More than could ever be expected: Manna in the mountains of Western PA

Rose Bender

johnstownsa_dsc1289_1.jpgI was going to learn about living simply. I was going to learn about living in community. I was going to experience what it was like to live among the poor. I was trading in my safe, warm, suburban Philadelphia apartment for a rambling, drafty, old house in Kernville. I was trading in easy access to the beach for a mountain view outside my front door. I would no longer have papers to grade, old friends to visit or a regular paycheck to deposit. Life would be different, but I trusted that God was directing me to lead a Service Adventure unit in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for the next two years.

I had certain expectations before I even came here. I had enough short-term mission experience that I knew the basics. I knew I was to come with the attitude that God was already working here and I was going to participate with that initiated endeavor. I knew I would be given far more by those I was serving than I could give in return. And I knew that I should suspend judgment about people and programs already in place. I trusted that I would be the one who was transformed. But I still had a lot to learn.

Johnstown is an interesting city, like no other that I have seen. It has the friendly atmosphere of a small town—but with inner city problems. For the size, there are an overwhelming number of homeless, disabled, and mentally ill people. There is a pervasive sense of hopelessness, or at least a definite acceptance of the status quo. I think it is more than just that Johnstown is economically depressed. There is a poverty of the spirit. Even those who have money in Johnstown don’t seem to spend it here—they travel to Pittsburgh or Altoona or Greensburg to shop. When people find out that I moved here from the Philadelphia area, they ask in disbelief, “Why would you ever move to Johnstown?”

Though I am mystified by this city whose identity seems to be in the many disasters that have occurred, I do like living here. God has given me a genuine compassion and concern for those for and with whom I work. Walking to my job each day helps. It certainly gives me a vastly different experience than my old commute on I-95 into New Jersey. I stop and talk to my neighbor Darlene, wheel-chair bound, chain-smoking, and often complaining. I notice the skies and the mountains and the trees. I have time to pray as I pass by boarded-up houses and laughing children at the tiny neighborhood playground. Mostly, I am engaged with my environment in a way I never could be when I was driving in my car. The three participants in the program have also found this to be true. Whether it’s the children at Head Start, the YMCA, or the community center, or whether it’s the older folks at church—all three of them are becoming attached to this community.

As winter is setting in and the air is much colder, I am acutely aware of those folks around me without shelter and food. I walk by a soup kitchen just as people are gathering to go inside. One man in particular has caught my eye. His nose is misshapen and discolored—like it has been frostbitten. He is very friendly, but never asks for money. I often wonder where he sleeps. I have also noticed more community people coming into First Mennonite of Johnstown for Sunday evening worship. It is warm inside and there is a fellowship meal after the service. Last night, a new family kept talking to me after worship. They looked strange, smelled badly, and what they said did not make sense. I had to remind myself to look them in the eye, to treat them with dignity. But if the amount of times they hugged me was any indication—they surely enjoyed themselves. I have to admit, I was uncomfortable and blessed all at the same time.

However being here is still a challenge. All of my years of romanticized, philosophical musings about living in community among the poor and the powerless are smashing up against reality. After living by myself, living in community with 19-year olds is challenging. Mentoring takes patience and energy that I do not always have. It is hard to walk to work when it is cold and windy and my feet hurt. I get frustrated by the surrounding poverty and my inability to attack the root causes. Working part-time for minimum wage is personally challenging. I was a professional. I have a degree. Mostly, I hate not having money. And I hate that it is hard for me, because I know that I have chosen to live this way: others in my neighborhood have not.

As I enter into my fourth month here, I know the greatest lesson God is teaching me is the discipline of waiting. This is also particularly challenging for the young adults in the program. They want immediate results. So, together we are learning to wait. We wait to purchase needed items until money is donated. We wait on the world’s slowest computer. We wait on friendships to form. We wait on lives to be changed. We wait on God to provide. And while we wait, we find that we are being transformed, individually and as a community. We are learning to worship together. We are learning to look out for the interest of the other. We are learning to trust and to walk in obedience to God’s Word. We rely on the manna that God provides us for today, expecting that fresh manna will be there for tomorrow. And we share together in the surprise of getting more than we ever expected.

Rose Bender, formerly of Ambler Mennonite Church, is the Director of the Mennonite Mission Network’s Service Adventure House in Johnstown, PA. The three participants are Nikki Diehl (Perkasie, PA) from Rocky Ridge Mennonite Church, Aaron Gingerich (Kalona, IA) from Lower Deer Creek Mennonite Church, and Manuela Foerderer from Germany.


FMC Young Adults Entering Voluntary Service


Nicole Diehl, Perkasie, PA, began a Service Adventure assignment in August in Johnstown, PA. Diehl is a 2006 graduate of Pennridge High School, the daughter of Linda and Mark Diehl, and attends Rocky Ridge Mennonite Church.

Jessica Goshow, Perkasie, PA, began a one-year term of Mennonite Voluntary Service in August in Bethesda, MD. Goshow is serving as a legal and policy associate with D.C. Employment Justice Center. She is a 2006 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, VA, daughter of Janet and John Goshow, and attends Blooming Glen Mennonite Church.

Matthew Ruth, Harleysville, PA, began a one-year term in September of Mennonite Voluntary Service in Fresno, CA, as a youth worker with Valley Teen Ranch. A 2006 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, Ruth is the son of Sharon and Marlin Ruth and attends Salford Mennonite Church.

Katie Souder, Green Lane, PA, also began a one-year term of Mennonite Voluntary Service on August 14, 2006 in Bethesda, MD. Souder is serving as a caseworker with Samaritan Ministry. Souder is a 2006 graduate of Saint Olaf College, MN, the daughter of Susan and Ronald Souder, and attends Salford Mennonite Church.

Janelle Freed, Collegeville, PA, served in Youth Venture June 27-July 17, 2006 in Colombia. She is the daughter of Debbie and Ron Freed and attends Blooming Glen Mennonite Church.

Information provided by Bethany Keener, Assistant News Editor of Mennonite Mission Network (MMN), the mission agency of MC USA. MMN envisions all parts of the church fully engaged in God’s mission sharing all of Christ with all creation. More information about Youth Venture, Service Adventure, and Mennonite Voluntary Service is available online at