Tag Archives: Steve Kriss

Meeting Neighbors Near and Far

by Kiron Mateti, Franconia Board Member (Plains congregation)

As a relatively new board member with below average Spanish skills, I was surprised, but honored, when Franconia’s Executive Minister Steve Kriss asked me to join him and a Pennsylvania contingent to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Anabaptist churches in Mexico City.

A portion of our Pennsylvania contingent: Mary & Danilo Sanchez, Steve Kriss, and Kiron Mateti (not pictured: David Yoder and Cathy Godshall).

I boarded the plane with the stress of work still looming over me, and the mixed feelings that come with leaving a pregnant wife and two girls at home in PA while going on an exciting trip to Mexico.  With strong encouragement from my lovely and thoughtful wife, however, we agreed that this trip would be an opportunity to meet the real people of Mexico, to put faces to the impersonal news stories I often hear, and to allow God to recalibrate my ideas of who His people are in the world.

Our gracious host Oscar drove Steve, Danilo & Mary Sanchez (Ripple congregation), and me around Mexico City in Carlos Martinez Garcia’s Toyota Avanza.  I had previously met Carlos, moderator of the Conferencia de Iglesias Evangélicas Anabautistas Menonitas de México (CIEAMM) at the “Renewing Nations & Generations” gathering before 2018 Fall Assembly.  I enjoyed getting to know Carlos more and meeting Oscar for the first time, and greatly appreciated their hospitality.

Oscar’s heart reminded me of my Uncle Ravi in India.  One day, as we were driving to someone’s house for lunch, I mentioned how fresh the fruit in the road-side stand looked.  After we arrived and greeted everyone, we didn’t notice Oscar slip out.  Then, suddenly, Oscar had come back with fresh papaya, and proceeded to cut it and personally serve me a bowl with Tajin and fresh squeezed lime.  Que bien!

My mom’s native tongue is an Indian language called Telugu.  It is one of my life’s regrets that I can’t speak Telugu. In my defense, some of my hesitation to even try stems from instances of uncontrollable laughter when attempting to speak Telugu with my mom.  I guess I have an American accent.

But with Spanish I determined it would be different.  Spanish was not new to me—I had taken four years in high school.  But that was almost two decades ago!  I decided that I would speak what little Spanish I knew, and I would welcome the laughter.

But the laughter never came.

Instead my new amigos y hermanos appreciated my feeble Spanish, and I was amazed and thankful for how many people were willing to teach me along the way. And also, thank God for Google Translate!

The celebration services at El Buen Pastor, Luz y Verdad, and Cristiana de Paz congregations were a wonderful glimpse into a thriving Anabaptist church presence in Mexico City.  I was thankful to worship with my fellow believers, my neighbors from afar, and thankful to build relationships with the churches there.

Members from Iglesia Menonita Ebenezer at the Fourth of July “You Are Welcome” event.

Back home, at our 2nd annual “You are Welcome” Fourth of July picnic, Plains Mennonite Church and the Evangelical Center for Revival joined with Iglesia Menonita Ebenezer to enjoy music, food, and games in the sun at Plains Park.  Following my trip to Mexico, I found newfound courage that day to interact with fellow believers across the language and cultural divide. God used this trip to teach me that I don’t need to travel far to meet my neighbors—I can build relationships with my neighbors right here at home.

Building God’s Community Together

by Steve Kriss, executive minister

I’m writing on my last night in Mexico City after celebrating the 60th anniversary of Mennonite churches here.  Over the last months, we’ve been reacquainting ourselves with one another between conferences and reconnecting the strong cords that have, for years, tied our communities together across language, culture, and country.

60th anniversary United Worship of the congregations of CIEAMM at Iglesia Christianas de Paz. (Photo by Kiron Mateti)

It was humbling to stand in front of hundreds of Mexican Mennonites who had come to follow in the way of Christ through the hopeful actions of mission workers—men and women who had left the familiarity of Mennonite congregations in Pennsylvania to build community in the emerging neighborhoods of Mexico City.   As we gathered at Iglesia de Christianas de Paz, I offered a greeting from 1 Corinthians, a reminder that different people have different roles but God brings forth fruit. Together we are building God’s community.

El Buen Pastor – the first Mennonite congregation in Mexico City. (Photo by Kiron Mateti)

But in the midst of that gathering, I was struck most by how going across the boundary to Mexico had changed our conference.   Early stories suggest that Franconia Conference leaders had been waiting for an opening to send international workers.  With a letter of invitation from a woman in Mexico, and after some discernment between various Mennonite mission organizations, Franconia Conference took the lead in Mexico.

Photo by Kiron Mateti

I believe these actions 60 years ago enlarged our hearts and understandings of the world and our connections within it.  Young leaders left familiar community for impactful service and leadership; they learned new foods, spoke Spanish, and tried to understand what essentials should be shared in a new cultural context.  Our understanding of what it meant to be Mennonite had to change.

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of El Buen Pastor congregation, the first Mennonite congregation in Mexico City. (Photo by Kiron Mateti)

And the church in Mexico grew – and is still growing.  The CIEAMM network represents our historic connection, but new connections — the Red de Iglesias Missioneras International led by Kirk Hanger; Iglesia de la Tierra Prometida, where long-term mission workers Bob and Bonnie Stevenson remain; and Centro de Alabanza de Philadelphia, pastored by Fernando Loyola and Leticia Cortes from Iglesia de Christianas de Paz — are ongoing parts of our shared witness.  Along with the Bible translation work of Claude Good that ensured the availability of the Holy Text in the Triqui language, we have made significant contributions to the family of Christ’s followers in Mexico.  The community that makes up these various networks is likely similarly sized to our current Franconia Conference membership.

The view from the top. (Photo by Steve Kriss)

As part of our visit, we visited the Torre LatinoAmericana in central Mexico City.  I stared out from atop the 44-story building, built in the same era that our earliest mission workers arrived. I looked toward the Cathedral of our Lady of Guadeloupe, where the story of a visit from the Virgin Mary to a farm worker in the field would change the trajectory of faith toward Roman Catholicism.

This global city sprawls in every direction around the tower: Mexico City is the size of New York, with 20 million people in the metro area.  There are Starbucks and Walmarts, as well as lots of traffic, and omnipresent cell phones.

Closing prayer at Luz y Verdad congregation, the 2nd congregation begun 60 years ago in Mexico City. (Photo by Kiron Mateti)

I prayerfully wondered what the next years will hold for us together, recognizing each other as sibling communities, and honoring together the Good News of Christ’s peace as we celebrate the possibilities of a faith that crosses boundaries.  This faith changes us in our giving and receiving and, ultimately, changes the world in ways that are both big and small.

Beyond Our Comfort Zones

by Andrés Castillo, communication intern

Finland congregation’s CrossGen conference at Spruce Lake Retreat, with speaker Sean McDowell. The conference focused on intergenerational unity, with panels representing different generations asking questions of each other.

Every year, Franconia Conference gives Missional Operational Grants to congregations to help them think and dream about mission.  Noel Santiago, Franconia’s leadership minister for missional transformation, described his initial vision for the 2018 MOGs as providing “resources to help congregations reach out and get out of their comfort zone.”

Both executive minister Steve Kriss and Santiago have emphasized that the grants are for starting new initiatives, not sustaining them forever. By overcoming the obstacle of money, churches can begin to experiment; leaders and congregations are encouraged to be more creative. The ultimate hope is that, after the grant period ends, the new conversations and ideas started by it will continue to live on and evolve.

Last year’s MOG recipients have done a good job at what Kriss calls “honoring the legacy of Franconia’s mission to spread Christ’s peace throughout the world.” Here’s a look into what some of them did in 2018:

Indonesian Light Church (ILC) in South Philadelphia has hosted a monthly “food bazaar” to reach out to their community. “We learned that every seed planted needs nurturing and time to grow until it can grow strong roots and bear fruit,” ILC’s report reads. “Without time, love, and commitment to sowing and nurturing, there will be no significant result.” ILC plans to continue experimenting with ways to connect with the Indonesian community in south Philadelphia.

Nations Worship Center (Philadelphia) conducted a Vacation Bible School (VBS) with students from Dock Mennonite Academy (9-12) that received positive feedback and results, including new families faithfully attending church after the VBS was over. They also received help from the city of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Praise Center, and ACME. Nations Worship acknowledges that many of the children who attended their VBS come from struggling families and, “If we lose them, we lose our future.”

A Karen member of Whitehall congregation leads in prayer.

Philadelphia Praise Center (PPC) further developed the Taproot Gap Year program, an initiative for college students that involves sending them to live in Philadelphia and Indonesia. PPC maintains an office and staff in Indonesia for this purpose, which PPC pastor Aldo Siahaan says is not easy. “Thank God we have support from the conference,” he says. “Creating a program like this is not new to the conference, but it is for us.”

Whitehall (PA) congregation used their MOG for increasing leadership development among its Karen (Burmese) members. Pastors Rose Bender and Danilo Sanchez have been creatively finding new ways to integrate the various ethnicities within the church. “It isn’t as much about ‘let’s help these poor people’ as it used to be,” Bender says.  As this long process unfolds, the congregation “understands more and more how much everyone needs each other.”

Vietnamese Gospel (Allentown, PA) invited people in its surrounding community to have a large fellowship gathering, with speakers giving testimonies. The event was meant to empower their members and share the word of God with people outside of their church. Vietnamese Gospel hopes to make this an annual event to build relationships with its community.

Pastor Bruce Eglinton-Woods of Salem congregation has been working closely with the Quakertown (PA) Community Center (The Drop), an after-school and weekend program for at-risk children and teens created in response to the opioid crisis. The ministry helps attendees figure out the next steps of their lives in a judgment-free zone. Eglinton-Woods has learned how hard it is hard to gain the trust of teenagers and children and hopes to eventually grow the program to five days a week.

Ripple congregation (Allentown, PA) was able to provide training for two of their pastors, Charlene Smalls and Marilyn Bender, at the International Institute for Restorative Practices. The Ripple pastors have been using restorative practices to better meet their congregation and community’s needs.

Salem congregation has been partnering with Quakertown’s “The Drop” community center for at-risk children and youth.

Other congregations who received MOGs were Plains congregation (Hatfield, PA) for an unconventional July 4th picnic, Souderton (PA) and Doylestown (PA) congregations for the Vocation as Mission Summer Internship Program, International Worship Center (San Gabriel, CA) for technological equipment, Finland congregation (Pennsburg, PA) for their CrossGen conference, and Perkiomenville congregation for its GraceNow conference.

Every congregation has a unique, beautiful story that honors God’s mission to unite the world as one under Him. What is God doing in your congregation and community?  Share your stories by emailing communication@franconiaconference.org or check in with your congregation’s leadership minister about ways that your congregation might use an MOG to develop your missional imagination and neighborhood connections.

Summer Interns to Serve and Learn

by Jennifer Svetlik, Salford congregation

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

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.

Andrés Castillo

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.

Justin Burkholder, 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!

Work and Hope in Florida/ Trabajo y Esperanza en Florida

by Steve Kriss, Executive Minister

Tomorrow I’m leaving for a meeting with Mennonites in Fort Myers, Florida.  Noel Santiago and I will represent our conference in a conversation with congregations who are interested in remaining in relationship with Mennonite Church USA after the withdrawal of their conference.  They are discerning their future together as a community.  

Last month, Southeast Mennonite Conference removed itself from our national body.   In recent years, we have had growing ties to some of these communities in Miami, Tampa, and Sarasota.  Some of us spend part of our winter in Florida; some of us have pastored there; some of us have relatives in these communities.  Florida is an easy flight away from the part of our conference that is rooted in the Northeast corridor.

Several years ago, Angela Moyer (our current conference assistant moderator), Ertell Whigham (then executive minister), and I helped to lead an equipping event with Southeast Conference leaders in Sarasota.  We recognized a resonance between our conferences. There’s been a warmth between some of our conference leaders and these Floridian communities since then.  In the last weeks, we received a request to come alongside a part of what had been Southeast Conference to provide additional leadership resources and accompaniment.

Sandra and Marco Guete worship during a Southeast Mennonite Conference annual assembly. Photo by Andrew Bodden.

Last month, we invited Marco Guete to begin serving as a stipended leadership minister to work alongside the communities in Florida for six months.  Marco joined our conference staff retreat at Spruce Lake last week.  His wisdom, insights, experience, and salsa lessons were a welcome gift to our team while we were together.  I expect these deep, lively, and wise contributions to continue in the months ahead.

Where is this going?  We don’t know.  We anticipate meeting with leaders from about ten congregations in Florida this weekend; these leaders may either decide to form their own group in Florida in order to remain a part of Mennonite Church USA or express a desire to join our conference.  It’s a time of fluidity and change in church structures, with the previously unimagined becoming the new normal.

We want to be open-handed in relating to the communities in Florida.   I believe strongly that “to those whom much is given, much is required.”  We had available financial resources to offer assistance to our sibling communities in Florida from within our budget this year due to unfilled staff roles.  When the need in Florida became clear through a phone call with former MCUSA moderator Roy Williams from Tampa, we responded.  Our multilingual conference staff will continue to work to accompany the Florida communities as they discern their future.  Marco will work in this role for six months.  We are in conversation with Mennonite Church USA leadership about how this may evolve.

The Spirit continues to shake up the structures of the church.  Meanwhile, we are still willing to bear witness to the way of Christ’s peace.  And God continues to bring new possibilities for relationships and renewal that might extend right fellowship to people both near and far.   We will continue to work and hope.  Seguiremos trabajando y esperando.

Becoming an Authentic Pastor

by Ben Walter, Ripple

I grew up attending a Church of the Nazarene congregation every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening, well into my teenage years. Our family was at church whenever the doors were open.  My parents often sang up front, Dad playing the guitar and Mom banging the tambourine against her leg.  They asked me to join, but I was too shy and self-conscious.

I can’t tell you when I became a Christian, or when I was “born again,” because as far as I can remember, I have always looked to Jesus as Lord, savior, teacher, and friend.  Despite my semi-forced dedication to the church, becoming a pastor was not on my to-do list; standing up front, talking, and inviting people to kneel at the altar to get saved for the tenth time wasn’t my idea of a fulfilling job.

As I entered my late teens and early twenties, I drifted away from the church.  I thought about God often, and prayed occasionally, but my faith wasn’t guiding my decisions. 

After spending 3 years in the military, I prepared to start college.  I was thinking about becoming a pastor, but I felt like, if that’s what God wanted for my life, I couldn’t be obedient to that call.  A nagging feeling of guilt began following me around.  So I went to talk to my pastor.

I remember my pastor said, “You will know.”

I didn’t really “know” at the time, so I ran.  I guess I assumed God would get the message to me if I needed to hear it.

During my final year of college, like the prodigal son, I returned.  I started attending church and met some good Christians friends who helped me stay on track.  The youth pastor at my home church asked me to help with the youth.  This turned into seven years of teaching, chaperoning, and mentoring.

Over time, particularly after the start of the Iraq War, I began thinking more deeply about Jesus’ teachings on peace, justice, oppression, and solidarity.  I didn’t have a label for it, but I was on my way to becoming an Anabaptist.

In 2008, I decided to pursue a Masters of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. I wasn’t interested in pastoring, but wanted to dedicate a few years to serious study of scripture to help in the ministry I was already doing.  

During my studies, I learned about the Anabaptists and was told by one of my close friends that I was one.  This was news to me, but I embraced the label.  I also had the opportunity to be taught by a Mennonite adjunct professor, Steve Kriss. 

Steve was the teacher for my final class at Biblical Seminary.  As I walked out the door of my last session of that class, marking the end of my seminary education, Steve stopped me to ask a few questions.  He told me that there was a church in Allentown that might interest me and wondered if I’d like to meet Tom Albright, the pastor of Ripple.  I decided I would check it out.

Ben spending time with Ayanna and Angel in Ripple’s Community Garden. Photo credit: Angela Moyer

When I got to Ripple, I saw a church that was dedicated to being a safe, welcoming place of worship for people who have been pushed to the margins of society, those with whom Jesus calls us to solidarity.  A few weeks later, Ripple called me to be one of the pastors, and I “knew.”

I initially thought I couldn’t be obedient to God’s call to be a pastor because the pastors I had known seemed to be straight-laced and uptight.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not me.  At times I still feel pressured to fit a certain pastoral mold, but for the most part, Ripple has allowed me to pastor from a place of authenticity and vulnerability.  I have learned that being a good pastor is simply about being the person God has created me to be.  I don’t have to pretend.

Thank God!

New Pages in the Old Story

by Steve Kriss, executive minister

In our end is our beginning;
in our time, infinity . . .
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.
—Natalee Sleeth, “In the Bulb There is a Flower”

I like new notebooks and journals.  Fresh, blank pages represent new possibility.  The pages await new thoughts, encounters, and reflections.

The beginning of a year is like that too. New goals, resolutions, and opportunities.  Sometimes, though, we are so busy with the new pages that we don’t reflect on where we have been.

This year’s “Year in Review” offers a good glimpse of where we were together as a community in 2018.  Upon reflection, it tells the highlights and the transitions.  The things that worked and came to fruition.

But missing, sometimes, is the struggle and the not yet.  The places where things were difficult and hard.  The conversations yet unresolved.  Those, too, are part of our story and part of our ongoing work.

I don’t want to take for granted that just because we’ve been around so long, we’ll always have new years and new pages ahead.  All around us religious institutions, some with histories that are long and deep, continue to wrap up their legacies.  Franconia Conference is also challenged by the cultural changes around us.  Our future cannot be taken for granted. 

Steve Kriss (right) visits with Isai Sanchez, Diana Salinas, and Gama Sanchez along with board members Angela Moyer and Gwen Groff, on a visit to CIEAMM in Oaxaca in 2018.”

Our legacy must not only be stewarded, but also enlivened.  Some things will come to an end and some things will emerge—or even be reborn.  We’ve seen an end of a historic congregation at Rockhill and a re-emergent partnership with CIEAMM.  We’ve come to embrace something we never imagined now with 10% of Conference congregations on the West Coast.  We’re calling leaders, both young and mature, to credentialed leadership.  And we’re being challenged to refine our credentialing processes so that more people who are called by our churches can navigate the process with grace and integrity.

When I look at our future, I know that there are things only known to God.  I know that in our human responses along the way, we have both the possibility of filling the pages of a new year beautifully or with scratch marks and smudges. Sometimes we’ll need practice runs.  We’ll have first drafts that will need improved, articles and ideas that will need translated.

Entering a new year means offering appreciation for what has gone before, all the accumulation upon which we stand and move.  It also means being open to the possibility, the plans yet unfolding, and the unknown events that might yet emerge.  And it means trusting that God—in our ends, in our beginnings, in all of time—sees and is with us through it all: alongside, inspiring, inviting, revealing further glimpses of the dream rooted in the faith, hope, and love that last forever.

With gratitude, we begin to write the pages of a new year as the old, old story unfolds within and around us anew.

2018: The Year in Review (And a Sneak Peek of 2019)

It’s a new year in Franconia Conference, a time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Joshua So, pastor of San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church, second from left, along with his wife, Anita So, with Steve Kriss, Leadership Minister Jeff Wright, and Jerrell Williams.

2018 was a year of rejoicing in new and continuing relationships and of saying good-bye to old ones.  Our conference celebrated 100 years of mission in Norristown, PA, and reignited relationships with the Conferencia de Iglesias Evangélicas Anabautistas Menonitas de México (CIEAMM), which was birthed out of Franconia’s mission work in Mexico in the 1950s.  We welcomed a new congregation, San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church, and saw Rockhill Mennonite Church leave the conference to merge with Ridgeline Community Church.  Four individuals were ordained this year and three were licensed toward ordination, including Franconia’s first credentialed leader from Generation Z.  We said good-bye to six credentialed leaders: one who transferred to another conference, one who retired, and four who passed away.

In 2018, Franconia Conference Board saw the addition of some new members: Kiron Mateti, Yvonne Platts, & Cory Longacre as Members-at-Large and Angela Moyer as Assistant Moderator in anticipation of moderator John Goshow completing his term in 2019.  The conference staff also grew with the addition of a California-based Leadership Minister, Jeff Wright, and the calling of Chantelle Todman Moore as an Intercultural Leadership Coach.  Over the summer, Franconia was joined by a leadership cultivation intern, Jerrell Williams, who traveled around the conference and blogged about his experiences.  Early in the year, Franconia’s new Leadership Minister team took a retreat at Mariawald Retreat Center near Reading, PA, to redefine and clarify their conference work of walking alongside congregations and leaders in a rapidly changing time.

Leadership for conference youth ministry also shifted this fall as Franconia’s Youth Minister, John Stoltzfus, relocated to Virginia and three youth pastors (Brent Camilleri, Mike Ford, and Danilo Sanchez) agreed to share responsibility for planning youth events, equipping youth pastors, and networking with other youth leaders across the denomination.  The conference is currently evaluating how the conference will equip youth leaders in the future.

Participants in the first US Spanish-only Sister Care Retreat hike in the woods around Spruce Lake.

We enjoyed spending time together in 2018.  The conference’s Faith and Life Commission led four conversations around church practice and leadership, focusing on baptism, church membership, communion, and leadership.  Leaders of color met for conversation and brainstorming at the Renewing Nations & Generations gathering and we held the United States’ first all-Spanish Sister Care Retreat.  Credentialed leaders were equipped during a series of boundaries trainings and leadership teams met to learn about and practice God-centered decision-making.

Franconia Conference and Eastern District continued conversations about merging in 2019.  At a joint Conference Assembly in November, delegates discussed some of the sticky issues that will need to be resolved in order to form something new moving forward.

Franconia closed out the year by purchasing a parsonage to be used by South Philadelphia congregations.  This is just one of many examples of partnerships across congregations, geographies, and differences throughout the year.

In 2019, those partnerships will continue as Franconia anticipates additional congregations seeking membership and looks forward to celebrating the 60th anniversary of CIEAMM.  2019 will also be the year that Franconia and Eastern District conferences make the final decision about merging, beginning with discussing some ideas for a new structure at Spring Assembly on May 4 and coming to a final vote at Assembly in November.

Look forward to more resourcing in 2019, including a gathering for retired pastors in the spring and a Boundaries 201 training on confidentiality and pastoral care in the fall.  Faith and Life will continue with three more gatherings focused on leadership: failure in leadership (featuring J.R. Briggs) on February 6 & 7; women in leadership (featuring Carolyn Custis James) on May 8 & 9; and multicultural leadership on August 7 & 8.

March brings its own slate of training events, including “Building Compassion from Love,” a gathering for women on March 30 at Centro de Alabanza, which will explore how God’s love is the foundation which allows us to build on the joy and sorrow of our life stories, experience healing, and show compassion for ourselves and others.  On March 28, a pastors’ breakfast will discuss “Mission as Risky Love,” wrestling with how we talk about and engage in mission so that our risk-taking is grounded in the story of a God who risked everything for the sake of love.

A few other dates to save!

Mennonite Church USA convention will be held in Kansas City on July 2-6.  Registration doesn’t open until February 6 (housing registration opens February 13), but convention staff are already accepting applications for volunteers.

And all credentialed leaders should save the date for our annual appreciation event.  Pencil in August 24, with many more details to come closer to the time!

A response:

“This year’s ‘Year in Review’ offers a good glimpse of where we were together as a community in 2018.  Upon reflection, it tells the highlights and the transitions.  The things that worked and came to fruition.  But missing, sometimes, is the struggle and the not yet.”  –Steve Kriss, executive minister.  Read more…

The One Who Knocks

by Stephen Kriss, Executive Minister

This is the great seriousness of the Advent message and its great blessing. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of people around us. Will you therefore leave the door locked for your protection, or will you open the door?
— from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermon for the first Sunday in Advent of 1928 in Barcelona

As I write this, thousands of migrants are stranded at Tijuana, one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities. At times they are within shouting distance of peaceful and prosperous San Diego County, CA. There are jobs across the frontera, generated by a booming economy with low taxes and high expectations. And relative safety. They’re fleeing violence and grinding poverty. God only knows what will happen to them by the time you read this.

I’ve seen refugees before.

In Rome, at St. Paul’s in the Walls, straggling in from small boats that made it across the Mediterranean with hopes of prosperity and work.

At Calais, young men who trudged across Central Asia and some fleeing East African violence waiting to hitch a ride on a lorry to jobs at restaurants and with family and friends in the United Kingdom.

One time in a cadre, clutching what seemed like all that they had through Barajas airport at Madrid with bags marked “UNCHR” (UN Refugee Agency), the kind I’d use to carry my groceries.

“The Flight into Egypt” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (c. 1907). Public Domain.

In Mary and Joseph, running away from a violent king, crossing borders and languages and customs to save their son from certain death.

And in Mennonite churches —where the presence of refugees from Myanmar has boosted the futures of dwindling churches, where new congregations have been birthed by Indonesians fleeing violence and seeking asylum, where pews are filled by Nepalis suddenly dislodged from Bhutan, by Vietnamese and Cambodians who arrived a generation ago.

Those who knock at the door and come inside change us, deepening our gratitude and generosity, enriching the possibilities of our future.

We, as Mennonites, have been these folks as well, fleeing the Ukraine and adrift in the Atlantic until someone unlocked the door to Paraguay. Or streaming to new possibilities in North America by homesteading land to lay foundations for colonizing empires by pushing back indigenous people. It’s not always a pretty entrance.

We have at times found the doors locked ourselves. We have been fearful and hopeful, at the end of our rope, the one seeking loving kindness and mercy. We have been running from slaveholders and the legacy of white supremacy, running from abusers, persecution and poverty. We have been outsiders, too.

We have sometimes forgotten ourselves and our wandering stories.  Fear has grown in the space of our forgetting. That fear overshadows our ability to see the stranger as ourselves.

This same kind of fear drove shooters to a black church in Charleston and a synagogue in Pittsburgh.  The fear is a cycle so that we are afraid that the one at door might seek to destroy our very existence.  We become comfortable and culpable by normalizing, “it would have been better if they’d had an armed guard.”  With an armed guard, the stranger never even makes it to the door. 

We are safe.  We survive but become a shell of ourselves, shrouded in fear.  Safe and secure, we strain to hear the knock of the One who seeks shelter to be born again, even in our own hearts, homes, and communities, in this season when love and light broke in.  And we move in faith to unlock the door.

 

Home for Christmas

by Emily Ralph Servant, Interim Director of Communication

The house sits on Emily Street, a three-story, red-brick townhouse whose stoop rests directly on the sidewalk along a narrow city street.

Bethany House, which sits on Emily Street in South Philadelphia, will serve as a conference-owned parsonage.

The third floor windows look out over the surrounding blocks, where brand new rowhomes, nestled between century-old houses, bear witness to the creeping gentrification of this densely populated and diverse neighborhood.  Dotted between the rows of houses are lots that won’t long be empty, neighborhood parks, and the occasional sidewalk garden planted in clusters of multicolored pots.

Its name is Bethany House, and soon this house will become a home.

For a number of years, members of the conference community have been concerned about the rising cost of housing in South Philadelphia.  As the city has experienced an influx of immigrants and a renewal of its urban core, the neighborhoods surrounding Franconia’s South Philly congregations have seen a quick and dramatic increase in housing costs.

This gentrification makes living and ministering locally more and more difficult, especially for credentialed leaders who don’t have the resources to purchase a home.  In response to growing support among the conference constituency, the board decided that now was the time to act, while the purchase could still be considered an investment in the rapidly growing housing market.

In December, upon the review and recommendation of the Properties and Finances Committees, Franconia Conference purchased the house on Emily Street to be used as a conference-owned parsonage.  This home will be available for conference congregations in South Philadelphia to use when, and for as long as, needed.

Bethany House’s first residents will be Leticia Cortes and Fernando Loyola.  The pastoral couple of Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, Cortes and Loyola have been struggling to find a safe and stable living arrangement for their family for eleven years.  Because Bethany House is close to their congregation’s building, Cortes and Loyola anticipate that living there will open up new possibilities for outreach in their community as they get to know their neighbors better.

This dream is shared by the South Philly congregations.  “My hope is that this house can be a blessing for the neighborhood,” said Melky Tirtasaputra, associate pastor at Nations Worship Center, who also served as an advisor during the search.  “We pray that the people of this house will bring change and peace to the people in that area.”

The purchase of this property not only shows conference support of Philadelphia churches, explained conference moderator John Goshow, but also provides an opportunity for the rest of the conference to partner with our South Philly congregations in building God’s kingdom, as “the entire Franconia Conference community works together to point people to Christ.”

The move will also put Cortes and Loyola closer to their church community—this was one of the appeals of the house, Tirtasaputra explained.  Members of Centro de Alabanza are excited about the move and have already been busily at work on the house, making repairs and painting.

Ten percent of Franconia Conference members live and worship in South Philadelphia, which makes it important to start investing in the neighborhood, suggested executive minister Steve Kriss.  While Centro de Alabanza is currently using the parsonage, Tirtasaputra reflected, it’s a gift to all of the South Philly congregations since, in the future, pastors from other congregations may also find themselves in need of a home.

“The Bethany House continues Franconia Conference’s tradition of mutual care for our pastors,” described Kriss.  “It will ensure healthy leadership for what has been a rapidly growing part of our conference community.”  The house was named after the village where Jesus went for rest, care, and friendship (John 12:1-8), Kriss said, “a place of gracious hospitality.”

The Conference’s decision to purchase a Philadelphia parsonage is more than just a financial gift, according to Cortes and Loyola; it also says something about the relationship that the wider conference has with its South Philadelphia brothers and sisters: “We feel like this investment is an affirmation of Franconia Conference’s confidence in our church ministry and in us.”

The pastoral couple’s hope is to move in by the end of the year and, it’s quite possible, they may even be home for Christmas.

Bethany House has been partially funded by estate gifts and individual contributions, but we still have funds to raise!  You or your congregation are invited to participate in this ministry by making a designated contribution to Franconia Conference online or by sending a check with “Bethany House” in the memo line to Franconia Mennonite Conference, 1000 Forty Foot Rd., Lansdale, PA 19446.