by Stephen Kriss
I was struck by the powerful words of the songs that we were singing together on Sunday in this former-thrift-store-turned-worship-space packed to nearly overflowing: we are not afraid… we believe… The words were punctuated with amens, raised hands, “Gloria A Dios.” This is Centro De Alabanza, an outgrowth of Philadelphia Praise Center, now a congregation of its own among the growing Spanish-speaking population in South Philadelphia. We were singing redemption songs that add strength and meaning to immigrant life in this thriving and sometimes dangerous city.
On Sunday we celebrated the pastoral licensing of Fernando Loyola and Letty Cortes as ministers in Franconia Conference. Letty was radiant, clothed elegantly with gifts she said were from women in the congregation. Fernando, steady, firm, serious as usual in the task of leading. They lead together as a team, the boomerang of the fruit of Mennonite mission efforts from Franconia Conference to Mexico City in the 90’s. No one would have expected that support for Kirk Hanger, who left his role at Methacton Mennonite to work at church-planting in Mexico City, would have meant that Centro de Alabanza would emerge to join Franconia Conference.
God multiples the small things and the licensing of Fernando and Letty are proof of that. Fernando tells the story of his conversion as one that takes a lifetime. Letty is the first woman of color recognized as a pastoral leader in Franconia Conference, over 25 years after the first woman (Marty Kolb-Wycoff) was credentialed for ministry in Vermont.
In working with credentialing new leaders and in the slow work that we do in establishing new congregations, I cannot help but see all of the connections that make new things possible. I notice the small things along the way that when invested in the dream of God, result in unexpected blessing and possibility. It is the widow’s mite given in faith and generosity, the mustard seed that grows into a tree, the leaven that transforms the whole loaf of bread.
We ate together after the two-hour plus worship. There was chicken, rice and beans, Coke along with orange, grape and pineapple soda. I thought of how similar it felt to the times I’ve visited with Mennonite Churches in Mexico City, yet I was still in my home city in the state where I was born. I fumbled through conversations in Spanish, but remembered best the words that I learned from Ruth Hunsberger, my Spanish teacher at Johnstown Christian School, who learned Spanish herself while working in Puerto Rico in the 40’s. My Spanish will thus always sound both a bit Pennsylvania Dutch and a bit Puerto Rican.
We bring all of those gifts and parts, all of who we are, all of the possibilities and relationships into the great Matrix of God … and they are used. Nothing is lost, everything is found and even the smallest thing can mean real transformation. Kirk told the story of meeting Letty while washing dishes in Mexico City. A wholly ordinary conversation that has led eventually to this new community flourishing in South Philadelphia and the naming of the first Latina Mennonite minister in Franconia Conference. And for those small things, which become eternally significant, and the ability to notice them later and to celebrate together over pollo, frijoles y arroz, I am grateful.
Stephen Kriss is Director of Leadership Cultivation & Congregational Resourcing at Franconia Conference.