Gathering on Holy Ground

by Stephen Kriss, Philadelphia Praise Center

Rev. Dr. Dennis Edwards encourages Franconia and Eastern District Conferences to follow the example of Christ. Photo by Stacy Salvatori.

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.

The worship team lead by Emily Ralph gathered for months together in preparation to lead interculturally and multilingually in Creole, English, Indonesian, Spanish and Vietnamese. Photo by Stacy Salvatori.

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.

Friday worship. Photo by Stacy Salvatori.

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.

Saturday joint session. Photo by Emily Ralph

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.

Brent Camilleri, Deep Run East, and Derek Cooper, Doylestown, enjoy Friday’s ice cream social. Photo by Stacy Salvatori.

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.”

Reflections on Conference Assembly 2011:

Mary Martin (left), shown preparing to lead worship with fellow worship leaders and church friends Tuy Tran and Hoai Huynh from Vietnamese Gospel. Photo by Stacy Salvatori.

“I enjoyed singing with young people in several languages. I was inspired in (the) bringing together (of) a group of singers and instrumentalists with limited preparation time.” —Mary Martin,  Vietnamese Gospel

I thank God for what felt like a renewed sense of vision, energy and hope among our Conference body. Worshiping our Lord together in several languages was inspirational! God is preparing us for heaven, where followers of Jesus “from every tribe and language and people and nation” will bow down before the Lamb in worship. (Rev. 5:9) — Steve Landis, Franconia

For me the recognition, acknowledging, and welcoming of the different leaders was very inspiring; I believe the greatest asset of any organization is people. As someone from the global South, I still feel that we have a long way to go in order to have some of our leaders in higher leadership positions. — Ubaldo Rodriguez, New Hope Fellowship, Baltimore

Friday worship. Photo by Stacy Salvatori

It was particularly touching to see elements of my parent’s homeland incorporated in the assembly. When I asked my mother afterwards on Saturday what she had thought, she smiled and said the celebrating, unity, and sense of community made her feel warm inside. —  Theresa Nguyen, Plains

Assembly was a welcome opportunity to share space across our cultural diversity. Especially Saturday morning, moving in the direction of healing the long time division between Eastern District Conference and Franconia Conference. — Bob Walden, West Swamp

I think that Friday and Saturday was just a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven will look like and that is a certain hope that God puts in us. The longing to just worship God regardless of our differences. I appreciate the fact that the Holy Spirit is moving around and uniting people from different languages. — Adrian Suryajaya, Philadelphia Praise Center

Thank you to:

  • Penn View Christian School for the use of facilities and the support of janitors, staff, and audio/visual personnel.
  • Dancers from Nueva Vida Norristown New Life for sharing your gifts as we gathered for Friday night worship.
  • Worship Planners and Worship Team Members for the time and energy you invested into planning, practicing, and leading our congregation in worship.
  • Saturday delegate session. Photo by Emily Ralph
  • Translators for helping us to understand one another.
  • Everence for sponsoring Friday night’s ice cream social and Bally Mennonite Church for providing and serving the ice cream.
  • One Village Coffee for donating coffee for the weekend.
  • Perkasie Mennonite Church for providing snacks and serving coffee on Saturday morning.
  • Zion Mennonite Church for use of your hymnals
  • Salford Mennonite Church for providing and serving lunch.
  • Franconia and Eastern District Board and Committee Members for supplying baked goods and deserts.
  • Litany Writers for your creative energy in tying everything together.
  • Prayer Ministry Participants for covering the gathered assembly in prayer.
  • Technology assistants who insured that the glitches were managed and that the flow of the worship was enriched and participation enhanced through our use of the web.