At the beginning of October, I returned to Jakarta, Indonesia with my wife Viviani and my son Eden. It had been almost three years since my last visit. It was a short visit, but I knew I would love to see the location of my parents’ new grave. Originally, both my parents were buried in the Pondok Rangon Cemetery, but two years ago, their graves were moved to a new place called the San Diego Hill Cemetery. The distance to the San Diego Hill Cemetery was only 40 miles.
On the appointed day, Vivi, Eden, and I were joined by two of my nieces and three of my siblings; my sister Lita drove us. Before leaving, Lita had warned us: “Get ready—this will be a long journey. San Diego Hill Cemetery is in a suburb of Jakarta and we may get caught in traffic jams.”
On the way there, the journey to San Diego Hill Cemetery took only 90 minutes! Those who knew the traffic jams in Jakarta said, with joy, “Wow, our trip was very fast this morning!” After visiting my parents’ new grave, we returned to the car to go home.
Coming out of the cemetery complex, we were immediately confronted with traffic. When we checked the GPS, it said it would take 2.5 hours to get home. In the end, we had to travel 4 hours for the 40-mile distance.
What is interesting for me is how my sister Lita, the driver, stayed calm. No matter how many times other family members or I complained about the length of the trip or the traffic jams that didn’t move, Lita always said, “Just enjoy it” or “All passengers just relax!” How many times did Lita share stories or engage us in conversation so that we wouldn’t focus on the traffic? She made jokes or asked us to sing, reminding us to “just enjoy.” There was nothing we could do to get out of the 4-hour traffic jam—it was a tough test for someone as impatient as me.
In today’s world, people want everything to be instant. The word patience is easy to speak but hard to live. Many people don’t want to be matured by God. What would have happened if Noah had been impatient or disobedient to what God had told him to do? What would have happened if Joseph had been impatient waiting for God’s promises through his dreams? Or Abraham, David, and others?
Maybe these heroes in the Bible said to themselves, “Just enjoy, just relax, engage in the process.” Yes, God wants me to learn to be patient, enjoy this life journey, and not run away from the process. I will say to myself, “Aldo, just enjoy the problem you have, relax, and engage in the process.”
“[It is] better to be patient than a warrior, and better to have self-control than to capture a city.” (Proverbs 16:32, CEB)
For the last month, Philadelphia Praise Center pastor Aldo Siahaan has been reminding his congregation of their rights during each Sunday morning worship service.
In expectation of, and response to, a recent wave of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, immigrants in Philadelphia and other US cities—both documented and not—are living in fear. “I’ve been like them,” reflects Siahaan, who migrated to the United States in 1998 after riots in Indonesia: “I know what they feel like, living like this.”
Questions and concern around immigration have become increasingly important for members of Franconia Conference, which has seen a increase in immigrant congregations over the past decade. Currently, close to fifteen percent of the conference are first-generation immigrants, many coming from Indonesia, Mexico, Tanzania, Myanmar, Hong Kong, and India.
Some of Franconia’s Latin brothers and sisters originally entered the US by way of the southern border. Recent news reports have highlighted tragic conditions in detention camps there, where some families are separated, and others are turned away before they can even apply for asylum. Many Franconia congregations have been asking what they can do to help.
A Direct Response
“Having been to the border several years ago to see key Mennonite partners there, I recognize that there are some basic practical needs that people require after they’ve been released from detention,” reflects Franconia’s executive minister Steve Kriss. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is meeting some of these needs by making and distributing Immigrant Detainee Care Kits. “The kit response feels hands-on and important as the kind of thing Mennonites do to directly respond to human needs,” observes Kriss.
In order to provide additional kits, Franconia’s board has allocated a $5000 grant to match contributions from Franconia and Eastern District congregations to the MCC East Coast’s Material Resource Center (MRC) in Harleysville, PA. The MRC will make the care kits to send for distribution in Texas and New Mexico through MCC Central States. The grant will also match gifts given by Franconia congregations to MCC West Coast for transporting kits distributed in California and Arizona. The deadline for matching is August 31.
Already at Work
Even as Franconia and Eastern District congregations raise financial support around the border crisis, we remember that the struggle continues closer to home. “We ARE immigrant communities,” Kriss acknowledges. “We are communities that are responding on a regular basis to the challenges of receiving people who are seeking safety and asylum in places across the country.” Many pastors in our congregations are regularly responding to crises of migration, he observes. In these cases, these are not programs of the church; they are pastoral responses to real needs in our communities.
When a large migrant caravan began making its way through Mexico in 2018, the Conferencia de Iglesias Evangélicas Anabautistas Menonitas de México (CIEAMM), a Franconia Partner in Ministry, decided to open their arms and hearts to the “temporary refugees” in Mexico by providing aid. “We take seriously the teaching of Jesus, who invites us to the [kind of] love and solidarity that feeds the hungry, dresses the naked, gives water to the thirsty, protects the helpless, takes care of the sick, and visits the incarcerated,” described moderator Carlos Martínez García at Mennonite World Conference’s Renewal 2019 event in Costa Rica. “We did a work of compassion, putting ourselves in the place of needy migrants, and acting to bring some accompaniment and comfort.” (Read his full remarks.)
Fernando Loyola and Letty Cortes pastor Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, a congregation of Latinx immigrants, and have seen a recent wave of immigrants from Guatemala arriving in their neighborhood. Their congregation provides food, clothing, funds, and help navigating the new American culture. They refer families to immigration lawyers and to Juntos, a community-led immigrant non-profit that fights for human rights in South Philly.
Philadelphia Praise Center has been renovating its building to become a sanctuary church, where immigrants fearing deportation can live safely during ICE raids. Siahaan has walked with many individuals and families who need help navigating the complex legal channels involved in applying for visas or green cards. Just this last week, he was called to help someone from the community who was picked up in an ICE raid.
Unfortunately, once someone has been detained by ICE, there isn’t much that can be done, he explains—within a couple of weeks, they’ll be deported. The need is greater before that happens; what immigrants need most, he suggests, is for their Franconia brothers and sisters to be their voice: “Call or write to your congressperson and say, ‘Hey, you need to do something about this situation, these immigration raids!’”
Advocacy to Prevent Tragedy
Advocacy work includes contacting representatives on both state and national levels. Steve Wilburn, teaching pastor at Covenant Community congregation in Lansdale, PA, has been involved with International Justice Mission (IJM) since he traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam in seminary and saw IJM’s work in battling human trafficking. Currently, he’s partnering with IJM to advocate for the “Central American Women and Children Protection Act of 2019,” which is legislation that commits US funds, in partnership with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to help them restore their justice systems in order to protect women and children from abuse. Several Franconia Conference leaders have signed a letter in support of this legislation.
Most US government efforts in those countries have been focused on drugs and gang violence, Wilburn explains, but that doesn’t help protect children and women: “Those are some of the reasons that people are leaving and trying to escape violence there, becoming refugees,” he says. Most would rather stay home if home were a safe place for them and their children.
Real People, Real Suffering
Siahaan recently went on an MCC borderlands tour to meet migrants and see the situation for himself. On his trip, he met a young mother with two children who were waiting to apply for asylum. They had fled Colombia after her husband had been shot by a gang.
It was eye-opening for Siahaan. He had read books and heard stories but meeting real people on the border face-to-face affirmed for him that the work the South Philly congregations were doing mattered. It encouraged him to keep going.
Beny Krisbianto, pastor of Nations Worship Center in Philadelphia, is a member of the conference executive board. The decision to allocate the funds for the matching grant was easy for him when he considered the children who are daily affected by both the “border crisis” and the local ICE raids. It’s not a political issue, he emphasizes, but a call to care for real children who had no control over the decision to come in the first place. “These are real people, who are already here, who are suffering and may die,” he says. “These kits will help.”
His congregation supports conference advocacy for migrants at the southern border because they, too, are daily experiencing the fear and uncertainty of the country’s broken immigration system. It’s not just a story you see on CNN or ABC News, he reminds the conference community; for immigrants in South Philadelphia, “It’s our everyday life.”
Ways to Help
Pray for migrants on the southern border, for immigrants living in our communities, and for those who are working alongside them for health, healing, and wholeness. Pray for just immigration laws, merciful immigration practices, and a path to citizenship that will keep families together.
To receive a matching grant for the making and/or transporting of Immigrant Detainee Care Kits, send checks labeled “Immigrant Detainee Care Kits” directly to the MCC Material Resource Center of Harleysville, 737 Hagey Center Drive, Unit C, Souderton, PA 18964 OR directly to West Coast MCC Office, 1010 G Street, Reedley, CA 93654. For West Coast donations only: email Conrad Martin (email@example.com) at the conference office with the date and amount of the gift. Deadline for matching funds is August 31.
A significant focus of MCC East Coast’s domestic work is related to immigration advocacy: in Miami, through the New York Mennonite Immigration Program, and in direct services to those who have been trying to find a legal pathway to stay in the US. Find out more. West Coast MCC is in the process of offering “Know Your Rights” trainings for Franconia’s West Coast congregations.
by Aldo Siahaan, Leadership Minister, with Chantelle Todman Moore, Intercultural Coach
We walked silently through the streets of South Philadelphia.
Pastor Joshua and Anita So from San Francisco and I focused on praying for the people and for the city. No interruption of cell phones. No chatting. We built our relationship with one another through our prayer. It was a dream come true for me.
A couple of years ago, when I was representing Franconia Conference on the board of Mennonite Central Committee, we held a gathering where the people of color who served on the board could talk and share our thoughts.
After this wonderful experience, I dreamed that we could do something similar for leaders of color in Franconia Conference to strengthen our relationships with one another and think together about how we could participate and experience inclusion more in the life of the conference. On November 1, 2018, this dream became reality.
The Renewing Nations & Generations gathering met at Nations Worship Center (NWC) in Philadelphia for an afternoon and evening of prayer, worship, visioning, and connecting a diverse group of ministers, some of whom identify as Chinese, Indonesian, Mexican, Black, and persons of color within Franconia Conference. For the first time, ministers of color in Franconia Conference had a space to hear from each other as we listened to the Holy Spirit together.
Beny Krisbianto (NWC), Kiron Mateti (Plains Mennonite Church), Marina Stevan (Indonesian Light Church), and Emmanuel Villatoro (Philadelphia Praise Center) took turns leading worship in English, Indonesian, and Spanish. It was a taste of heaven as people from different nations sang together in different tongues.
We played together, laughing as we tried to draw portraits of one another. We connected over Indonesian and Mexican foods. Those of us who arrived feeling tentative or shy found courage as we made new friends and discovered that this was a safe space to be honest about our experiences in the past and our desires for the future.
We spent time in small groups, discussing our hopes, dreams, and fears. What makes us excited about the future of the Church and our conference? What are our dreams for our communities, our congregations, and our conference? What do we lament? How could our conference invest in young millennial leaders and credentialed ministers of color? Our conversations were only the beginning, but it was a good start for ministers of color to get to know each other and dream together.
We ended the day with a hope that this could become an annual event and a commitment to value one another across generational differences: seeing and honoring our elders as we love and respect emerging leaders, co-laboring together, with God, in the mission of the Church.
As we continue our ministry in Franconia Conference in the days and months to come, I hope that all of our brothers and sisters will see that the presence of ministers of color and ethnic churches are a gift from God. These gifts are deeply needed to complete the work that God is doing in our conference and in our world.
The story of Franconia Conference is rooted in faith and migration. These stories have helped shape us as a community, sensitive to the struggle of others who were also seeking a place of peace. Currently our Conference is comprised of about 10 percent recent immigrants who have come to the United States in the last decade, and this percentage is likely to continue to grow and to shape our future. As this is our story together — past, present, and future as God’s people – Franconia Conference recently co-sponsored Mennonite Central Committee’s Immigration Community Day in Philadelphia. Pastor Aldo Siahaan of Philadelphia Praise Center participated in the morning panel discussion. Centro de Alabanza hosted the event and assisted in providing a noon time meal. Many from across the region came to learn and celebrate. Abigail Shelly reflected on her experience at the day’s event below, in an article original published online with The Mennonite.
(reprinted with permission)
by Abigail Shelly, Philadelphia Praise Center summer intern
As I stepped onto the upper floor of Centro de Alabanza, a humble church building in the heart of South Philly, I encountered a flood of color; blue, purple, green and orange hues hung from the ceilings and walls as lively decor, and a spectrum of dark brown to beige smiling faces filled the room. I felt the buzz of energy as people from various walks of life arrived throughout the morning to take part in Mennonite Central Committee’s Immigration Community Day on August 4 — a day set aside to gather, inform and celebrate immigrant communities in the Philadelphia area.
To begin the day, Saulo Padilla, MCC immigration coordinator, gave a keynote address in which he shared his story as an immigrant and urged the audience to take seriously current issues, particularly the separation of families. Following was a panel with five active members in the Philadelphia community, all with recent immigrant backgrounds or in positions of immigrant advocacy. Topics included personal stories, experiences with the legal system and basic rights one should know about.
Chinemelu (ChiChi) Oguekwe, MCC Philadelphia program coordinator, said the morning was “about providing a space to have a discussion about what it means to be an immigrant for our community.” Considering the current administration’s immigration policies, she said, “there has been a legitimate amount of fear among immigrants in our community. And we know that a fearful community is not a healthy one.” She added that this “is why we gathered together to hear from our immigrant neighbors, leaders in the community [and] churches — to hear from one another, inform and educate each other. It’s in educating each other that we are set free, free from fear. Education empowers us.”
After a morning of education came a time of celebration. A lunch of tostadas, nasi goreng and djon djon (traditional food from Latino, Indonesian and Haitian community churches, respectively) primed the audience for spoken word, traditional Aztec and Indonesian dancing and an uplifting rhythm from the “Best African Drummer in Philadelphia.” For me it was beautiful to watch the freedom that came for these people groups with their traditional expressions. It allowed those from various backgrounds in the audience to enjoy a part of these cultures that too easily gets lost in the noise of navigating life in a completely new country while lacking basic rights.
For the past 10 weeks, I have had the opportunity to live and learn with the Indonesian immigrant community here in South Philly. I have learned the power of holistic care for the “strangers” in our midst. On the one hand, it is important to know how to help someone through the new space they have entered: navigating the legal system, marching in advocacy, providing access to health care, educating them on basic rights. On the other hand, it is just as vital to spend time learning and celebrating what these cultures have to offer in this new space: language, dance, music, food and ways of worship. Learning holistic care has allowed me to see each of my immigrant neighbors not just as a set of needs to be met but as a person I am called to be a partner with in their new journey, whatever that may look like. Some days it may look like facing a daunting court date or navigating an impossible health-care system. Other days it may look like trying new foods or learning to dance or laughing at my attempts with Bahasa Indonesia. It’s a new and sometimes uncomfortable form of celebration that somehow makes sense and the “stranger” in our midst becomes a new brother or sister.
MCC’s Immigration Community Day resonated with my experience here because it held up the heaviness of the immigrant community’s reality while providing a space for celebrating these cultures. Oguekwe remarked, “My hope was that the Immigration Community Day would raise awareness on the immigrant experience, connect immigrant families to local service providers and resources, see and value the contributions of immigrants to our community and unify and strengthen our community through caring for one another.” It did exactly that.
Abigail Shelly is originally from Meridian, Mississippi, and attends Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she studies TESOL education and liberal arts. This summer she has been learning from and serving through the Ministry Inquiry Program with the Indonesian community at Philadelphia Praise Center, a congregation of Franconia Mennonite Conference.
(Names in this article have been changed for the individuals’ protection.)
That morning Irwan opened his eyes and slowly got up from his bed, getting ready for work. As always, his wife looked busy in the kitchen preparing breakfast and a lunch for him to take. Before he left the house, he kissed Sarah, age 11 and Diana, age 7.
Irwan arrived at work at 7:00 am, a car workshop where he has worked for more than 10 years. He grabbed the work orders for his first car of the day and immediately got to work. Without knowing it, his hands and clothes were getting dirty in the first 90 minutes he worked. Irwan continued his work. Suddenly he heard a voice calling “Irwan!”; when he turned his head, he saw 3 people with jackets that had the word “ICE” across them. The three people approached him and his face turned pale, his legs became weak and his hands trembled. Irwan replied “yes, I am Irwan”. Two ICE officers immediately took him to their car. Irwan’s colleagues and supervisor were shocked and could do nothing. They were silent and witnessed the sadness on Irwan’s face as if to say “help me, help me”. In the car, he immediately grabbed his cell phone and texted his wife , “I was arrested by ICE officers. You and the children leave the house now.” After sending the text, he immediately turned off his cell phone.
A few hours later, Irwan was in York County Prison in York, PA wearing an orange uniform. The first thing he wanted to do was to contact his wife and his daughters. Irwan tried to contact his wife by making a collect call from the prison, but they were always disconnected because both Irwan and his wife did not understand that in order to receive the phone they had to pre-pay. Irwan did not despair. He tried up to 45 times to be able to talk to his wife, always failing to reach her until finally he cried because he could not bear the events that separated him from his wife and children. While he was crying alone on the wall, someone approached him. “Hi, I am a social worker in this prison, why are you crying? How can I help you?” they asked. Irwan replied “I tried to call my family. I tried more than 40 times and always failed. I miss them.” The social worker answered, “come, follow me. You can use a phone from my office.” For Irwan, this social worker was like an angel sent by God. After he got to the office of the social worker, he contacted his wife and immediately connected. Irwan said “Hello”, and the next thing he heard was his wife’s cry. For the first 5 minutes they just cried on the phone. Then his wife said, “the children and I are sad. Papa, you need to stay strong. We do not know what God’s plan is from this incident. I have contacted Pastor Aldo and some other friends. They will help our families. They also advised us to prepare for the worst, for deportation to Indonesia. There will be many people who will pray for our families.”
For 2 weeks, the social worker gave an opportunity for Irwan to contact his wife for 10 minutes every day. On the 13th day, Irwan said to his wife “I have been told that tomorrow I will be deported. You need to renew your Indonesian passport. Go apply for an American passport and Indonesian passport for our children. After all the affairs are finished, we will gather as a family again in Indonesia. Prepare our children for entry into new environments in Indonesia and new languages of Bahasa Indonesia. I love you all.”
This is the true story of a person I was asked to help. It is an all-too-common story these days for anyone not born in the United States. Franconia Conference is full of immigrant stories. Franconia Conference is a story of faith and migration. This has helped shape us as a community, sensitive to the struggle of others who were also seeking a place of peace and flourishing like we have found rooted in Southeastern Pennsylvania for 300 years. The Gospel of Christ’s peace has reminded us that “to whom much is given, much is also required.” If you are interested in learning more about the more recent immigrant stories in our Conference, the stories of your brothers and sisters, contact the Franconia Conference office and request the immigration stories. You will receive in the mail a DVD including a discussion guide you can use in your congregation. Irwan’s story and all the stories of our brothers and sisters is our story together — past, present, and future as God’s people.
A Prayer for Immigrants and Families By Rabbi Mark B Greenspan, Oceanside, New York
We have stood outside the walls
Having experienced the cruelty to “No.”
We have been the illegal immigrants
Having fled from oppression,
Searching for a better life
For ourselves and our families;
Give us strength and courage
To speak out for those in need of
Our memories are long and indelible;
We were a people without a land,
We watched as children were torn
From parents, only a generation ago
Some to the left, others to the right.
How can we be silent, when
We too were told, “You have no home.”
Let us speak out for those who have no voice.
Let us welcome those who have no place to go.
Help us to live up to the best of our ideals
Both as Americans and as Jews. And
Remind us of the words of Your Prophet:
“Turn the hearts of parents to their children
And the hearts of children to their parents
Lest your land become a curse.”
For generations, one of the primary tasks of Franconia Conference was to provide leadership accompaniment with congregations and credentialed leaders. The call to serve as a bishop was a serious call to lead, serve and offer wisdom and counsel. It was a weighty role. I grew up with a bishop in my home community in Allegheny Conference and for some of us in Franconia, we remember those days, too. Our bishop still wore a plain coat on Sundays and he preached long sermons. I still remember being surprised to see him visiting his sister one day while working on the garden to pick green beans and he was wearing a flannel shirt, conversing (not preaching) and laughing.
For almost a decade now, our conference has framed this work as leadership ministers. We have attempted to find footing alongside congregations to invite, provoke and accompany during rapid cultural changes. Our conference is now served by a team of ten leadership ministers: men and women from different generations, with different cultural backgrounds and different language capacities to continue to cultivate God’s dream among our 45 congregations. It’s a key task and incarnation of what we do together.
Our leadership ministers met the end of March, during what we hope will be the last heavy snowstorm, at Mariawald Retreat Center near Reading to review and reimagine our work together. Some of us weren’t able to get there due to the snow, so we used Zoom to connect with these colleagues. Some colleagues left early and some stayed later to wait out the storm. In the meantime, we enjoyed the lovely and hospitable space of Mariawald, hosted by Catholic nuns from Africa who are now in Berks County as part of their vocation of serving God and the church. The snow was stunningly beautiful even though we may have been ready to move onto spring. It was in some ways metaphoric of the difficulty and possibility of doing our work in this time and space.
Together we began the task of refining our work. We will continue to work around the Conference’s approach to ministry and leadership which is formational, missional and intercultural. We will continue to align our ministry staff around those ongoing priorities. We are beginning to work together to understand how to include congregations at our farthest distances now with a staff representative based in California to serve our congregations there. And we’re evaluating best practices to serve congregations that are close by to us too, sometimes just blocks from where we live or less than a mile from the Conference office at Dock Mennonite Academy.
I am grateful now for a full staff team after over a year of navigating through changes. We are beginning to learn together, to laugh, to build deeper trust. We are leaning in toward our individual gifts and callings recognizing our invitation to serve God in the way of Christ’s peace through our historic and growing community. As a Conference, we are privileged to be resourced well through ongoing generosity and wise stewardship. I continue to be grateful for the sense of care and mutuality that we have together and the divine invitation to continued transformation by the power of the Spirit in this journey of faith, hope and love together.
Mary Nitzsche and I made our first trip to visit the California congregations since the three were welcomed into our Conference in November. International Worship Church (IWC) in San Gabriel, Jemaat Kristen Indonesia Anugerah (Grace Indonesian Christian Fellowship) in Sierra Madre and Indonesian Community Christian Fellowship (ICCF) in Colton are located within an hour of each other, all to the east of Los Angeles along the 210 and 10 freeway corridors. They are located in a stretch of large suburbs that flow into what is known as the Inland Empire. Each suburb is distinct, but these communities – sometimes more like cities themselves – merge together to create the US’s second largest metropolitan area.
We spent time with each congregation. If you hustled, you could likely attend each congregations’ worship gathering, all on the same Sunday. Mary and I split the responsibilities, though, so we would have time to visit with each group. Mary brought greetings to the English worshipping community at International Worship Church at 11:00 am and preached at JKIA at 2:30 pm. I preached at the Indonesian language service at IWC at 12:30 and at ICCF at 5:30.
There was food afterward the worship services. After over a decade of walking alongside Indonesian congregations, I recognize the gracious island hospitality and celebration that remains intact here in the States as well. At IWC, I had a bowl of spaghetti brought from the kitchen, when the servers realized that I didn’t eat seafood, which was the main dish provided for lunch. At ICCF, there was an anniversary celebration which included traditional Indonesian satay, rice and soup, along with karaoke that was a mix of pop, praise songs and traditional hymns.
There is new opportunity and challenge by being bi-coastal. We’re navigating the legal requirements necessary for credentialed leaders in California, which are different from Pennsylvania. We’re having to learn new geography, time zones and context. We are moving toward adding a staff person based in Southern California, as well. Aldo Siahaan, Conference LEADership minister and pastor at Philadelphia Praise Center is also initiating an online Zoom call for Indonesian speaking pastors across our Conference. These things will help to ensure our flourishing together.
There is still a sense of surprise for me that we are here in this time and place. This trip meant beginning to think and care for California in a way that I haven’t before – as a pastor. What is the Spirit provoking through this holy experiment? In what ways can we live and move into this time and space, where God’s capacity is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine through the power at work within us (Ephesians 3.20)?
As we begin to move into this space, beyond dreams and into new realities, I invite your prayers for us together. I’m still grateful for the overwhelming sense of the Spirit’s direction at assembly to welcome the California congregations to become part of us. And in that welcome, I believe there will continue to be transformation.
by Aldo Siahaan, LEADership Minister and Pastor at Philadelphia Praise Center
On Super Bowl Sunday, some Philadelphia Praise Center members came to church wearing Philadelphia Eagles’ jerseys, hats, and jackets. That morning I asked “how many of you believe the Eagles will win?” It turns out that only some were certain that the Eagles would win.
That evening at 6 pm friends gathered at my house to watch Super Bowl LII. After watching a pretty tense game, we know for certain that the Eagles won! My house is located in South Philadelphia just one block from Broad Street where people gathered to celebrate the Eagles’ win. My friends and I joined in that celebration about 10:30 pm.
How extraordinary that night was! Thousands of people went out into the streets, walking towards Center City, celebrating with enthusiasm and spontaneity. What I remember is people gave each other a smile, high fives, shouted “E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles,” hugged, shared food and drink. Regardless of the color of your skin, without asking for immigration status, regardless of belief and background, all celebrated victory and joy. One friend said “Aldo, this is a bit of the taste of heaven, where there is excitement, there is unity.”
The words “taste of heaven” continue to ring in my ears. These words make me wonder whether the taste of heaven can only happen if there is a victory in a sports game like this, and involve hundreds or thousands of people shouting and cheering.
Revelation 21:4 says, “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.” Yes, in the” taste of heaven” God must be involved. God can use any individual, family or church to present a taste of heaven for others. Whatever we do for others, to bring to their lives less sorrow, less crying, less pain, it seems that we have brought a taste of heaven to them.
Last week, I asked a few people in my cell phone contacts, “please pray for my uncle and aunt who lives in Lakewood, New Jersey who had a car accident. I will go to see them in the emergency room tonight.” The response was amazing, from a person willing to accompany me, to people praying and giving encouraging words. That, for me, is a taste of heaven too!
I am sure we have all experienced and will continue to experience a taste of heaven. May our eyes be open to it, until one day when all believers gather in heaven and we no longer have just the “taste of heaven.” We will all together be with God in heaven. “Before the throne of God and serve him day and night,” Revelation 7:15.
Since 2011, Franconia and Eastern District Conferences have come together for an annual fall Assembly holding separate business sessions, yet enjoying joint times of worship on Friday evening and Saturday morning, sharing in the recognition of newly credentialed leaders, and lunch. This year on November 3 and 4, 2017 they gathered at Dock Mennonite Academy in Souderton, Pennsylvania to do the same. However, new this year, a time of joint meeting was held on Saturday afternoon that focused on reviewing recommendations from the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team that the two Conferences voted to commission at the 2016 Assembly.
The Assembly was centered on Psalm 133:1,3b, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” The theme was Life Together, as the focus of the Assembly was that while these two conference may have split 170 years ago, they continue to do life together. A large part of the Assembly business this year was to look at whether these conferences would take the next step in their relationship, to look even more intentionally at reconciliation and what it would look like if they were to merge into one conference.
The weekend began with Friday night worship led by Tami Good of Swamp Mennonite Church, which included a worship team of folks whose first languages were Indonesian, Spanish and English and who came from congregations in South Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Upper Bucks and Montgomery Counties. The opening prayer was given in Indonesian, Spanish, English and even Pennsylvania Dutch. Videos were shown that highlighted Souderton Mennonite Church’s Vocation as Mission internship program, “for young adults actively pursuing God’s kingdom in local communities.” Highlighted were the fact that the interns come from congregations across both conferences — most not even realizing there were two conferences — and the relationships built between the interns through Bible study, leadership and social issues trainings, as they worked side by side with local non-profits, businesses and ministries. The other video shown was about the ministries of Deep Run East and Deep Run West — one Franconia Conference church and one Eastern District church that happen to be across the street from one another. Their pastors, Ken Burkholder of Deep Run East and Rodger Schmell of Deep Run West, shared about how their congregations do ministry in such close proximity and how their relationship has changed over the years since their initial split. The worship time was followed by the annual ice cream social provided by Longacres Dairy.
Saturday morning, delegates began their day in separate Eastern District and Franconia Conference business sessions. This was a historic day for Franconia Conference as they became bi-coastal and accepted four new congregations as members, one from Flushing, New York and three from the Los Angeles, California area. Bethany Elshaddai Creative Community in New York is pastored by Hendy Stevans and has been connecting with Franconia Conference for about two years. Hendy is currently a student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, attending classes at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania campus. The congregations in the Los Angeles area consist of Jemaat Kristen Indonesia Anugerah (JKIA) pastored by Virgo Handoyo, Indonesian Community Christian Fellowship pastored by Makmur Halim, and International Worship Church pastored by Buddy Hannarto. All three have had relationships with Franconia Conference for over a decade. The four congregations’ members are largely from Indonesia and joined with Franconia Conference pastors Aldo Siahaan of Philadelphia Praise Center and Beny Krisbianto of Nations Worship Center to share in a song. To learn more about these congregations check out their congregational profiles here. Following the 98% vote of affirmation to welcome these congregations, the delegates joined in singing songs in both English and Indonesian as a welcome.
The joint Franconia and Eastern District Conference Saturday worship was a time of song, remembering those who have passed on in the last year, and anointing 15 newly credentialed leaders. Following the anointing of the newly credentialed leaders, the leaders were dispersed throughout the auditorium and those in attendance were invited to be prayed over by them. It was truly a time of commissioning and sending forth. There was also a time of recognition of the Centennial of Mennonite Women USA and a video celebrating Eastern District and Franconia Conference’s shared Sistering Committee, a local chapter of Mennonite Women USA.
Following lunch by Landis’ Market, the delegates from Eastern District and Franconia Conferences joined one another around tables to hear from the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team. The team reviewed their report that had been previously sent to the delegates, which can be accessed here. They also highlighted their recommendations. At their tables, the delegates were then invited to discuss any affirmations, concerns or questions they had regarding the report or the recommendations put forth. These were recorded on sheets of paper and submitted to be compiled and shared with those tasked at carrying out the recommendations, should the delegates vote to move forward with them.
The core recommendation from the team is that Eastern District and Franconia Conference “enter a formal engagement process for the purposes of healing and reconciliation and with the intention of becoming a single, unified conference by November 2019.” In order to do this, the team recommended the forming of two teams: one to work intentionally at addressing the “spiritual and emotional components of reconciliation,” known as the “Healing and Reconciliation Team”, and the other being the “Identity Development and Structural Implementation Team,” tasked with managing “the process of forming a single unified conference, with particular attention to the structure, staffing, financial, and cultural realities of creating a single conference from the two existing conferences.”
Nancy Kauffman, Mennonite Church USA Denominational Minister for the two Conferences, closed the joint time in prayer.
After a short break, the conferences gathered in separate rooms where their delegates recorded on flip chart paper their largest affirmations and concerns regarding moving forward with the recommendations. Present were David Brubaker and Roxy Allen Kioko, consultants from Eastern Mennonite University who had been hired in 2016 and were working with the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team. Following this and some open microphone time for questions and answers, the delegates voted. With a 90% affirmation from Franconia Conference and a 99% affirmation from Eastern District Conference, both agreed to move forward with working at reconciliation and exploring more formally what a merged conference will look like.
This means that over the next few weeks, both Conference Boards will be looking for nominations for the two teams presented in the recommendations. The goal will be to have these teams appointed no later than the end of the calendar year. According to the recommendations, there is a goal for the Healing and Reconciliation Team to hold a Reconciliation service at a Spring 2018 Assembly, and planning will therefore need to begin quickly. The Identity and Structural Development Team will, over the next two years, work to develop a shared mission and vision, a new organization chart and budget to be presented to the delegates in 2019. Therefore, a decision on whether or not these two conferences will merge will not come until 2019. Over the next few weeks, leaders of both conferences will work to address questions raised about the process. Keep your eye out for more information on that. To find out more about what is expected of these two teams and to nominate yourself or someone else for either team, click here. Nominations are due by Friday, December 1 at midnight.
To close this historic day, the two conferences joined together in song as they continue to look forward to Life Together.
For podcasts of the various business sessions and to view the videos shown at assembly, visit the Assembly page at: edc-fmc.org/assembly.
CLICK HERE to see a recap video of Conference Assembly.
Four congregations have requested to join our Conference in time to be considered for membership at assembly this fall. This has been – and is – a season where many communities are looking for new alignments related to changes across the Anabaptist landscape. We’ve been in conversation with a dozen different communities stretched from Queens (NY) to San Francisco (CA). For me, it’s been a challenging wave to ride for the first months of my work as executive minister. It’s been both an invigorating and exhausting time. While I believe the Spirit is at work in this time of tumultuousness, it’s hard to know exactly where it’s all going.
This is adaptive change and paradigm change. This kind of growth wasn’t in any strategic planning. Though change sometimes comes upon us and we find ourselves testing what the Spirit is doing in the midst of it all. Finding our hearts “strangely warmed” as the disciples did on the Emmaus Road with the resurrected Jesus.
As we approach assembly this fall, we will be inviting delegates to affirm four new congregations as members in our Conference. These four congregations have some familiarity with us already and their leaders have already established relationships with other leaders in our Conference. These churches (one in Queens, New York and three in the Los Angeles, California area) will add to our urban and multi-ethnic realities. These congregations will continue to enrich and challenge our life together as Franconia Conference into the future. I’m hoping that we’ll find ways to embrace all that means as we seek to share God’s amazing grace and peace together.
The three California congregations seek to be admitted as a group together. This enables us to provide better accompaniment and assistance along with them. All three had been previous members of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference until earlier this year when the conference reorganized and these three congregations sought a new affiliation. The three churches –Jemaat Kristen Indonesia Anugerah (JKI or Grace Indonesian Christian Congregation) in Sierra Madre, Indonesian Worship Church in San Gabriel, and International Christian Community Fellowship in San Bernardino – have strong and long-term Anabaptist commitments. Each congregation worships in a mix of Indonesian and English.
These congregations have strong ties to our Philadelphia Indonesian speaking congregations as Nations Worship Center and Philadelphia Praise Center have found a sense of home and family within our Conference. Leaders of our Philadelphia Indonesian-speaking congregations have shared their experiences with their West Coast colleagues which has made the California congregations wonder if they too might find family with us in Franconia Conference. For many within the Indonesian community, the idea of relationships that span the continent seems easy to maintain; it’s only half as far away as Indonesia.
In our age of ready communication technologies and easy bi-coastal travel, I believe that we can effectively, though differently, accompany and partner with these congregations. We’ve estimated a cost of about $10,000 in annual expenses to begin this partnership with the California congregations, which would include some staffing support and the hiring of an additional stipend leadership minister to work specifically with these congregations. We’d intend to review this within three years together.
In the past, we have worked at church planting in Hawaii. We have maintained long term partnerships with congregations in Mexico City. For 50 years we have traveled the six-hour trip back and forth to our congregations in Vermont. This will have some similar characteristics; there will for sure be challenges, but I believe that we’ll learn and be stronger by cultivating these partnerships together. Each of these congregations brings vibrant gifts of leadership and service. They’ve been invited to share their resources with us as we seek to multiply our gifts together for the sake of the God’s Kingdom on earth.
The fourth congregation, Bethany New York – a congregation in Queens – has been in a dating relationship with our Conference for over a year. The congregation’s founding pastor has moved toward retirement and the emerging pastoral leader, Hendy Stevan, is currently a full-time student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS). Though planted in affiliation with the Church of God, the church identifies with Anabaptism and has completed a teaching period on the seven core convictions of Mennonite World Conference.
Though this would be our first congregation in New York City, we’ve had previous conference member congregations in Long Island that were planted out of mid-20th century initiatives, connecting with alternative service for conscientious objectors. With Hendy’s ongoing studies at EMS and ongoing strengthening of relationships with other Pennsylvania congregations, along with the broader Mennonite Church USA body at Convention, Bethany is ready to become a full conference member and to participate in our life together.
These four churches total a membership of approximately 400 people and would add approximately 12 possible additional delegates to our discernment body. Each church has been invited to consider sharing 3-10% of their annual income with the Conference. We commit, then, to walking together, to giving and receiving counsel and to extending the right fellowship which we have maintained for hundreds of years in our Conference community.
These new member congregations will continue to re-shape our Conference community. Each is seeking the broader relationships that are accessible through membership in Mennonite Church USA and our connections with Mennonite World Conference. I believe that this is God’s invitation for us to continue to be transformed and to continue to live together in seeking justice, with a great love of mercy and a willingness to walk humbly toward God’s dream.
Congregational Profiles for each of these churches mentioned will be coming out in the weeks leading to assembly. In addition, look for stories from our Philadelphia Indonesian communities regarding their connections to the California congregations.
Delegates will have a time to discuss and discern affirming these congregations for membership at our annual Assembly Scattered Meetings. If you are a delegate please be sure to register and attend one of those.
Also, please feel free to contact me anytime for more conversation as we move toward this time of further discernment together.