Listening for God’s calling. Serving their home communities. Learning from new communities. Cultivating pastoral skills. These are some of the hopes that six interns bring to their time of service and formation with Franconia Conference this summer. They come as part of the MCC Summer Service Program, the Ministry Inquiry Program, as well as the Conference’s own summer placements.
As part of the MCC Summer Service Worker Program, Jessica Nikomang will work at Philadelphia Praise Center. This summer she will direct a Vacation Bible School (VBS) for kids ages 5-12 as well as work with the Indonesian community around the church and her neighborhood, providing translation support and other help. After the summer, she will begin studies at the Community College of Philadelphia as a first-generation college student in pursuit of her dream to be a school counselor.
This will be Rebecca Yugga’s second summer serving at the Crossroads Community Center in partnership with her home congregation, West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship. Rebecca studies Nursing and Spanish Language/Hispanic Studies at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). She will be planning activities for children and build on leadership skills and strategies she cultivated in the program last year.
Graciella Odelia will serve at Nations Worship Center, which has been her home church since 2013 and where she is an active member of the worship team. Graciella studies Biology and Chemistry at Eastern Mennonite University. She will be organizing the summer VBS program in July and August at Nations Worship Center.
“Seeing kids excited to worship God makes me look forward to what God has in store for the next generation. By participating in the MCC Summer Service program, I hope to discover how God can use me in His church,” Graciella shares.
As the Conference’s summer placement, Andrés Castillo, a member of Nueva Vida Norristown New Life, will serve as a communication intern for the conference. Andrés studies English at West Chester University. More of his writing, photography, and videos will be shared on our website throughout the summer. Andrés is excited to make connections in his communication work between Christ’s teachings and the social issues about which he’s passionate.
JustinBurkholder, who attends Deep Run East, will be working with the conference’s south Philadelphia Indonesian congregations. He will be serving with the peace camp at Indonesian Light Church as well as summer VBS programs at other congregations. Justin is in Intercultural Studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
“I grew up traveling into Philadelphia just for ball games or cheesesteaks and I was disconnected from the lives of people living in the city,” Justin shared. “I am looking forward to building relationships and learning what it looks like to serve the church and community in South Philly.”
As part of the Ministry Inquiry Program, Luke Hertzler, who studies Bible, Religion and Theology at EMU, will be working with Whitehall and Ripple Allentown congregations. Luke will help at Ripple’s Community Building Center and garden and test out gifts on Sundays at both Ripple and Whitehall.
“We hope Luke will bring new ideas and energy. Right now we are forming gift groups at Ripple and I hope Luke can give some direction to this new model,” Danilo Sanchez, co-pastor for Ripple Allentown shared. “Internships are important to Ripple because we care about raising up leaders. Ripple is a different kind of Mennonite church and we like to show young adults that pastoring and church can take a variety of forms.”
Summer interns are an important part of Franconia Conference’s commitment to leadership cultivation. “Each year it is a gift to interact with this next generation of leaders. We learn alongside them and contribute to their formation in the way of Christ’s peace,” Franconia’s executive minister Steve Kriss shared.
We are grateful for and look forward to sharing more about the work that these six young people will offer Franconia Conference this summer!
(Scroll for Spanish translation / Desplazarse para la traducción al español)
by Andres Castillo, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life
Out of all of the things that I take for granted, my intercultural childhood has to be the most beautiful.
I grew up in Norristown, Pennsylvania as a Hispanic and white child, never really fitting into either demographic, but undoubtedly benefiting from the ability to sit back and watch all ethnic groups interact. This “observation” lifestyle is one commonly picked up by biracial children, and I can confirm this through my own experiences.
Not being able to fit into any single group is a blessing. I grew up mingling with, among others, both white and Latino children, frequently wondering why they were often so completely separate from each other. The close-mindedness of each cluster was puzzling, and even more so was the fact that neither fully accepted me. I realize now after many years of fussing over my place in the world that I have no need to identify with either group—there are plenty of people like me.
This realization enables me to have a better perception of the world and each person, not focusing on anyone’s ethnic background but on what is underneath. I am able to see people for who they are, because I know how it feels to not know who I am or where I belong.
Unfortunately, not every biracial child will come to the same conclusions that I did. To help remedy this, I write this with the dual purpose of sharing my worldview as well as providing some self-security to biracial persons who struggle with their identity.
Growing up in Norristown definitely put me in an advantageous situation. Daily exposure to different races and cultures—African American, Caribbean, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Chinese—is healthy for a growing human. I know that I benefited greatly (an understatement) from living my whole life and attending high school in Norristown. I am, no doubt, more knowledgeable of what the world really contains—homeless people walking the streets, gang-related violence, robberies (my house was even robbed once), and overall, a struggle for financial stability.
Of course there are a lot of bad things that exist in the world, but Norristown did reveal many positive things too. Attending Norristown Area High School showed me that Latinos and African Americans, not whites, were the majority in the area where I live. Contrary to what some people think, the Norristown area school system not only provided me with an adequate education, but also effectively exposed me to more of the world. I attend an absolute melting-pot of a church called Nueva Vida Norristown New Life (NVNNL) and can happily say that our family benefits from the multitude of races within the church and the bilingual capabilities we possess.
Along with these two outlets, my grandparents, who live in the center of Norristown, have been enthusiastic guides to other cultures throughout my lifetime. They not only house people of different races in their small-but-friendly apartment complex but raised their children (my mom and uncle) in Vietnam and Indonesia, where they served for many years as mission workers. As a result, they are completely open-minded people who have taught their children and grandchildren their ways.
Just the other day, I had a job interviewer ask me if I have “had experience in which I have been exposed to many cultures.” Needless to say, that question could probably be nominated for “easiest question of the year.”
I am happy to not be ignorant of the cultures around me, and to have my race be a minimal factor of how I live. I was able to decide for myself that I love people of all races, and, as a result, I can say, with joy, that I am able to fully enjoy this life.
Andres Castillo is a freshman at West Chester University. He enjoys writing, reading, and playing with the Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Church worship team.
La Belleza de una Niñez Intercultural
por Andres Castillo, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life
De todas las cosas que doy por sentadas, mi niñez intercultural tiene que ser la más hermosa.
Crecí en Norristown, Pensilvania como un niño hispano y americano blanco, nunca encajando con ninguno de los dos grupos demográficos, pero sin duda me beneficiaba de poder sentarme y ver a todos los grupos étnicos relacionarse. Este estilo de vida de “observación” es comúnmente adoptado por los niños birraciales, y puedo confirmarlo por mis propias experiencias.
No poder encajar en un solo grupo es una bendición. Crecí mezclándome, entre otros, con niños blancos y latinos, preguntándome con frecuencia por qué a menudo estaban tan separados unos de otros. La mentalidad cerrada de cada grupo fue desconcertante, y más aún, el hecho de que ninguno de los dos grupos me aceptó por completo. Ahora me doy cuenta de que después de muchos años de preocuparme por mi lugar en el mundo, no tengo necesidad de identificarme con ninguno de los grupos, hay muchas personas como yo.
Esta realización me permite tener una mejor percepción del mundo y de cada persona, sin centrarme en el origen étnico de nadie, sino en lo que está dentro. Soy capaz de ver a las personas por lo que son, porque sé cómo se siente no saber quién soy ni a dónde pertenezco.
Desafortunadamente, no todos los niños birraciales llegarán a las mismas conclusiones que yo. Para ayudar a remediar esto, escribo esto con el doble propósito de compartir mi visión del mundo, así como de proporcionar cierta seguridad personal a las personas birraciales que luchan con su identidad.
Crecer en Norristown definitivamente me puso en una situación ventajosa. La exposición diaria a diferentes razas y culturas (afro americana, caribeña, mexicana, puertorriqueña, china) es saludable para un humano en crecimiento. Sé que me beneficié enormemente (una subestimación) de vivir toda mi vida y asistir a la escuela secundaria en Norristown. Sin duda, tengo más conocimiento de lo que realmente contiene el mundo: personas sin hogar que caminan por las calles, violencia relacionada con pandillas, robos (mi casa incluso fue robada una vez) y, en general, una lucha por la estabilidad financiera.
Por supuesto, hay muchas cosas malas que existen en el mundo, pero Norristown también reveló muchas cosas positivas. Asistir a la escuela secundaria del área de Norristown me mostró que los latinos y los afroamericanos, no los blancos, eran la mayoría en el área donde vivo. Contrariamente a lo que algunas personas piensan, el sistema escolar del área de Norristown no solo me brindó una educación adecuada, sino que también me expuso a más partes del mundo. Asisto a una iglesia que es un crisol absoluto llamada Nueva Vida Norristown New Life (NVNNL) y puedo decir felizmente que nuestra familia se beneficia de la multitud de razas dentro de la iglesia y las capacidades bilingües que poseemos.
Junto con estos dos canales, mis abuelos, que viven en el centro de Norristown, han sido guías entusiastas de otras culturas a lo largo de mi vida. No solo albergan a personas de diferentes razas en su pequeño pero amigable complejo de apartamentos, sino que también criaron a sus hijos (mi madre y mi tío) en Vietnam e Indonesia, donde sirvieron durante muchos años como trabajadores misioneros. Como resultado, son personas de mentalidad abierta que les han enseñado sus costumbres a sus hijos y nietos.
Justo el otro día, un entrevistador del trabajo me preguntó si tenía “experiencia en la que he estado expuesto a muchas culturas”. No hace falta decir que esa pregunta probablemente podría ser nominada a la “pregunta más fácil del año”.
Estoy feliz de no ignorar las culturas que me rodean y de que mi raza sea un factor mínimo de cómo vivo. Pude decidir por mí mismo que amo a las personas de todas las razas y, como resultado, puedo decir con alegría que puedo disfrutar plenamente de esta vida.
Andrés Castillo es un estudiante de primer año en la Universidad de West Chester. Le gusta escribir, leer y tocar música con el equipo de adoración de Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Church.
by Sharon Williams, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life, with Carrie Hagen
One hundred years ago, the Franconia Mennonite Conference planted its first mission in Norristown, Pennsylvania. The Norristown Mission began with an awareness that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people. Today, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church draws from twelve different countries. Earlier this fall, Norristown New Life was honored as the first Mennonite congregation accepted into The National Fund for Sacred Places, a national historic preservation grant-making program launched by the Lilly Endowment. Norristown New Life was one of 13 congregations selected from a field of 178 for the 2018–19 cohort.
Norristown New Life’s capital campaign, “Enlarging Our Place in God’s World,” includes the restoration of its 1907 Gothic Revival building, located in Norristown’s historic district, one block from the county courthouse. Built from Valley Forge marble, the sanctuary features two large stained glass windows and seventeen smaller ones. In addition to restoring the windows, the building needs stone pointing, new flooring, a new roof, interior and exterior painting, and HVAC work. Norristown New Life also seeks to make the meetinghouse more accessible to those with physical disabilities by installing new restrooms and an elevator.
The congregation purchased the historic Bethany United Methodist Church building for its meetinghouse in 1990, when three independent Mennonite congregations—First Mennonite, Bethel Mennonite, and Fuente de Salvación—came together to form Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church.
Since 1990, three associate pastors representing the three major ethnic groups represented in the church body—Hispanic, African American, and Caucasian— share all pastoral duties. This leadership system of power-sharing is Anabaptist, a key commitment for the congregation’s leadership model. Bilingual worship services are shared in English and in Spanish.
The National Fund for Sacred Places team, says Director Chad Martin, was struck not only by the congregation’s history of interracial and intercultural membership and leadership but also by its community ministries.
Norristown New Life has developed partnerships with Precious Life Childcare Center, the Montgomery County Association for the Blind, Narcotics Anonymous, and the county’s addiction counseling services. It operates a discipleship housing ministry for single women and trains adults and youth in restorative justice practices utilized by the school district. At the photo ID clinic held in the congregation’s youth center, trained volunteers assist people with the paperwork and money orders they need to acquire state-issued IDs, birth certificates, and Social Security cards in order to obtain jobs, medical services, bank accounts, and apartment rentals.
Prior to its admittance into the National Fund, the congregation had raised over $500,000 of their capital campaign’s $2 million target. Its goal now is to leverage the highest matching grant offered by The National Fund—$250,000—as part of the effort to raise the remaining $1.5 million. The grant requires 2:1 matching funds of $500,000.
Acceptance in the National Fund program, says Pastor Ertell Whigham, is a gift for Norristown New Life’s mission to serve its community.
“As ambassadors of reconciliation, the gift of this grant enables our congregation to offer our place of worship as a continued presence for community partnerships, service, commitment, and hope.”
To learn more about Enlarging Our Place in God’s World or contribute to Norristown New Life’s capital campaign, CLICK HERE.
By Marta Castillo, Leadership Minister of Intercultural Formation
She thought for a moment then pulled off her bright pink scarf and laid it down in the rough form of a cross on the narrow space between the beds. Then she instructed one of us to go outside and get some dirt to place by the cross. The two symbols, the bright pink cross and the dirt lay there together as a powerful visual of life, death, salvation, and freedom. We began to pray, attentive to the Spirit and to our sister, as she talked, wept, and prayed through a process letting go of the crippling guilt she carried after her father’s death five years before. We anointed her with oil and with our prayers of blessings, believing that the power of Jesus would bring transformation and freedom in her life and walk with God. I suppose we could have listened to her story and prayed for her without the symbols but there was power in the visual and physical additions to the accompaniment of her sisters. This is one story of many from a powerful weekend of sisters walking alongside one another.
During the weekend of the Cuidandonos Entre Mujeres (Sister Care) Retreat attended by 72 women from 15 congregations, Pastor Ofelia Garcia filled our hearts and minds with powerful teaching through shared activities and symbols. We walked in each other’s’ shoes, determined the boundaries of our personal space, and committed ourselves to caring for each other in the safety, wisdom and confidentiality of the red tent (a symbolic place of sisterhood and caring for each other we used throughout the weekend). On Saturday night, we dressed up, celebrated our beauty as women, decorated crowns, and then gave our uniquely created crown to a sister in Christ with words of affirmation and blessing. Then on Sunday morning, we celebrated communion together and in a ceremony of blessing we blessed one another. I was reminded of how Jesus used parables, symbols, and ceremony to deeply root the truth in people’s hearts and minds. The holistic ministry of teaching and practice using our spirit, mind, and body will leave an impact greater than teaching alone.
This was the first all-Spanish SisterCare Retreat held in the United States. It was more than we had hoped for, a true experience of the joy of seeing God’s Spirit going above and beyond what we could have hoped for or imagined. Since our own training in Sister Care (in Spanish) with Mennonite Women USA last year, Pastor Letty Castro of Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, and I had dreamed of an event where Spanish-speaking women in Franconia and Eastern District could come, relax, share their stories, pray together, and receive teaching about healing and self-care. It was truly a team effort. Pastor Ofelia Garcia agreed to come from Mexico City to be the speaker since she helped develop and present Sister Care materials in many places. Franconia Conference agreed to support our efforts to reach women within the churches of the conference and Eastern District. Congregations like Zion, Salford, Doylestown, Centro de Alabanza, and Nueva Vida Norristown New Life supported us with scholarships for women to attend. Pastors helped to get the word out to their Spanish speaking members. A group from Centro de Alabanza worked hard to bring the program and details together. Staff from Spruce Lake Retreat Center supported us through the registration process and retreat planning.
Within hours of being together, women from over fifteen different churches and at least ten different countries were sharing with a depth that took us by surprise. When we shared in small groups, we heard stories of parental and spousal abandonment, verbal, physical, sexual abuse, marriage difficulties, un-forgiveness, anger, loss of a child, and so much more. We heard faith stories of God’s grace and love reaching down to bring forgiveness, freedom, healing, hope, love, and a future. We cried, we smiled, we laughed, we hugged, and we listened. We were encouraged not to give counsel or advice unless it was asked for specifically so we listened some more and we prayed for ourselves and for each other. The space felt safe and we surrendered ourselves to the experience and the community.
The invitation was extended and the women came. We enjoyed the beauty of the mountains, trees, and God’s creation. We stepped away from our work, homes, families, and responsibilities to care for ourselves and others women like us. We shared deeply and encouraged each other. As we left and went home, we will continue to invite each other to “Come, walk with us. The journey is long.”
Luke 10:27 (NIV) He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Por Marta Castillo, Ministro de Liderazgo en Formacion Intercultural
La pastora pensó por un momento, luego se quitó la bufanda rosada brillante y la tendió en forma de una cruz en el espacio estrecho entre las camas. Luego, ella nos pidió a una de nosotras que saliera y consiguiera algo de tierra para colocar junto a la cruz. Los dos símbolos, la cruz de color rosada brillante y la tierra yacen juntos como una poderosa imagen de la vida, la muerte, la salvación y la libertad. Comenzamos a orar, atentas al Espíritu y a nuestra hermana, mientras ella hablaba, lloraba y oraba para dejar ir la culpa paralizante que llevaba después de la muerte de su padre cinco años antes. La ungimos con aceite y con nuestras oraciones de bendición, creyendo que el poder de Jesús traería transformación y libertad en su vida y caminaría con Dios. Supongo que podríamos haber escuchado su historia y haber orado por ella sin los símbolos, pero había poder en las adiciones físicas y visuales al acompañamiento de las hermanas. Esta es una historia entre muchas historias de un fin de semana poderoso de hermanas acompañando una a la otra.
Durante el primer retiro (solamente en español) de Cuidándonos Entre Mujeres asistieron 72 mujeres de 15 congregaciones, la Pastora Ofelia García llenó nuestros corazones y mentes con una enseñanza poderosa a través de actividades y símbolos compartidos. Caminamos en los zapatos de los demás, determinamos los límites de nuestro espacio personal y nos comprometimos a cuidarnos mutuamente en la seguridad, la sabiduría y la confidencialidad de la tienda roja (un lugar simbólico de hermandad y cuidando una a la otra que usamos durante el fin de semana). El sábado por la noche, nos vestimos, celebramos nuestra belleza como mujeres, decoramos coronas y luego entregamos nuestra corona de creación única a una hermana en Cristo con palabras de afirmación y bendición. Luego, el domingo por la mañana, celebramos juntas la comunión y nos bendijimos mutuamente con una ceremonia de bendición. Recordé cómo Jesús usó parábolas, símbolos y ceremonias para enraizar profundamente la verdad en los corazones y las mentes de las personas. El ministerio holístico de enseñanza y práctica que usa nuestro espíritu, mente y cuerpo dejará un impacto mayor que la enseñanza sola.
Fue más de lo que esperábamos, una verdadera experiencia de la alegría de ver al Espíritu de Dios ir más allá de lo que podríamos haber esperado o imaginado. Desde nuestro taller de Cuidándonos Entre Mujeres (Sister Care) con las Mujeres Menonitas EEUU el año pasado, la pastora Letty Castro de Centro de Alabanza, Filadelfia y yo habíamos soñado con un evento en que las mujeres de habla hispana en Franconia y el Distrito Este pudieran venir, relajarse, compartir sus historias, orar juntas y recibir enseñanza sobre la curación y el cuidado personal. Fue realmente un esfuerzo de equipo. La pastora Ofelia García aceptó venir de la ciudad de México para ser la presentadora porque ella había apoyado el desarrollo de los materiales de Cuidándonos Entre Mujeres y tenía mucha experiencia en presentarlos en diferentes países. La Conferencia de Franconia acordó apoyar nuestros esfuerzos para alcanzar a las mujeres dentro de las iglesias de la conferencia y el Distrito Este. Congregaciones como Zion, Salford, Doylestown, Centro de Alabanza y Nueva Vida Norristown New Life nos apoyaron con becas. Los pastores ayudaron a correr la voz a sus miembros que hablan español. Un grupo del Centro de Alabanza trabajó duro para reunir el programa y los detalles. El personal del Spruce Lake Retreat Center nos apoyó a través del proceso de registro y la planificación del retiro.
A las pocas horas de estar juntas, setenta y dos mujeres de más de quince iglesias diferentes y al menos diez países diferentes compartían con una profundidad que nos sorprendió. Cuando compartimos en pequeños grupos, escuchamos historias de abandono de padres y cónyugues, abuso verbal, físico, sexual, dificultades matrimoniales, falta de perdón, enojo, pérdida de un hijo y mucho más. Escuchamos historias de fe de la gracia y el amor de Dios que se acercan para traer perdón, libertad, sanidad, esperanza, amor y un futuro. Lloramos, sonreímos, reímos, nos abrazamos y escuchamos. Nos animaron a no dar consejos ni sugerencias a menos que se pidiera específicamente, así que escuchamos un poco más y oramos por nosotras mismas y por los demás. El espacio se sintió seguro y nos entregamos a la experiencia y la comunidad.
Se extendió la invitación y llegaron las mujeres. Disfrutamos de la belleza de las montañas, los árboles y la creación de Dios. Nos alejamos de nuestro trabajo, hogares, familias y responsabilidades para cuidarnos a nosotras mismas y a otras mujeres iguales que nosotras. Compartimos profundamente y nos animamos mutuamente. Cuando nos fuimos y regresamos a casa, continuaremos invitándonos mutuamente a “Ven, camina con nosotros. El viaje es largo.”
Lucas 10:27 (NVI) ….“Ama al Señor tu Dios con todo tu corazón, con todo tu ser, con todas tus fuerzas y con toda tu mente”, y: “Ama a tu prójimo como a ti mismo”
The Ministry Inquiry Program is a partnership between Mennonite colleges, Mennonite Church USA and local congregations. Upon completion, students receive scholarship money. This summer one Franconia Conference congregation hosted a student, and another Franconia congregation sent a student. From Nueva Vida Norristown New Life, Lydia Haggard spent the summer working at the Coalition for Christian Outreach program in Ocean City, New Jersey. Philadelphia Praise Center hosted Abigail Shelley from Meridian, Mississippi. Read all about their experience, along with that of two other Ministry Inquiry Program participants, by clicking here.
By Marta Castillo, Leadership Minister of Intercultural Formation
“Inter” words are familiar to most of us – interact, interdependent, intermission, intertwine, international, intercede, intercultural, etc. Based on the Latin, “inter” means “between,” “in the midst of,” “mutually,” “reciprocally,” “together”. Interspace is an adventure of new learnings, a place of possibility, sharing, rest, and reconciliation, but it is also a space that is unnerving, humbling, uncomfortable, and challenging.
Since the end of 2017, when I resigned from a pastoral role at Nueva Vida Norristown New Life, I have been living in the space between church homes and between work roles. It was strange and exciting to know that in this in between space, I could visit other churches and experience worship and Word in new ways. However, there was no church home because I was “in between”. The ministry that I was involved in was my responsibility no longer and it was freeing to dream and envision what shape my role will take as Leadership Minister of Intercultural Formation with Franconia Conference, but hard to leave behind the relationships that I had nurtured for years. In the first two months of 2018, I was in interspace, in between, waiting for my new role to begin. Then in the beginning of March, I began my international adventure with a trip to Indonesia with the purpose of studying Indonesian, a language that I had once learned and spoken as a child, to enhance my future intercultural ministry within the conference.
What an experience! The food, the culture, the language, and the people brought my childhood in Indonesia flooding back. I kept moving between being so comfortable and so uncomfortable, so quickly it was disorienting. I was delighted to experience familiar tastes, words, and culture while feeling so humbled as a person who was learning a language and speaking it so poorly and who didn’t know the cultural expectations, so I embarrassed myself. This interspace of being in a different country required courage, creativity, willingness to fail, and engagement with people who were different. It was the perfect connecting space between my past experiences and my future hopes and ministry.
A young friend of mine shared with me recently of her journey towards learning to stay in the interspace, the space between, like the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, holding onto the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross while celebrating the power of the resurrection. It takes courage to stand “between”. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus has done through his life, death, and resurrection? Even now, Jesus “intercedes” comes and goes between God and us, to keep that interspace holy and righteous. Romans 8:34, “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
Furthermore, we are invited to share the same interspace of intercession, interrelationship, and interconnectedness for deeper relationship with others. 1 Timothy 2:1-3, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
In our conference, we have a shared priority to be intercultural, meaning that we seek to connect, stand, and live in the space between the cultures represented in our conference and the world. This is different than being multicultural which advocates for equal respect and promoting cultural diversity. When “multi” is not enough, we seek “inter”. With multicultural, we still have a sense of “us and them”. With intercultural, a between space is created where “we” belong. Our conference priority is for networking and cultivating intercultural ministry relationships. This process is described as “including an assessment of current and emerging relationships that work cross-culturally while building further capacity toward mutually-beneficial relationships among ministries and congregations. Increasingly, these relationships will be defined by reciprocity and transformation rather than paternalism and patronization. Relationships will be built around both work and celebration, both doing and being together.” Read this and other priorities here; read more about some of Franconia Conference’s intercultural and multicultural work here.
What is now Nueva Vida Norristown New Life (NVNNL) formed from one of the first mission outreaches of Franconia Conference in 1919. The conference would see two initiatives in Bridgeport and in Conshohocken come and go. Then there was the development of First Mennonite, predominately of Anglo ethnicity; Bethel Mennonite under African-American leadership; and Iglesia Menonita Hispana Fuentes de Salvación. These three congregations with a vision to be intercultural would join together in 1990 to become Nueva Vida Norristown New Life.
The Missional Operations Grant that was received by NVNNL was to show the continued support of the conference to the work of God in Norristown. The grant added in providing for the 25th Anniversary Community Fiesta and Concert in July 2015.
With a tent perched in their parking lot, NVNNL hosted a couple hundred of present and former members, greatly enriched by their Norristown neighbors for gospel worship, led by acclaimed pianist James Crumbly, a concert with Crumbly and Friends and a pig roast and fiesta. The celebration was essentially an elaboration of what NVNNL does each month during the summer season, as Jim Williams, a long-time lay leader, “We canvass the neighborhood, hand out flyers inviting everyone to outdoor worship and a congregational meal.” As Marta Castillo, one of three pastors, remarked, “From the beginning it was in our DNA, first reaching out to Jewish, then African-American, then Spanish. And that day Pastor Beny from the Indonesian church in Philadelphia brought about two dozen folks, so it was more of a cultural mix than usual.”
In 2015, Franconia Conference provided a Missional Operations Grant to assist Nueva Vida Norristown New Life in a partnership with CIMPEC (Cuba’s national pastors’ and ministers’ association). According to CIMPEC president, Pastor Angel Cordero, 70% of the pastors in Cuba have never attended a Bible school or seminary. This MOG was able to assist in providing 6 days of training for these pastors.
On the morning of Saturday, March 7, approximately fifty women joined together at Nueva Vida Norristown New Life congregation to “set the day apart” for worship, learning, and fellowship. The theme of the day was “Shattering Our Mirrors,” releasing the false image we see and embracing the image God sees when our Creator looks at us. Sandra Dresher-Lehman shared that God’s creativity in His creation of women may not always fit the mold the community has prepared for us and encouraged each to be authentic followers of Jesus. Christine Waanders challenged each to own her personality and to see positive possibilities in what may considered our downsides.
Other speakers included Kristi Wile, Donna Merow, and Ana Giron. Thanks to Marta Castillo and Karisa Barlow who translated, everyone was able to understand. During the time together, the women learned to know new friends, made origami boats, sang, discussed, prayed, looked inside themselves and were challenged on their journeys of faith, washed hands together, and blessed each other. The women enjoyed a delicious lunch, provided by the congregation, over lots of chatter and laughter. What a refreshing, insightful, delightful day!
The conference Sistering Committee is made up of Anne Yoder (chairperson), Donna Merow, Bobby Smisko, Kristi Wile, and Doris Diener. This event was the fourth Franconia/Eastern District Conference Women’s gathering since the 2012 Sister Care event.
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.