by Emily Ralph Servant, Interim Director of Communication
The house sits on Emily Street, a three-story, red-brick townhouse whose stoop rests directly on the sidewalk along a narrow city street.
The third floor windows look out over the surrounding blocks, where brand new rowhomes, nestled between century-old houses, bear witness to the creeping gentrification of this densely populated and diverse neighborhood. Dotted between the rows of houses are lots that won’t long be empty, neighborhood parks, and the occasional sidewalk garden planted in clusters of multicolored pots.
Its name is Bethany House, and soon this house will become a home.
For a number of years, members of the conference community have been concerned about the rising cost of housing in South Philadelphia. As the city has experienced an influx of immigrants and a renewal of its urban core, the neighborhoods surrounding Franconia’s South Philly congregations have seen a quick and dramatic increase in housing costs.
This gentrification makes living and ministering locally more and more difficult, especially for credentialed leaders who don’t have the resources to purchase a home. In response to growing support among the conference constituency, the board decided that now was the time to act, while the purchase could still be considered an investment in the rapidly growing housing market.
In December, upon the review and recommendation of the Properties and Finances Committees, Franconia Conference purchased the house on Emily Street to be used as a conference-owned parsonage. This home will be available for conference congregations in South Philadelphia to use when, and for as long as, needed.
Bethany House’s first residents will be Leticia Cortes and Fernando Loyola. The pastoral couple of Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, Cortes and Loyola have been struggling to find a safe and stable living arrangement for their family for eleven years. Because Bethany House is close to their congregation’s building, Cortes and Loyola anticipate that living there will open up new possibilities for outreach in their community as they get to know their neighbors better.
This dream is shared by the South Philly congregations. “My hope is that this house can be a blessing for the neighborhood,” said Melky Tirtasaputra, associate pastor at Nations Worship Center, who also served as an advisor during the search. “We pray that the people of this house will bring change and peace to the people in that area.”
The purchase of this property not only shows conference support of Philadelphia churches, explained conference moderator John Goshow, but also provides an opportunity for the rest of the conference to partner with our South Philly congregations in building God’s kingdom, as “the entire Franconia Conference community works together to point people to Christ.”
The move will also put Cortes and Loyola closer to their church community—this was one of the appeals of the house, Tirtasaputra explained. Members of Centro de Alabanza are excited about the move and have already been busily at work on the house, making repairs and painting.
Ten percent of Franconia Conference members live and worship in South Philadelphia, which makes it important to start investing in the neighborhood, suggested executive minister Steve Kriss. While Centro de Alabanza is currently using the parsonage, Tirtasaputra reflected, it’s a gift to all of the South Philly congregations since, in the future, pastors from other congregations may also find themselves in need of a home.
“The Bethany House continues Franconia Conference’s tradition of mutual care for our pastors,” described Kriss. “It will ensure healthy leadership for what has been a rapidly growing part of our conference community.” The house was named after the village where Jesus went for rest, care, and friendship (John 12:1-8), Kriss said, “a place of gracious hospitality.”
The Conference’s decision to purchase a Philadelphia parsonage is more than just a financial gift, according to Cortes and Loyola; it also says something about the relationship that the wider conference has with its South Philadelphia brothers and sisters: “We feel like this investment is an affirmation of Franconia Conference’s confidence in our church ministry and in us.”
The pastoral couple’s hope is to move in by the end of the year and, it’s quite possible, they may even be home for Christmas.
Bethany House has been partially funded by estate gifts and individual contributions, but we still have funds to raise! You or your congregation are invited to participate in this ministry by making a designated contribution to Franconia Conference online or by sending a check with “Bethany House” in the memo line to Franconia Mennonite Conference, 1000 Forty Foot Rd., Lansdale, PA 19446.
One of the priorities of Franconia Conference as put forth in 2012, is to be more focused in our congregational work on intercultural engagement. Specifically, as stated on our website, it is “networking and cultivating intercultural ministry relationships that work cross-culturally while building further capacity toward mutually-beneficial relationships among ministries and congregations.” I wondered, as I read this statement, “How are we doing at that?”
My mind goes to the early church in Acts. They modeled this same type of intercultural engagement that is envisioned by our Conference leaders. Along the way, the Church in Acts experienced some messiness and struggled in areas of communication, arrogance, and life practice as they worked at developing mutually-beneficial relationships that cared for people of all cultures equally. Indeed, they were aided greatly by an amazing filling of the Holy Spirit, but as they engaged with their call to make disciples of all nations, the result was that the church grew quickly. Is the church in Acts an accurate model as to what our intercultural engagement in Franconia Conference is supposed to look like?
There is no doubt that the make-up of our Conference has changed dramatically in the past several decades. We are becoming more and more urban, more white-collar, less “white” then before and definitely less Swiss-German – at least ethnically speaking. These changes have caused
some small bumps in the road for Conference, related to communication and the practice of worship amidst the diversity, but it has also led to some rich new understandings of our faith and life together. I believe this diversity is a direct result of the vision put forth from the Conference. I applaud many of our congregations for their intentional approach to connecting with other churches that are completely different, culturally. Indeed, we have worshipped together, ate together, and prayed together – and everyone involved is better for our continued work at intercultural engagement.
My congregation, Towamencin Mennonite Church, recently partnered with Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia for an outdoor baptism service. Centro’s pastors – Fernando and Letty – and I spent a lot of time working out the details of the worship, translation, transportation needs and the details of a joint meal together. There seemed to be so many hurdles to jump over in the planning process. Yet, we all desired to be together and believed that through this service, both of our congregations would experience God in a powerful way. The commitment of the Centro congregation to this service touched the people of Towamencin greatly, as 130 persons made the trek from South Philly to Telford and joined another 130 persons from Towamencin. The balance in the attendance numbers may have just been a coincidence, but for us as pastors, it was God’s reminder that we both bring value to the table in equal ways and we have a lot to learn from each other.
We baptized 10 persons in the Branch Creek on that beautiful July morning. We had earlier agreed that the words spoken during the baptisms would not be translated as to not disrupt the flow of the event. So, we all watched and cheered each other on in English and in Spanish, as persons declared publicly their commitment to Jesus. Then the Spirit interrupted the service in a powerful way. Just as Pastors Fernando and Letty were preparing to baptize their own daughter, Pastor Fernando abruptly stopped speaking in Spanish and with a tear-soaked face spoke in English and said, “I am sorry for my emotion – but you must understand how great this event is for us: to baptize our own daughter!” Every person from Towamencin connected instantly with the human condition of being a parent and seeing our children make a public faith commitment. At that moment, there were no intercultural differences, no struggles with language – only a coming together fully as two churches, one without any barriers.
Following the baptisms we enjoyed a feast together: chicken BBQ along with the best guacamole ever and salsa. We also agreed together that this will be a yearly happening.
In the weeks after this service, I have been talking to many pastors and congregations who have had similar awesome experiences of intercultural engagement. My question to them is, “Now what?” Do we just go back into our weekly routines as individual churches serving in our local communities, or do we dare to be more regular with our interactions with one another? The Acts church certainly broke down many cultural barriers along the way, yet still displayed many incidents where the church flourished in its own cultural space. In fact, for the early church, intercultural engagement was still always a work in progress.
Perhaps that is how we should look at the vision of our Conference towards intercultural connectedness – as a continual, ongoing work in progress. There is no question that we have much to learn from one another. I think we simply need to recognize the value of being with one another, and then the opportunities to do things together will happen. Most of all, we need to see each other as partners in the same vision with all sides bringing the gifts and abilities to the table equally, on a level playing field. This is the biggest part of the journey of bridging cultures together. It is a necessary one, and at times a messy one. I am thankful that our Conference reminds us all that it is a highly valuable and important journey for our Conference churches to engage in.
As a part of an annual event of Kingdom Builders network of Philadelphia, the Pentecost Worship service was held at Philadelphia Praise Center on July 2, 2016. The service started with a fellowship over different traditional meals. There was a Vietnamese noodles and meatball dish, traditional tacos, Indonesian empanadas, sushi and much more. We did not expect to have a big crowd because it was a holiday weekend. Yet, to our surprise so many people came and brought food to the point where we were overflowing.
We opened the service at 6:30 pm with a prayer, followed by songs in Creole, Spanish, English, and other languages. We listened to a short message by Chantelle Todman Moore, Philadelphia Program Coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee. The service was divided into 3 sections. The first was, “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, then “Thy Kingdom Come”, and lastly “Thy Will Be Done”. During the service, Fred Kauffman, Methacton Mennonite, and Calenthia Dowdy, Professor and Director of Faith Initiatives at Eastern University, led occasional conversations by throwing a question to discuss in small groups about why our ancestors came to the United States. Some reasons given were “escaping persecution”, “economic opportunities”, “education”, and “slavery”. A big lesson learned was that we are all displaced (desplazados, terlantar, verschoben). We closed the service with a holy communion led by Bernard Sejour, pastor at Eglise Evangelique Solidarite and Harmonie, and Fernando Loyola and Leticia Cortez, co-pastors at Centro de Alabanza.
I am very grateful to be a part of a diverse community in the city of Philadelphia that can give me a little sneak peak of Heaven.
Note: The Kingdom Builders Network is a Mennonite Anabaptist Network around Philadelphia. They have meetings every month on the second Thursday. During the meetings, they read scriptures, discuss the word of God, and pray for each other. They have meetings in different locations although most of the time the meeting is held in Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.
Aldo Siaahan is a LEADership Minister and Pastor at Philadelphia Praise Center.
I was struck by the powerful words of the songs that we were singing together on Sunday in this former-thrift-store-turned-worship-space packed to nearly overflowing: we are not afraid… we believe… The words were punctuated with amens, raised hands, “Gloria A Dios.” This is Centro De Alabanza, an outgrowth of Philadelphia Praise Center, now a congregation of its own among the growing Spanish-speaking population in South Philadelphia. We were singing redemption songs that add strength and meaning to immigrant life in this thriving and sometimes dangerous city.
On Sunday we celebrated the pastoral licensing of Fernando Loyola and Letty Cortes as ministers in Franconia Conference. Letty was radiant, clothed elegantly with gifts she said were from women in the congregation. Fernando, steady, firm, serious as usual in the task of leading. They lead together as a team, the boomerang of the fruit of Mennonite mission efforts from Franconia Conference to Mexico City in the 90’s. No one would have expected that support for Kirk Hanger, who left his role at Methacton Mennonite to work at church-planting in Mexico City, would have meant that Centro de Alabanza would emerge to join Franconia Conference.
God multiples the small things and the licensing of Fernando and Letty are proof of that. Fernando tells the story of his conversion as one that takes a lifetime. Letty is the first woman of color recognized as a pastoral leader in Franconia Conference, over 25 years after the first woman (Marty Kolb-Wycoff) was credentialed for ministry in Vermont.
In working with credentialing new leaders and in the slow work that we do in establishing new congregations, I cannot help but see all of the connections that make new things possible. I notice the small things along the way that when invested in the dream of God, result in unexpected blessing and possibility. It is the widow’s mite given in faith and generosity, the mustard seed that grows into a tree, the leaven that transforms the whole loaf of bread.
We ate together after the two-hour plus worship. There was chicken, rice and beans, Coke along with orange, grape and pineapple soda. I thought of how similar it felt to the times I’ve visited with Mennonite Churches in Mexico City, yet I was still in my home city in the state where I was born. I fumbled through conversations in Spanish, but remembered best the words that I learned from Ruth Hunsberger, my Spanish teacher at Johnstown Christian School, who learned Spanish herself while working in Puerto Rico in the 40’s. My Spanish will thus always sound both a bit Pennsylvania Dutch and a bit Puerto Rican.
We bring all of those gifts and parts, all of who we are, all of the possibilities and relationships into the great Matrix of God … and they are used. Nothing is lost, everything is found and even the smallest thing can mean real transformation. Kirk told the story of meeting Letty while washing dishes in Mexico City. A wholly ordinary conversation that has led eventually to this new community flourishing in South Philadelphia and the naming of the first Latina Mennonite minister in Franconia Conference. And for those small things, which become eternally significant, and the ability to notice them later and to celebrate together over pollo, frijoles y arroz, I am grateful.
Stephen Kriss is Director of Leadership Cultivation & Congregational Resourcing at Franconia Conference.
by Elizabeth M. Miller for Mennonite Education Agency, originally posted in The Mennonite
Flexibility is one of the critical ways the various schools associated with Mennonite Education Agency (MEA) are making theological formation and education accessible and relevant to urban churches.
But flexibility alone is not enough. Urban church leaders are also looking for education solidly grounded in a global context and embedded in relational networks, not just institutional structures.
In response a variety of Mennonite educational institutions have developed services meant to serve and learn from urban Anabaptists, often strongly rooted in a particular geographical center or located within a series of networks and partnerships.
1. Instituto Bíblico Anabautista At Centro de Alabanza in Philadelphia each week, over 20 percent of the church community gathers to study and discuss courses offered by the Instituto Bíblico Anabautista (IBA, Anabaptist Biblical Institute) and facilitated by the congregation’s pastors, Fernando Loyola and Leticia Cortés.
“The advantage of the courses is that you can start whenever it best suits,” said Cortés in a recent interview. “We can study at any time.”
The IBA courses at Centro de Alabanza are held twice a week. Most of the participants at Centro de Alabanza are married couples, so men study one night and women the next. This way husbands and wives are able to swap child care during their respective class nights.
“[IBA] has total flexibility,” says Rafael Barahona, IBA and the Hispanic Pastoral and Leadership Education office director. “So [the churches] can make it work for them.” IBA provides instruction manuals for students and training for facilitators, but it does not impose an external schedule on church groups using the program.
For Centro de Alabanza, this flexibility has been key. The ability to offer courses on a schedule that equally benefits husbands and wives from within the same households has had a tremendous effect on the congregation. “In my case with the women especially, they have more confidence that they are capable, that they can use their gifts,” said Cortés.
Cortés has observed the women immediately putting into practice what they have been learning in the classes. Some have even started preaching in the worship services.
IBA is one of the longest-running and most expansive programs for urban Mennonite church leaders. Now in its 27th year, there are 42 centers serving around 300 students across the country, from New York City to Miami to Omaha, Neb.
Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a graduate division of Eastern Mennonite University,operates a campus in Lancaster, Pa., that most directly serves the eastern part of the state, including many urban churches in Lancaster and the greater metro area of Philadelphia.
“One of the things unique about the EMS program is that our programs are intended for urban dwellers,” says Steve Kriss, associate director of pastoral studies at EMS Lancaster and LEADership minister for Franconia Conference.
While EMS Lancaster offers an M.Div. track and two graduate certificate programs, they also operate Study and Training for Effective Pastoral Ministry (STEP), an undergraduate-level program for church leaders who wish to strengthen their ministry and leadership experiences.
From the beginning, STEP was designed as a collaborative program, dependent on urban church networks and experience. An advisory committee from Philadelphia-area congregations helped design the original program, and teachers and students came from area Anabaptist congregations.
“It was a very deliberate attempt to connect with the vibrant urban minority [and] recent immigrant congregations in the Philadelphia urban metro area,” says Mark Wenger, director of EMS Lancaster.
STEP is grounded in practical experience and mentoring relationships. Everyone who joins STEP must already serve in a leadership role within his or her congregation, and each student is paired with a ministry mentor.
“[It’s an] embedded model, not an academy model,” says Wenger. “What you study, what you read about, what you write about, you practice right away in your context. That works in an urban setting very well.”
By necessity STEP integrates global realities into the formal education experience.
“Global political realities sometimes come crashing down in the classroom,” says Kriss. “The world does not stay as separated as it might in a more traditional setting.”
The urban congregations that partner with EMS Lancaster include Vietnamese, Latino, Anglo, African-American and Ethiopian ones. The diverse identities of these, combined with their urban context, bring global issues to the fore.
“Urban leaders are asking us to work at ways of telling the Anabaptist story that integrate with urban and global realities. For places like Philly, it’s not just the city that we’re dealing with,” says Kriss. “We’re dealing with global realities. So our coursework needs to reflect those realities.”
It has also been important for traditional Mennonite congregations to be involved in the work that urban congregations and leaders are doing. Kriss calls this “enlivening work.” “Across the board it helps build relationships and give [traditional Mennonite congregations] new ways to look at Anabaptism.”
Both EMS in Harrisonburg, Va., and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., offer courses in their graduate programs specifically focused on urban contexts and ministry. They also regularly receive students from nearby urban centers.
In general, however, the seminaries report that it is the partnerships in urban-based theological education that have most strengthened their programs in this regard.
AMBS, for example, is a long-standing member of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). Rather than try to duplicate the courses and experience offered by SCUPE, AMBS encourages students to enroll in SCUPE’s courses in nearby Chicago.
According to Rebecca Slough, academic dean, SCUPE builds on the formation offered at AMBS while introducing students to a wider network of people.
“It puts [students] in a different theological and racial-ethnic environment,” says Slough.
Julia Gingrich, a 2014 AMBS graduate who lives and works in Elkhart, credits her SCUPE courses with giving her the tools to “exegete” her urban context.
“[They] played a significant role in forming me as a missional leader who seeks to be deeply and consciously rooted in my ministry context,” she wrote in an email.
The Urban Peacemaking course Gingrich took through SCUPE was especially helpful in preparing her for her ministry internship at St. James AME, which Gingrich described as “an African-American congregation located in a marginalized Elkhart neighborhood.”
“[In Urban Peacemaking] we studied and discussed gun violence and mass incarceration, issues that are of central concern to the members and neighbors of St. James,” wrote Gingrich. “Studying these issues helped me join St. James in [its] efforts to resist these forms of violence.”
CIIE focuses on welcoming students from multicultural backgrounds—who are also often urban students—as well as working with organizations and churches that work with youth.
“Many times we think urban students are more needy than other students,” says Gilberto Pérez, CIIE director. But he notes that urban students often have a level of resiliency and network navigation skills that is helpful for college. Adjusting to college without the proximity of their home network can be daunting, however, so CIIE pairs them with a student mentor. “The mentoring gives them a place to experience what they had in their home community,” says Pérez.
While CIIE focuses much of its energy on the Goshen College community itself, it also sustains partnerships with 16 different community partners that work with students of color in locations all across the country.
Their goal, Pérez says, is “to be in relationship and offer the resources the church has available.”
5. ReconciliaAsian ReconciliAsian, an Anabaptist peace center that works mainly with Korean-American churches in Los Angeles, recently began a partnership with CIIE. Like the Philadelphia churches who partner with EMS Lancaster, ReconciliAsian finds their focus to ultimately be a global one.
Their recent partnership with CIIE allows ReconciliAsian to reach what Park-Hur calls “invisible” youth in the Asian-American community who may not fit the “model minority myth” imposed on so many Asian-Americans.
Park-Hur also hopes to speak at more family conferences with her husband, Hyun Hur. Their respective backgrounds as a Korean-American and a Korean immigrant make them uniquely equipped to communicate a message of conflict transformation across generational boundaries.
Like many urban ministries, ReconciliAsian depends on a variety of relational networks and partnerships for its work.
As important as networks and flexibility are to theological formation and education in urban contexts, they alone cannot respond to other challenges. Some urban churches, for example, want their youth to attend Mennonite colleges, but they fear those same young people won’t return after four years away.
“Our undergraduate programs are all outside major urban areas,” says Kriss. “Some Mennonite congregations feel that to raise up good leaders and send them to Mennonite schools means the congregations lose them forever, because they don’t return.”
Cost is another hurdle. Some of the programs, like IBA, keep their costs low by using volunteer instructors. But accreditation comes with a price tag that can be particularly burdensome for urban churches and leaders.
Yet relationships can go a long way toward sharing these challenges and adapting or creating new educational structures that better serve urban churches.
“We need networks of trusted relationships,” says Kriss. “We need to spend time building relationships and being in each other’s space.”
Elizabeth Miller is a member of Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.