On becoming an open community: Offering light to the world

Noah Kolb

Few of us can deny that Franconia Conference has been somewhat of a closed community, given our long history of more than 300 years, a dominantly German culture, a common rural farm mind set, and a commitment to a Biblical/Anabaptist faith that values a simple following of the Way of Jesus.

Having grown up within this community, it was difficult for me to interact with the culture around me. I did not trust the religious community beyond what was already familiar. In 1970 after college and seminary I was ordained as the pastor for the Pottstown (PA) Mennonite Church, an early mission congregation of Franconia Conference.

I was primarily equipped to maintain the faith community in which I was raised. Yet I had a sense that we needed to connect to the larger community and world, if we were going to share our faith with others. I had little clue how to do it and was keenly aware of the tension this produced within me.

When I read the articles in this issue of Intersections I was deeply aware that we are in a community that is being transformed. Blaine Detwiler, moderator elect, a trusted brother and pastor who grew up in the heart of conference, carries a vision that takes us far beyond the culture many of us were nurtured in.

“This vision calls us to embrace various origins, cultures, and languages, even here in the Northeast corridor,” Forrest Moyer writes regarding Detwiler’s vision. “It calls us…to reach beyond our own culture and language and to give ourselves to our neighbors in the way that Christ gave himself to the world”.

It shouldn’t surprise us that our recent appointed Executive Minister, Noel Santiago, who was born in Puerto Rico and nurtured in two cultures, sees our conference’s culture opening itself to a larger world. He is encouraged by the way this rich and deep faith community with its strengths and weaknesses has been able to show “God’s goodness” to those who come to it.

Both Noel and Blaine see a new vision of community, a vision that calls us beyond our present realities of culture, language, nationality, and economic status. It is a vision of people from the east and west and north and south together at the great feast in the kingdom of God. Such a vision brings much hope and encouragement to me.

I take great delight in new pastoral installations: Tom Albright at Whitehall Church, a relatively new disciple from the community beyond our Mennonite boundaries to do community outreach through creative ministry and commissioning; and Firman Gingerich, a conservative Mennonite from a Midwest Anabaptist/Mennonite community, with rich gifts and experiences to lead the Blooming Glen congregation.

The vision becomes reality within new congregations like Peace Mennonite, ministering to people other churches have not reached and Nations Worship Center, bringing Indonesian and other nationalities together for worship, fellowship, and ministry around Christ.

This vision calls for new and creative ways of doing kingdom work even with traditional structures. Sterling Edward carries out a counter-cultural dream nurturing 60,000 children over the last 20 years at Spruce Lake “learning about God’s creation in God’s creation.” And David Kochsmeier, sees greater opportunities beyond Life With God’s weekly radio message and, with the board, develops additional ministries.

And finally the world is coming to us and needs to hear the Gospel of peace. Mary Jane Hershey tells us this wonderful story of forgiveness and peacemaking discovered by Kholeka Kholly, a South African teacher who came to visit in their home for a weekend.

The hungry world is coming to our door. Do we have any bread? Can we live into the vision that Noel and Blaine hold before us? Or will we protect what we have for fear it will be lost? Jesus reminds us by example and word that “it is in giving that we receive.”

We have light to offer the world. Let’s remove the basket that we’ve sometimes kept over it.