By Mike Derstine, Pastor at Plains Mennonite Church
With illustrations from barren trees in the wintertime and personal stories of frustration around his infant daughter’s eating habits, Pastor Beny Krisbianto reminded a joint gathering of Nations Worship Center and Plains Mennonite Church on Sunday, August 27, of God’s goodness that meets us again and again in times of struggle and adversity. The joint worship service in the Plains Park pavilion was a clear example of God’s good and surprising work.
Plains members, Sharon and Conrad Swartzentruber, have been hosting several Dock Mennonite Academy high school students from Nations Worship Center at their home from Monday to Friday during the school year. Last year, a small group from Nations Worship Center traveled to the Swartzentruber’s home for a picnic and afternoon games. Might Plains Church host a joint worship service and picnic in our pavilion, Sharon wondered? Somewhere along the way, Steve Diehl, Director of Advancement for the Mennonite Heritage Center, received word of our planning, and organized a Perkiomen Bus to provide transportation for many more from Nations Worship Center to attend the joint worship service, potluck fellowship meal, and an afternoon visit at the Mennonite Heritage Center. (Read Steve’s reflections on the visit to Mennonite Heritage Center here.)
In the worship service, a generous offering was received that was divided in half to support the ministries of both congregations, including the renovations of the second floor of the Nations Worship Center building.Preaching from Romans 8:28-39 in his native language of Indonesian, and interpreted into English by Plains member, Dr. Conrad Swartzentruber. Beny spoke about a God who works beside us in every situation we face and who met the needs of Nations Worship Center throughout the long, trying process of buying and renovating their current church building and dealing with obstacles from the city, neighbors, and contractors. But surprisingly, Beny shared, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenny recently attended a congregational service and wants to come back!
All total, by bus, a van, and several cars, 60-70 members from Nations Worship Center in South Philadelphia made the trip to Hatfield and Harleysville. It was noted in the worship service that the Plains congregation would look forward to another joint service with Nations Worship Center, only this time in South Philadelphia, and that many of the Plains members would also appreciate the convenience of bus transportation to ease the challenges of city driving, following directions, and parking. God is good and faithful, a reality we often experience in new situations that stretch us and take us out of our familiar routines.
Rev. Dr. Paulus Thalathoti, a credentialed leader within Franconia Conference and a member at Plains Mennonite Church has followed God’s call to form a non-profit evangelistic and church planting ministry, Peace Proclamation Ministries International, Inc. (PPMI). “The primary purpose of PPMI is to help the people both in India and the United States to experience a relationship with Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace, to see His true light, and to know the Life He offers.”
PPMI sponsors 28 pastors, five of whom were commissioned in 2015. There is little to no opportunity for Biblical, Theological, or Leadership training in the rural villages of India. Therefore, PPMI provides a conference in Hyderabad, India where pastors gather to learn and support each other. For the past 4 years the pastors’ wives have also been included in this equipping opportunity. The Missional Operations Grant received by PPMI aided in making the 2015 conference a possibility.
There has been a buzz around the past few weeks as news came that Lois Gunden, the first woman to teach a Sunday School Class at Plains Mennonite Church and one of their first elders, was to be honored as Righteous Among the Nations at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. on January 27. She was first given the award in 2013, but only now was the ceremony taking place, the first such official ceremony held in the United States. Lois and three others were honored at the event in which President Barack Obama spoke. She is one of five Americans to ever receive the award. The award is given through the Yad Vashem, a living memorial to the holocaust, a prestigious award in the Jewish community. When I heard the news of the ceremony, it was a joyous moment and one that provided me with a renewed sense of hope.
The past year has been a roller coaster for my identity. With discussion in MCUSA and our conference around the on-going war between Israel and Palestine, the findings discussed at Mennonite World Conference that Mennonites may have played an active role with the Nazi regime in World War II, and the fact that more and more people seem to be assuming that being Jewish means you support the state of Israel, I have been led to often stop and contemplate: is it really possible for me to hold these two pieces of my identity together, can I really be a Jewish Mennonite?
I was raised in an Anabaptist home and when it comes to being Jewish, my family is far more Anabaptist then Jewish. My parents were both raised as Christians and don’t observe any Jewish traditions. However, at a young age I became enamored with stories from the holocaust and reading about the lives of Jews in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I was struck by stories like Lois Gunden’s of people who risked their own lives to save others.
I remember my father once saying that Jesus was a Jew and the Gentiles were grafted into the olive tree, so Judaism is the trunk and roots of Christianity (Romans 11:11-24). It was soon after that that my family allowed me to begin to observe some of the Jewish traditions. These traditions have always been life-giving to me; times of reflection and deeper contemplation on God’s word, often reaffirming my faith in Jesus Christ.
Recently, however, I have found this piece of me often in conflict with my more-predominant Mennonite side and it has been difficult for me to grasp why. James Hamrick, of North Suburban Mennonite Church in Libertyville, Ill., recently wrote an article that appeared in The Mennonite entitled, Jesus was a Jew: A challenge to anti-Judaism in our churches. As I read the article it resonated with me. I have felt this growing tension between my being a Mennonite and a Jew. It is not a new tension — after all I am the descendant of recent German immigrant and a European Jew. Recently, though, as we work to stand with the Palestinians and bring voice to their plight, our words and actions have felt harsh to my Jewish side. As a peace church we work so hard to stand with the oppressed and right now in the Middle East, it is clear the Palestinians are more oppressed than the Israelis. Yet this war has a deep complex root system that I think we often fail to recognize. As Mennonites we also have a deep complex history when it comes to the people involved in this conflict. There is a tension here, a tension to pick sides, yet as a peace church, as peacebuilders, are we not called to build bridges between the sides?
The President began his remarks at the Righteous Among the Nations ceremony with a teaching from the Talmud I have posted in my home: “if a person destroys one life, it is as if they’ve destroyed an entire world, and if a person saves one life, it is as if they’ve saved an entire world.” The teaching says “person”, not Jew, not Israeli, not Palestinian, or any other people group — just person. When I look at my best friend’s husband, I do not see a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, even though that is who he is. I see my brother, my fellow Christian, my friend, a person.
Lois Gunden went to France in October of 1941 in her early twenties to work with refugee children. As deportations began, she protected the Jewish children from inevitable death at Auschwitz. President Barak Obama stated at the event, “The four lives we honor tonight make a claim on our conscience, as well as our moral imagination. We hear their stories, and we are forced to ask ourselves, under the same circumstances, how would we act? How would we answer God’s question, where are you? … Would we have the extraordinary compassion of Lois Gunden? She wrote that she simply hoped to “add just another ray of love to the lives of these youngsters” who had already endured so much. And by housing and feeding as many Jewish children as she could, her ray of love always shone through, and still burns within the families of those she saved.”
As we look to the on-going war between Israel and Palestine, as we go to the margins, as we live out being the peace church we are, sharing God’s love, may we acknowledge our own role good or bad in history and present day, may we learn from the past, and may we remember the story of Lois Gunden and others like her. As she did, may our rays of love always shine through, to all people in all places.
Paulus and Sumatha Thalathoti (Plains Mennonite Church) are on a life-long mission for the Lord. Dr. Thalathoti is the president of Peace Proclamation Ministries International (PPMI), an evangelistic and church planting ministry that trains pastors in India. Called by the Lord at an early age, Paulus pursued biblical studies, including a doctorate in ministry. Sumatha, the daughter of long-time Mennonite Brethren Church member and missionaries, has a keen passion for the people of their home country to know Jesus. They founded PPMI in 2011 with $120 and have kept it going with their infectious enthusiasm.
Pastoral training is one of PPMI’s foci. In-depth study of the Holy Scriptures through the lens of Jesus the Savior and practical ministry skills are the core curricula of the annual pastors’ conference. The conference is an incredibly refreshing and empowering opportunity for pastors who have little formal training but much passion for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ among their mostly non-Christian neighbors.
Another focus of the annual conferences is to equip the pastors’ wives to work as ministry partners with their husbands. Such partnership is a foreign concept in traditional Indian cultures, but becomes a very positive influence when the couples understand the biblical basis. “You could see God working, bringing the husbands and wives together in a new way,” remembers Sara Kolb (Plains Mennonite Church), who shared her own experiences as a pastor’s wife when she and her husband Noah Kolb helped to lead the 2013 conference. The women now accompany their husbands in personal evangelism outreach and lead prayer ministries.
In 2014, generous donors made it possible to give each woman a sewing machine, so a sewing class was added to the week’s events. “The sewing machines are wonderful tools for building relationships with friends and neighbors,” Sumatha explains. “The women are happy to serve the Lord in their new-found ministry roles.”
“It’s the closest thing to the early church I have experienced,” says Jenifer Eriksen Morales, Franconia Conference’s LEADership Minister of Transitional Ministries. Jenifer taught both men and women at the 2014 conference. Sumatha and Jenifer will introduce mentoring for the women this year. Sumatha will meet with each woman, and continue the mentoring by phone throughout the year. Jenifer will serve as a coach for Sumatha.
Sumatha and Paulus practice what they teach. Since 2004, this “Priscilla and Aquilla” (Acts 18) also minister with the Indian diaspora through Paulus’ Chairman role with Penn Bible Fellowship, which meets at Plains Mennonite, where the Thalathotis are also members. They support themselves through other jobs so that everything can be poured into the ministries. Ertell Whigham, Franconia Conference’s executive minister, has aptly named Paulus and Sumatha “the Indian churches’ missionaries to the United States.”
“The Indian congregations enthusiastically worship and pray with us,” says Sharon Swartzentruber (Plains Mennonite Church). “PPMI is building a bridge for Indian churches to stir us to deeper commitments to share the gospel of Jesus and follow his Great Commission mandate (Matthew 28:19-20),” says Dr. Conrad Swartzentruber, who chairs the PPMI board. The Swartzentrubers served with the 2013 and 2014 teams.
Teaching team members return to Franconia Conference congregations and conference-related ministries as “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-14), bearing witness in our faith communities to the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit.
PPMI is a non-profit organization, supported by generous donors across North America, Plains Mennonite Church, Alpha Mennonite Church, and Franconia Mennonite Conference. “God has given us the opportunity to plant seeds by teaching pastors and pastors’ wives how to lead people to faith in Jesus. We are grateful to God for all who join with us in this mission,” say the Thalathotis.
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.
Plains Mennonite Church survives across the span of 250 years enduring winters by fire, societal change by faith, and technological advances by flexibility. The faithful people of the congregation worship on the same flat land plot since 1765. Older than the United States, Plains testifies to God’s grace in the eternal Jesus. Biblical principles mold the community of believers set to follow an everlasting God who works salvation through history.
Fellowship, worship, meals, and music are weaved into the fabric of the people of Plains Mennonite Church. Plains will celebrate its 250th year by just that. Gathering for remembrance, the church will host a three day weekend celebration at its location in Hatfield from Friday June 19 to Sunday June 21. The event entails singing, worship, storytelling, meals, and tours.
The Plains story will be told through a Hymn sing, tours of the meetinghouse and historic sites, a music service called “Our Musical Heritage,” and two catered fellowship meals.
Tours will explore the land that over two centuries of Mennonites have walked. Saturday will feature guided bus tours, cemetery tours, and exhibits of artifacts and pictures, according to Alyssa Kerns, Church Administrator of Plains.
Continuing the legacy of worship music a service called Our Musical Heritage led by Justin Yoder will be held Saturday, June 20th at 7pm.
Open for the community, Plains is offering a living history book of congregational endurance, Mennonite heritage, and God’s salvation history all in one weekend celebrating its 250 years. Come join in the celebration and see all the details of the weekend in the 250th Celebration Brochure.
Colin Ingram is a summer communication intern at Franconia Mennonite Conference and is a member of Finland Mennonite Church.