Eastern District and Franconia gather on “holy ground”

by Stephen Kriss, skriss@franconiaconference.org

Gwen Groff, pastor at Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont, drove the seven hours south for the joint Franconia and Eastern District Conference Assembly on November 11-12 for what she suggests became a “beautiful cacophony.”

Groff and more than 300 others from across both Conference communities along with Mennonite Church USA representatives gathered Friday night at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa, in the first joint worship service for both Conferences since 1999.   The opening worship, which featured a combined cross-conference, multi-ethnic and multilingual worship team, kicked off the gathering switching swiftly back and forth between Creole, English, Indonesian, Spanish and Vietnamese—the worshipping languages of the 60 congregations that make up both conferences.

Groff describes her experience, “I always look forward to the singing at Conference Assembly worship services.  Coming from a small congregation, I enjoy the big sound, the full harmony. When I come into an Assembly worship space, if I see that we’ll be using the blue Worship Book hymnals I like to sit in the center of it all to be surrounded by the four part harmony. When I see a screen and projector, instruments and microphones, I usually take a seat on the periphery.

“This year I found myself most moved by the kind of singing I usually hang back from. Singing all together, with some singing in Indonesian, some in Spanish, some in Vietnamese, some in English and some in Creole, was disorienting in a way that was challenging, enlightening and beautiful. In worship there is often an invitation to sing or pray each in our own language, but this year the multicultural worship team was leading in all the different languages, switching languages between verses, between lines, singing in different languages at the same time. There was no right language to be singing in at any particular moment. We all could experience how it felt to be singing new words and not knowing if we were pronouncing them correctly. We all knew how it felt to be a little off balance.  It wasn’t about political correctness (or it was what political correctness should be). It was about leveling the ground as we worshipped together, and it was holy ground.”

While energetic music and multiple languages marked the shape of the worship, Rev. Dr. Dennis Edwards, pastor of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, DC, a Franconia Conference Partner in Mission, focused intensely in an evening message that explored the possibilities of the assembly theme, “Unity and Maturity in Christ” based on Ephesians 4.   The whole of the worship gathering was broadcast in five worshipping languages and available online through a live stream.   Over a dozen persons from a variety of congregations helped to coordinate technology, translating, and communication for the event.

The spirit of gathered worship was framed further through Saturday’s joint delegate session held around tables that considered the further cooperation between both Conferences in a move toward healing the 1847 historic rift between the groups.  Overwhelmingly, representatives from both conferences gave permission by raising green cards that suggested a continuation to explore life together more extensively and collaboratively.  Considering the future of the conferences, Sam Claudio, Jr., associate pastor at Christ Fellowship in Allentown said in a time of reporting, “Hopefully we’ll be able to be a positive witness [in a way that people will say], look how they came together after this long division in love, in peace, in charity, in grace.”

After recognizing the affirming move, Dave Hersh, moderator of Eastern District Conference responded, “I’m really excited about what we’ve accomplished. Your direction to us is loud and clear.  We’re going to continue working together.”

The conferences divided for business sessions, but re-gathered for lunch and a commissioning worship that recognized each person’s role and contribution in both conference communities.  In general business, Eastern District Conference marked the transition of Ron White of Church of the Good Samaritan (Holland, Pa) into the moderator role succeeding Hersh of Grace Mennonite Church (Lansdale, Pa).   Marta Castillo of Nueva Vida Norristown (Pa) Mennonite Church was affirmed as assistant moderator for Franconia Conference for a special one year term.

First time Franconia Conference delegate Derek Cooper of the Doylestown (Pa) congregation said, “I appreciated the worshipful tone. Beginning and ending the assembly in worship united the community and guided our interaction throughout the weekend.  I also appreciated the prayer ministry. It created a Spirit-led presence that saturated the building.”

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