed leaders of both Franconia and Eastern District Conferences assembled for the quarterly Faith and Life gathering organized by the Faith and Life Commission. The group gathered to talk about the Mennonite perspective of communion. Our time began with prayer and introductions. We centered our time by looking at Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, and Article 12 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

Different table groups decided to focus on different things within their conversation. Some of us were more concerned with the amount of times our churches participate in communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper, while some were more focused on who was welcomed to partake in communion. Another group focused on the meaning of communion as a way of justice. The table becomes a place where we can all come together, no matter one’s economic class.

The table that I sat at focused heavily on how one is to prepare for communion. We discussed the concepts of confessing our sins before coming to the table for communion, as we are to be at peace with God and our brothers and sisters. We shared our experiences of how we have experienced communion and how that has impacted the way we practice today. We also discussed who could participate in the Lord’s Supper.

As the conversations were happening around the tables, two of the Faith and Life Commission members gleaned from what the tables were saying and as the conversations began to end, they summarized for the large group what they heard from the different tables. As they summarized what had been shared around the room, one of the Commission members asked an important question. They first stated that Article 12 in the Confession of Faith says, “All are invited to the Lord’s table who have been baptized into the community of faith, are living at peace with God and with their brothers and sisters in the faith and are willing to be accountable in their congregation.” The leader then asked how many of us require a person to be baptized before they partake in communion as stated in the Confession of Faith.

We ended our meeting with the unanswered question of what this means for us. Where do we go from here? What is communion and who should be able to partake? This conversation has brought to light new questions that many seemed excited to dig deeper into.

Immigration Community Day Held in Philadelphia

The story of Franconia Conference is rooted in faith and migration. These stories have helped shape us as a community, sensitive to the struggle of others who were also seeking a place of peace.  Currently our Conference is comprised of about 10 percent recent immigrants who have come to the United States in the last decade, and this percentage is likely to continue to grow and to shape our future.  As this is our story together — past, present, and future as God’s people – Franconia Conference recently co-sponsored Mennonite Central Committee’s Immigration Community Day in Philadelphia. Pastor Aldo Siahaan of Philadelphia Praise Center participated in the morning panel discussion. Centro de Alabanza hosted the event and assisted in providing a noon time meal. Many from across the region came to learn and celebrate. Abigail Shelly reflected on her experience at the day’s event below, in an article original published online with The Mennonite.   

(reprinted with permission)

by Abigail Shelly, Philadelphia Praise Center summer intern

As I stepped onto the upper floor of Centro de Alabanza, a humble church building in the heart of South Philly, I encountered a flood of color; blue, purple, green and orange hues hung from the ceilings and walls as lively decor, and a spectrum of dark brown to beige smiling faces filled the room. I felt the buzz of energy as people from various walks of life arrived throughout the morning to take part in Mennonite Central Committee’s Immigration Community Day on August 4 — a day set aside to gather, inform and celebrate immigrant communities in the Philadelphia area.

Saulo Padilla – photo courtesy of Dr. Calenthia Dowdy

To begin the day, Saulo Padilla, MCC immigration coordinator, gave a keynote address in which he shared his story as an immigrant and urged the audience to take seriously current issues, particularly the separation of families. Following was a panel with five active members in the Philadelphia community, all with recent immigrant backgrounds or in positions of immigrant advocacy. Topics included personal stories, experiences with the legal system and basic rights one should know about.

Chinemelu (ChiChi) Oguekwe, MCC Philadelphia program coordinator, said the morning was “about providing a space to have a discussion about what it means to be an immigrant for our community.” Considering the current administration’s immigration policies, she said, “there has been a legitimate amount of fear among immigrants in our community. And we know that a fearful community is not a healthy one.” She added that this “is why we gathered together to hear from our immigrant neighbors, leaders in the community [and] churches — to hear from one another, inform and educate each other. It’s in educating each other that we are set free, free from fear. Education empowers us.”

Volunteers from Centro de Alabanza prepare food for the event.

After a morning of education came a time of celebration. A lunch of tostadas, nasi goreng and djon djon (traditional food from Latino, Indonesian and Haitian community churches, respectively) primed the audience for spoken word, traditional Aztec and Indonesian dancing and an uplifting rhythm from the “Best African Drummer in Philadelphia.” For me it was beautiful to watch the freedom that came for these people groups with their traditional expressions. It allowed those from various backgrounds in the audience to enjoy a part of these cultures that too easily gets lost in the noise of navigating life in a completely new country while lacking basic rights.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Calenthia Dowdy

For the past 10 weeks, I have had the opportunity to live and learn with the Indonesian immigrant community here in South Philly. I have learned the power of holistic care for the “strangers” in our midst. On the one hand, it is important to know how to help someone through the new space they have entered: navigating the legal system, marching in advocacy, providing access to health care, educating them on basic rights. On the other hand, it is just as vital to spend time learning and celebrating what these cultures have to offer in this new space: language, dance, music, food and ways of worship. Learning holistic care has allowed me to see each of my immigrant neighbors not just as a set of needs to be met but as a person I am called to be a partner with in their new journey, whatever that may look like. Some days it may look like facing a daunting court date or navigating an impossible health-care system. Other days it may look like trying new foods or learning to dance or laughing at my attempts with Bahasa Indonesia. It’s a new and sometimes uncomfortable form of celebration that somehow makes sense and the “stranger” in our midst becomes a new brother or sister. 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Calenthia Dowdy

MCC’s Immigration Community Day resonated with my experience here because it held up the heaviness of the immigrant community’s reality while providing a space for celebrating these cultures. Oguekwe remarked, “My hope was that the Immigration Community Day would raise awareness on the immigrant experience, connect immigrant families to local service providers and resources, see and value the contributions of immigrants to our community and unify and strengthen our community through caring for one another.” It did exactly that.

Abigail Shelly is originally from Meridian, Mississippi, and attends Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she studies TESOL education and liberal arts. This summer she has been learning from and serving through the Ministry Inquiry Program with the Indonesian community at Philadelphia Praise Center, a congregation of Franconia Mennonite Conference.