by Javier Marquez, intercultural communication associate, with Emily Ralph Servant
On the night of October 18, 2019, a group of adults and children worked for several hours at the Material Resource Center, a part of Mennonite Central Committee’s ministry in Harleysville, PA. The objective of the project was to put together kits of basic supplies that will be delivered to migrants who crossed the border from Mexico. Members of Franconia Conference contributed the helping hands and gave resources to make the project a reality: 370 kits were packed that night, and the rest of the $20,000 donated by the conference (via churches, individuals and a matching grant) will be sent to MCC Central States to purchase additional supplies.
The kits consisted of a set of useful products such as towels, notebooks, pens, water, and other basic necessities for people who have recently been released from migrant detention camps. Although simple, these kits represent a direct and tangible way to contribute to the needs of immigrants who enter the United States looking for a new home.
The work on the 19th was an example of solidarity and mutual help. Thanks to 20 volunteers from three southeast Pennsylvania churches (Indonesian Light Church, and Philadelphia Praise Center, Plains Mennonite Church), the kits were efficiently packed in a large collection of green backpacks and were ready in time to be sent from Harleysville to be distributed through MCC Central States.
Each of these churches, in addition to belonging to Franconia Conference, is a community that includes many first- and second-generation immigrants. Although these immigrants come from different places on the map, such as Indonesia and Mexico, they each have left behind what is familiar to embark on a trip, marked by difficulties and uncertainty. In understanding and solidarity, they gathered to fill backpacks as people who are aware of the pain and joy of migration.
The children were encouraged to share which countries they were from and they diligently helped for the almost-two-hours that the work took. After the backpacks were filled, the workers gathered together to join in a prayer led by Pastor Hendy Stevan Matahelemual of Indonesian Light Center. They prayed specifically for those who would receive the kit and in general for each person who undertakes the trip and who seeks a place that guarantees their rights and, even, saves their lives.
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.
It took three days to dig the ditch that would divert water away from Gary, West Virginia homeowner Lucretia Ford’s house, but it was worth every second. “It wasn’t fun even though we tried to make it fun,” Bally (PA) congregation’s Jim Longacre admits. “In the same way, serving God sometimes isn’t fun and can be hard work, but in the end is very rewarding.”
The reward for the hard work comes in the form of relationships with those the SWAP volunteers come to help. Congregations haven’t been just serving Appalachian people through SWAP (Sharing With Appalachian People), but mutually sharing gifts with them.
An organization of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), SWAP has endeavored to make houses safer, warmer, and drier for the Appalachian community in the United States for over 30 years. In the summer of 2018, groups from Bally and Blooming Glen (PA) congregations both served at SWAP’s West Virginia location. There, they experienced the one-week service program that emphasizes relationships as much as fixing houses.
For a long time, the West Virginia SWAP ministry typically rented and did not own permanent property. Following SWAP’s move from Elkhorn to Kimball, however, Houston United Methodist Church offered them the opportunity to purchase their own facility. After experiencing this ministry firsthand, both Bally and Blooming Glen stepped in to help. “When we learned of the opportunity extended to SWAP to purchase this residence, it struck us that maybe we could assist them with it,” Bally’s youth leader Mike Gehman says. Since then, members of both congregations, especially youth, have raised funds so that SWAP can purchase the house.
In addition to housing volunteers, the facility will provide more flexibility for SWAP and send a positive message to the community. “By putting this anchor down, it says that we intend to be here with roots that can’t be uprooted,” SWAP’s location coordinator Lee Martin states. The people of Appalachia are important to SWAP, he adds. Every time SWAP and the community members share meals and stories, they touch each others’ lives. They strive to “blow judgmental thoughts [of Appalachian residents] out of the water,” share about Jesus, and build strong relationships with the members of the community.
During one of Bally’s work days, one of their youth, Zack, went missing for some time. He wasn’t escaping the work but was inside talking to Ford. By the end of the day, she had “basically labeled him her adopted grandson,” says Longacre.
“If you have the opportunity to sit down and talk with a homeowner, that isn’t taking you away from your work. That is your work,” says Martin. “The work acts as a venue to build relationships.” This philosophy is one reason the two congregations were moved to work together to help SWAP purchase their new facility.
MCC’s mission to spread “relief, development, and peace in the name of Christ,” as described by Martin, lives on through ministries like SWAP and those who support them. “As odd as it sounds,” he says, “representing Jesus is our job.”
Se necesitaron tres días para cavar la zanja que desvía el agua lejos de la casa de Lucretia Ford que vive en West Virginia, pero valió la pena cada segundo. “Aunque tratamos de divertirnos, no fue divertido.” Jim Longacre de la iglesia Menonita de Bally (PA) admite. “De la misma manera, sirviendo a Dios a veces no es divertido y puede ser mucho trabajo, pero es muy gratificante.”
La recompensa por el trabajo viene en forma de relaciones que los voluntarios de SWAP forman con aquellos que ayudan. Las congregaciones que se ofrecieron a través de SWAP (Compartiendo con la Gente de los Montes Apalaches) no sólo han estado sirviendo a la gente de los montes Apalaches, pero mutuamente compartiendo regalos con ellos.
SWAP, que es una organización del Comité Central Menonita (MCC), ha tratado de hacer las casas más seguras, más cálidas y secas para la comunidad de los montes Apalaches por más de treinta años. En el verano del año 2018, unos grupos de las congregaciones de Bally y Blooming Glen (PA) sirvieron en la ubicación de SWAP en West Virginia. Allí, ellos completaron el programa de servicio de una semana que enfatiza las relaciones tanto como la reparación de casas.
Por mucho tiempo, el ministerio de SWAP en West Virginia normalmente alquilaron propiedades y no las compraron. Sin embargo, después de que SWAP se mudó de la ciudad de Elkhorn para la ciudad de Kimball, la iglesia Metodista Unida Houston le ofreció una oportunidad para comprar un edificio. Porque las congregaciones de Bally y Blooming Glen vieron este ministerio directamente, ellos decidieron ayudarles a comprarlo. “Cuando oímos de esta oportunidad que le dieron a ellos, nos dimos cuenta de que tal vez podíamos ayudarles con esto,” dijo Mike Gehman, que es líder de la juventud. Desde entonces, los miembros de ambas congregaciones, especialmente los jóvenes, han recaudado fondos para que SWAP pueda comprar la casa.
Además de alojar a los voluntarios, la casa proporcionará más flexibilidad para SWAP y enviará un mensaje positivo a la comunidad. “Al poner esto como un ancla, le decimos a la gente que tenemos la intención de quedarnos aquí,” dice Lee Martin, que es el coordinador de ubicación de SWAP. El también dijo que la gente de los Apalaches son muy importante para SWAP. Dondequiera que van, ellos escuchan historias, comparten comida, tocan las vidas y también tienen sus vidas tocadas por los miembros de la comunidad. Ellos tratan de deshacerse de las nociones preconcebidas de la gente sobre los montes Apalaches, compartir acerca de Jesús, y formar relaciones buenas con los miembros de la comunidad.
Durante uno de los días de trabajo de Bally, uno de sus jóvenes que se llama Zack desapareció por algún tiempo. No estaba escapando del trabajo, pero estaba dentro hablando con la sra. Ford. Al final del día, ella lo había “básicamente etiquetado como su nieto adoptivo”, dice el sr. Longacre.
“Si tienes la oportunidad de sentarte y hablar con un propietario, eso no te aleja de tu trabajo. Ese es tu trabajo”, dice el sr. Martin. “El trabajo actúa como un lugar para construir relaciones”. Esta filosofía es una de las razones por las que las dos congregaciones fueron trasladadas para trabajar juntas para ayudar a SWAP a comprar sus nuevas instalaciones.
La misión de MCC de difundir “alivio, desarrollo y paz en el nombre de Cristo”, como lo describe el sr. Martin continúa a través de ministerios como el SWAP y quienes los apoyan. “Por extraño que parezca”, él dice, “representar a Jesús es nuestro trabajo”.
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.
Over 25 years ago, I interned through Mennonite Church USA’s Ministry Inquiry Program at my home church in Somerset County, PA. I loved the experience of working alongside a congregation that had shaped my own decision to follow Jesus and working creatively with a pastor who gave me space to learn, to experiment and to honestly engage life in the church. At the end of the summer, I declared that I loved the experience, but that I didn’t want to be a pastor because I realized the vastness of the task at hand. My home church then, four years later, called me as an associate pastor. It still surprises me that they invited and that I said yes.
This summer, through Souderton Mennonite Church’s Vocation as Mission Program, Mennonite Central Committee’s Summer Service Worker Program, the ongoing Ministry Inquiry Program and a variety of independent initiatives, about a dozen young adults (all under age 30) are finishing up a summer of serving and learning alongside our congregations. These initiatives are likely some of the best investments of our time and resources into the life and future of the church.
Not all of them will be called as pastors, but through the mutual time together, the opportunity for shaping and learning continues to prepare leaders who will engage the church and the world wholeheartedly through the Good News of Christ’s peace. I am grateful for pastors who make space for those who are learning alongside. Walking alongside learning leaders takes time, intention and openness. It’s also being confident and humble enough in your own leadership to realize that other leaders will lead differently, fail differently and that working with next generation leaders can be a constant invitation to learn, for those of us who are more established leaders as well.
Back in my intern days, my pastor – Marvin Kaufman – gave me space to explore cultivating a sister church relationship with an African American congregation in our area. That exploratory space culminated in Sunday night worship experiences at each of our meetinghouses. This experience and our congregation’s willingness to participate and follow me into this relationship-building likely shaped forever the kind of ministering and leading person that I have become and am becoming, on working with the Spirit to cross cultural and ethnic boundaries to express the heart of the Gospel of reconciliation and transformation.
I’m so grateful for each of our next generation leaders who said yes this summer, and for the communities that hosted them and walked alongside them. Working with Jerrell , who is serving alongside our Conference and The Mennonite this summer, has reminded me of the worthy investment of time and fruitfulness of relational possibilities. Abigail and Tiffany serving together at Philadelphia Praise has made me smile, as they helped host our Interfaith leaders gathering last month with gracious hospitality. My interactions with the Vocation as Mission interns, as we talked about intercultural challenges and possibilities, inspired me by their sincerity and questions when we met at Bike and Sol. I loved hearing how much Rebecca and Ezther are valued at their places of service in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley.
These experiences are some of the best investments that we make together with our Conference resources. I’m grateful that we continue to share in this process of calling and shaping next generation leaders together for the sake of the church and the world. This is our work together, a recognition that calling and shaping next generation leaders is the work of “our village.” And for me, and hopefully for all of us, this is the kind of work that brings us great joy and hope, a recognition that the Good News goes on, continues to transform and will continue to transform us.
The board of directors of The Mennonite, Inc. has named Sheldon C. Good executive director (ED) of The Mennonite, Inc., effective February 1. Currently a member of Salford Mennonite Church, Sheldon is a 2005 graduate of Dock Mennonite Academy. From 2006-2007 he served with Franconia Conference as Associate for Communication and Leadership Development. Most recently he and his wife, Jennifer Svetlik, served as Program Coordinators with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Erbil, Iraq. Prior to working with MCC, Good served as an employment and education team coordinator for Community of Hope, a nonprofit in Washington D.C. He also served a two-year term as the Associate Director for the Washington Community Scholars’ Center of Eastern Mennonite University, also in Washington D.C., and worked as an Assistant Editor and Web Editor for Mennonite World Review. Sheldon also wrote pieces for Franconia Conference publications in 2012-2014. Read the full story in The Mennonite.
By Aldo Siahaan, LEADership Minister and pastor at Philadelphia Praise Center
Each year Philadelphia Praise Center (PPC) holds Summer Peace Camp, a program similar to Vacation Bible School. This four-week camp led by a Mennonite Central Committee Summer Service Worker is a program that supports young people of color in developing their leadership skills through working with their local churches and communities. This year Amos Himawan was PPC’s summer service worker and he took on the challenging responsibility of assisting me in coordinating and running the Summer Peace Camp. There were two situations that happened during Peace Camp that showed me God is at work among us, if we will look to him. Thankfully, Amos was keeping God as his focus during these difficult moments at Summer Peace Camp.
Amos put so much thought into preparing a good program with various activities that the 40 children, ages 7 to 12 years old, did not want to miss a moment. One day we took the kids to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art where they have Art Splash programs, which are drop-in creative play activities. Amos contacted the museum to ensure that he could bring a large group, and the museum instructed him to just come, there was no need to make a reservation. The morning we arrived at the window to check in for Art Splash, the museum officer noticed 40 children and said that space was limited and not all the kids could join. Amos was silent because he did not know how to explain this situation to the kids. In his silence, Amos also prayed to God for help. In the middle of his silent prayer, the same officer said that since they were there, they could not turn them away and so some of the kids could explore the museum while others took part in the Art Splash. Not only that, but as an apology the officer gave us free tickets for all the kids and their families. Wow, God is at work.
Another story of God at work took place when we brought the Summer Peace Camp kids to the pool for swimming. There are two pools that are not far from PPC, so we chose the pool that had a good playground. That morning, the vans dropped the kids off to play at the playground as they awaited their turn to swim. As their turn quickly approached, a pool staff member came and said that we had too many kids and would not be allowed to swim. Some of the kids who heard the rejection were disappointed and began to cry and express their anger. God gave Amos wisdom to take the kids to the other pool immediately, but did not have big enough vans to take them. After Amos made a few calls, God sent a driver with a big van to bring the kids to the pool. Indeed, God is at work.
From these two stories, through the example of our Summer Service Worker, Amos, God has taught me a basic and yet deep attitude of putting my trust in Him. One Bible verse from Philippians 2:13 comes to mind, as it says, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” May we all continue to look for moments God is at work and may we continue to allow God to work in and through us.
I remember Michael J. Sharp (MJ) as a rambunctious junior high kid from the time we overlapped life at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center and Scottdale in Western Pennsylvania. I’ve been aware of his work and life thereafter mostly through social media and Mennonite publications. MJ and I share a lot of geography, relationships and institutions in common.
MJ represents much of the best of us as Mennonites, an image of what a Washington Post article calls “courageous but not reckless.” He was a millennial, a son of the church. MJ was shaped by an array of Anabaptist communities which includes time in Franconia Conference when his dad was a pastor at Salford Mennonite Church. Afterward MJ went to Scottdale (PA) and Goshen (IN), then to college at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg (VA) and according to an article in the Albuquerque Journal, had just begun to entertain the idea of settling down into a life at The Plex, a unique apartment complex that housed other similarly-aged and valued Mennonite young adults in that city connected with Albuquerque Mennonite Church (NM).
MJ had worked in Europe for several years as a counselor for conscientious objectors. Most recently he had worked in the Congo, first as a staff person with Mennonite Central Committee, then for the United Nations as a human rights investigator. MJ and several colleagues went missing two weeks ago. His body was found this week in a shallow grave along with his colleague Zaida Catalan — a Swedish investigator — and their Congolese interpreter, Betu Tshintela.
Washington Post further went on to say, “Sharp, 34, was a ‘standard deviations above the norm’ when it came to integrity and compassion. ‘He just deeply cared about everyone and saw no difference between people of different nationalities,’ said Rachel Sweet, a Congo-based researcher.”
MJ’s death is a reminder that our work and calling is both relevant and risky in volatile times. He’s a reminder of the powerful witness of faith lived out in practice with integrity, kindness and dedication, and that some of our millennial generation shaped by life in our families, churches and institutions have heard what we have said about faith, life and peace and intend to live it out. Even unto death.
MJ’s life glimpses the best of who we are as Anabaptist/Mennonites, in a time that we are sometimes confused about who we are, in front of a watching world, in the Congo, one of the countries with the most Mennonites in the world. MJ exemplifies Jesus’ words: “greater love has no one than this . . than to lay his life down for his friends.”
To the Sharp family, MJ’s friends and community of colleagues and to Albuquerque Mennonite Church, we share the hope of Christ’s peace at this time when words are inadequate. With much love, we are still willing to bear witness of the nonviolent way of Christ, until the full intention of God comes on earth.
by Barbie Fischer, communications manager & administration coordinator
Those living in Nepal still tremble following a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit on Saturday, April 25. It was centered less than 50 miles from Kathmandu.
Dale and Bethsaba Nafzinger, who have ties to Vincent Mennonite Church (Spring City, Pennsylvania), own and operate Top of the World Coffee, a café in Kathmandu. The Nafzigers reported they are all well, with little to no damage to their home and shop. However, the region is severely devastated, including several buildings in their town that crumbled.
Since the initial earthquake, there have been several aftershocks that continue to rock the region, including a 6.7 magnitude quake.
Dale says that growing up towards the end of the Vietnam War, he occasionally heard the term “shell-shocked”; now, he is experiencing it firsthand. Every time a loud jet passes overhead, causing the building to shake, or loud thunder crashes in the distance, he and others find themselves scrambling for safety.
In the midst of this, the coffee shop re-opened on Wednesday, and so far, response has been far greater than anticipated. When the Nafzigers opened the coffee shop, one of their goals was to offer a space of refuge, with comfort food and a comfortable environment in the middle of a very intense city. They are grateful, they say, to see their vision coming to life in a way they’d never imagined.
As recovery continues, Dale and his family have extended an invitation to the shop staff welcoming them to “both ‘live with us’ and ‘eat with us’ until things reach a state of normality, albeit, a ‘new normal.’”
In other areas, aid workers have struggled to reach several communities, such as those in the district of Gorkha, where the earthquake was centered, due to the mountainous terrain and devastation from the quake. The death toll has now risen to over 5,000, with thousands more injured. There is still hope, though: Not only have the Nafzingers reopened Top of the Mountain Coffee, recently a young man was pulled from the rubble after spending over 80 hours buried under what had been the Kathmandu Hotel.
Many are wishing to offer aid and support to brothers and sisters in Nepal as they tremble in the aftermath of this tragedy. Recovery will be a long process, and as Dale notes, it will be important not only to give immediate humanitarian aid but also invest in long-term initiatives to rebuild communities in the region.
If you would like to support recovery and rebuilding efforts in Nepal you can do so through Mennonite Mission Network’s Earthquake Response in Nepal. If you want to follow the progress of Top of the World Coffee, you can do so on their Facebook page.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is recognized around the world for its stellar work, as its tagline says, in “relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.” MCC’s distinct commitment to following biblical principles of peace, justice, and nonviolence makes it somewhat unique. Other organizations aspire to MCC’s example and are grateful for MCC’s partnerships. MCC staff and workers are attracted and committed to the clear articulation of these principles.
But MCC staff persons of color have had a different experience within the organization. When problems or disagreements arise, they often find themselves bound by a system that refuses change, and maintaining the status quo so as not to disturb some constituents becomes more important than following MCC’s own just policies. This is especially the case for persons who are called to lead antiracism and anti-oppression ministries within the institution.
Ewuare Osayande, MCC US’s anti-oppression coordinator, has experienced this firsthand. In a public meeting held at Nueva Vida Norristown New Life (Norristown, Pennsylvania) on January 31, Osayande spoke of a “crooked path” where people of color and some white people as well have often been the focal point of practices within MCC that contradict its stated values and policies.
Osayande was aware of MCC’s justice commitments when he applied for the position. He also came to MCC with his eyes “wide open,” knowing of the previous struggles of people of color who have worked there. When another person was dismissed without due process last summer, Osayande had already been documenting stories from as far back as the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, as well as MCC’s broken relationships with Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, the first MCC staff persons of color. Osayande began to draw the leadership’s attention to the overall lack of integrity in the employment relationships and processes—this call to accountability is one of the stated roles in the anti-oppression coordinator’s job description. Osayande’s concerns were met with attempts to silence him, and a letter of reprimand was placed in his personnel file without due process.
Osayande carefully followed the organization’s grievance policy step-by-step over a two-month period. Requests for conversation and explanation of the charges in the letter were denied. Left with no recourse, he began to go public with this situation and the historical experiences of people of color inside MCC. Only then did the leadership respond. Thus far, it’s been positively. Conversations have begun, and the letter has been removed.
During his talk Osayande identified three tiers of white privilege inside MCC. People who are white, Mennonite, and connected in the local area of the MCC offices generally receive the benefits of Matthew 18:15-18 principles of reconciliation and of giving and receiving counsel when problems arise. Persons of color, those from other Christian traditions, and who are not from the local MCC community often do not experience the same spirit of welcome and respect. People of color and white people who have called MCC toward a more authentic witness for justice within its own house are met with a double standard of expectations and micro acts of aggression that often result in burnout and/or dismissal.
As Osayande clarified throughout his presentation, this is not unusual behavior for Christian organizations and churches that are predominantly white in leadership and constituency. Addressing the hidden roots of systemic racism and oppression that still rise up is one of the greatest challenges. Few do it well. The most painful part, for those caught in its sweep, is the unawareness, silence, denial and oppression that results from unjust in-house practices.
“People of color are not looking for perfect white people, but for white people who are so connected to their hearts, who are willing to make mistakes and ask for forgiveness, knowing God’s grace is sufficient,” Osayande explained.
“It’s about the quality of white people’s hearts, about building capacity for a willingness to work for change, to truly create the ‘beloved community,’” he said, referencing a phrase coined by Vincent Harding and preached by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The commitment of people of color in MCC is to follow our God, whose power is greater than white supremacy. Our commitment is to follow Jesus, to extend mercy, to show God’s love, to honor the God who spoke to the prophets saying, ‘I love justice.’ Isn’t this at least part of what it means to be Anabaptist?
“MCC leadership has shown signs of the possibility of change in the past few weeks. I am committed to establishing a more appropriate accountability process as long as MCC and its constituents are committed to it.”
Osayande encouraged MCC constituents to pray for the leaders of MCC, and to commit our support for just practices within the organization. The call to MCC is to “be true to what you said on paper” (Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968). Constituents understand that maintaining healthy employer/employee relationships can be difficult, because people’s very lives are affected by decisions made. It’s important to acknowledge that constituents do not agree on everything. But MCC supporters can strengthen MCC’s witness by humbly holding leaders accountable for justice with integrity, and encourage the organization as it works toward becoming antiracist and anti-oppressive in every aspect of its work—even when it’s uncomfortable. It’s work for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Sharon K. Williams is a musician, editor and congregational/non-profit consultant. She serves the Lord with the Nueva Vida Norristown New Life congregation as minister of worship.