By Jenifer Eriksen Morales
My 4-year-old daughter invited me to join her picnic, complete with plastic fruit. I looked at the stuffed animal guests, “Wow, you have very different friends. Aren’t you afraid the bear will eat the dogs or the dogs will eat the cats?” She patiently responded, “No Mommy. That is not going to happen because Jesus is with us.” She pointed to a doll wrapped in white lying on the edge of the picnic blanket. “See?”
What a prime example of hospitality according to Henri Nouwen’s definition, quoted in last week’s Intersectings. “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place…”
My role as a LEADership minister offers me many opportunities to witness hospitality at its finest within Franconia Conference. Here are just a few ways in which congregations or members of congregations are “creating space.”
West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship is partnering with Redemption Housing to purchase a recovery home in West Philadelphia that is designed to encourage and support returning citizens. Not only are they collaborating in ministry with this organization, but the congregation will spend the next year preparing themselves to better understand, welcome and build relationships with citizens returning from prison to the broader community and congregation. This will happen through trainings, Sunday school studies, and guest speakers who will help them grow in understanding the prison system/mass incarceration, and intercultural competencies.
A year ago, a man in the Spring Mount congregation told me about multiple new neighbors who are Muslim. He asked me to recommend books he could read to learn more about this faith tradition. Recently, he returned a book I lent him and told me about his on-going learning about Islam and the comfortable friendships he is forming with his neighbors from Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh.
Souderton Mennonite Church recently turned an extra Sunday school room into a warm, living room-type space where parents can retreat and connect with each other. I spent some Wednesday evening club nights there drinking coffee and visiting with others. I was able to get to know a woman from the Congo. Thanks to the provided space, our family has new friends.
Plains Mennonite Church has a beautiful park which often serves as space for people to connect. Members of the congregation hang out at the park to have conversation and build relationships with neighbors who gather there for basketball, soccer, disc golf, or just to play at the playground. One member of the congregation carries dog treats in his pocket and takes a couple minutes to greet people and their pets. This summer the congregation is hosting Art in the Park. They will hold concerts, movies, and line dancing. This July, a simple meal will be served each week in the pavilion followed by an art of living class on different topics such as gardening, or cooking/preserving in season foods. This is all free and open to the community. The goal is for all to feel welcomed and comfortable, including those with special needs. To prepare for this time, the congregation will devote June Sunday school classes to raising sensitivity and awareness and learning how to embrace and reach out to the special needs community.
5 years ago, the Perkasie congregation received a Franconia Conference grant to aid in their endeavor to create a safe place for people from the community to gather with faith-related questions or to talk about different ways of understanding the Bible. The friendships formed there have been lasting. This group of people still meet and are currently studying Phyllis Tickle’s video series around the theme of Emergent Christianity.
I could write pages about the different ways I see congregations and individuals intentionally creating space where strangers can come together. As followers and worshipers of Jesus, we live in Jesus’ promise to be with us always. The space we create in the name of Jesus, where lives and love are shared and transformed is ordinary and sacred. Because Jesus is with us. See?
Jenifer Eriksen Morales is Minister of Transitional Ministries and a LEADership Minister for eleven congregations in Franconia Conference.