“God is profoundly at work” in Hatfield

by Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

Joint service Plains and Grace
Musicians from both Plains Mennonite and Grace Lutheran lead singing at the joint service. Pictured, from Grace: Lori Pluda, baritone, William Shaffer, trumpet, and Betty Murray, vocalist; from Plains: Dawn Derstine, songleader, and Janet Panning, piano. Photo by Emily Ralph

The story of Jesus calming the storm had special significance for Stacie Dougherty, interim pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, as she shared her message on Sunday during a joint service with Plains Mennonite, Hatfield.  “In our lives, too, storms will come along—forces out of our control,” she said.  “Things like … a devastating fire.”

This past New Year’s Eve, Grace experienced just that—a fire that destroyed the church’s educational building and left their Stepping Stones Nursery School without a facility.  When their proposed new facility fell through, they were left frantically looking for an alternative.

Meanwhile, at Plains, members of the congregation approached the pastoral team. “‘They were saying, ‘We have to do something about this’ and ‘What are we going to do?’” said Dawn Ranck, the congregation’s associate pastor.  For her, it was obvious.  “[We have Plains Park] because we want to be good stewards of our land and this is another way—we have the space.  It’s what God calls us to do.”  So the nursery school moved in.

Eight months later, the school is preparing to move out of their temporary space at Plains into a larger facility, the building which used to house the St. Maria Goretti School in Hatfield.  The two congregations gathered at Plains for worship and a picnic to celebrate.

Sometimes God uses people to bring calm in the storm, Dougherty said in her sermon.  “You, our sisters and brothers here at Plains Mennonite, took the concern and burden for the preschool from us when you so graciously offered your space. . . .  And by doing this, you lifted one of the worries caused by the fire and helped us on our way to peace and healing.”

Mike Derstine with Menno and Luther
Mike Derstine, Plains congregation, shares paintings of reformers Martin Luther and Menno Simons with the children during the joint service with Grace Lutheran. Photo by Emily Ralph

The partnership between Lutherans and Mennonites has not always been so easy.  The rift between the two denominations has existed since the 16th century, when followers of reformers Martin Luther and Menno Simons did not always see eye to eye on matters of life and theology.  In recent years, efforts have been made at reconciliation between the two denominations on local, national, and even global levels.

“You know what’s a good thing to do. . . when you’re trying to make peace with somebody?” asked Mike Derstine, pastor at Plains, as he showed paintings of Simons and Luther to children from Grace and Plains.  “To find out something about that person that you like.”

Both reformers brought important ideas to the church, Derstine said.  Simons urged the church to show their faith by helping others and Luther reminded the church that God’s love and salvation are free gifts—these are important ideas to keep in balance, Derstine told the children.

In the same way, even though Plains shared their resources with Grace, the gift was not one-sided, according to Ranck.  “It gave us a chance to be a part of something bigger than Plains, something bigger than ‘Mennonite,’” she said.

And she’s going to miss having the children around.  “I can’t imagine them not being here,” she said with a sigh.  “A couple of the kids, when I talked to them about leaving and I said, ‘I won’t be going,’ they’re like, ‘But there are offices over there!’”

Although Mennonites had been known for centuries as a people-group who kept to themselves, a growing ecumenical emphasis on Christian engagement with their community—which is manifested in programs like Plains Park and Stepping Stones—allows congregations to move past differences, according to Derstine.  “I think it’s easier for us [now] because we have a [new] outlook on the world that shapes our relationships across some of these barriers,” he reflected.  “We’re united in the same mission.”

Plains and Grace picnic
Joyce and Tom Salter from Grace Lutheran visit with Richard Lichty from Plains Mennonite at the post-service picnic at Plains Park. Photo by Emily Ralph

“When the people of Plains invited us to share in the [worship service and picnic], my first reaction was ‘Absolutely, we need to do this,’” said Frank Stone, congregation president at Grace.  “It was such a joy for us to worship with and to meet other believers in our community, especially those who so unselfishly reached out to us in our time of need.”

The joint worship, including a shared Eucharist, was significant for both congregations, added Derstine.  “I think our Communion today was a reminder that God is profoundly at work in bringing us together across our differences.”