On Sunday, August 30th, RIPPLE-Allentown, Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church, and Whitehall Mennonite Church joined together for worship at Cedar Beech Park in Allentown, PA. As these three congregations spent time getting to know one another and praising the Lord, it was a glimpse of heaven with many nations and languages coming together as brothers and sisters.
Some sat at picnic tables under a pavilion or on the ground under the shade of trees, while others were hard at work around the outskirts of the group, grilling hotdogs and preparing for the potluck meal that would follow. Children marched around waving brightly colored streamers as we began the service with songs of praise. A choir shared beautiful music in the Karen language, and the scripture was read in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Burmese. Members from each congregation shared about their walk with God. The sharing ranged from stories of persecution in Vietnam, to a first experience of summer camp at Spruce Lake Retreat.
The service closed with a meaningful time of prayer. Representatives from each church took turns sharing the needs of their congregation. Someone from another congregation then came along side them and prayed for those specific needs.
After the service, there was a time of food, fellowship, and fun. Members from each congregation participated in weaving of rugs as part of Woven Welcome, a community-based art project started in December by artist Jill Odegaard. The woven rugs represent the interconnectedness of all individuals. One person would weave a strand of cloth through one side of the rug, and pass if off to a partner on the other side who would complete the process. This allowed members from different congregations to work together and spend time in conversation. The finished rugs will be added to the Woven Welcome instillation, which will be on display at the Allentown Art Museum until Sunday, October 11, 2015.
As the adults spent time in fellowship together, the children played joyfully in a nearby creek. It was a wonderful afternoon spent enjoying God’s creation and the company of brothers and sisters in Christ.
Danilo Sanchez grew up in Franconia Conference. From his time in Boyertown where he was able to explore the gifts God has given him, to being the youth minister in the Lehigh Valley area for three Franconia churches, the conference has watched him grow into his calling. Danilo was licensed toward ordination last year, and continues to nurture urban youth in the conference. Find out how he came to know and accept God’s call on his life through his call story:
Boyertown Mennonite Church is where my journey began. I remember the first time an adult asked me to be the worship leader for a Sunday service. I felt so honored. Then later I was asked if I would like to preach. I don’t remember how I did, but the congregation was so supportive. I liked serving and being in leadership. I decided I would try teaching the Wednesday night youth bible study and Sunday School some times. Around that same time some youth wanted to start leading worship the first Sundays of the month so I began to help out with that as well. I really enjoyed leading worship; worship made me feel close to God and I enjoyed leading others in encountering God.
Having a church like Boyertown was exactly what I needed. A church that was willing to let a young guy try out some of his gifts.
I went to some youth leadership retreats during high school and really tried to discover what my gifts were. I knew I wanted to serve God in some way, but at the time never really considered being a pastor. I was learning to serve God and willing to take the risk of saying “yes”, but I felt too unworthy to be in such a position of leadership. I think that was the biggest thing that I had to overcome as I sorted out my call to ministry. Like Moses, I wanted to come up with excuses as to why I couldn’t lead.
When I was preparing to go to college, I was at a bit of a cross roads. I wasn’t really sure what direction I wanted to head in life. I remember writing a covenant to God in my journal, “God I want to be your servant. I’m willing to follow you anywhere.” Little did I realize where that would lead me.
I liked the idea of being a psychologist, so I declared my psychology major as I entered Eastern University (St. Davids, PA). I figured I could have a good paying job and then maybe volunteer my time for the church on the side.
I stayed involved at Boyertown during my first semester at Eastern, leading Bible studies and helping with the youth, and after the Winter Youth Lock-in, someone’s comments changed the direction I was going. An adult volunteer commented that many of the youth looked up to me, that I seemed to enjoy being around the youth, and maybe I should be a youth pastor.
I look back now and know that I needed the affirmation of my gifts from the church to discover my call to ministry. The thought had never really occurred to me. Me? A youth pastor? I needed to think more about it.
As a way of testing the waters, I decided to take a youth ministry class. Something just clicked. I felt alive. I felt energized. This made sense. I remember praying, “God, give me passion if this is your will.”
I changed my major to youth ministry and things just took off from there. I started doing internships at different churches — Good Shepherd Community, Souderton, Hereford Mennonite (now Butter Valley Community Church), and Philadelphia Praise Center– to discover and develop my gifts. I learned many things about myself and God during those experiences. There were several times that my gifts and calling were affirmed, whether it was through words of others, relationships, or experiences where I felt God affirming me. It had become clear to me that God was calling me to be a youth pastor.
As I approached graduation from Eastern University, the logical next step for me was seminary. I headed to Eastern Mennonite Seminary (Harrisonburg, VA) and during my three years there, I was the seminary intern youth pastor at Eastside Church. As a church plant, there was no established youth ministry, so for the first time I was able to take all my knowledge and create the youth ministry that I wanted. Needless to say, it was both exciting and terrifying. I had some good success stories, but probably more failures. All in all, the experience was very formative and Eastside was another place for me to cultivate my gifts and call.
Currently, I am living in Allentown, PA and serving as the Lehigh Valley Youth Pastor for Whitehall, Ripple, Vietnamese Gospel, and Christ Fellowship. I would have never imagined that this is where God is calling me to be – urban ministry. I always pictured myself in a suburban setting where I would be nice and comfortable. But after being in Allentown for almost a year, it is clear that this is where God is calling me to be. I have never felt more fully alive. Sure I’m still making mistakes and learning new things, but I’m following God’s call in my life and finding my pastoral identity.
As I reflect on my call, it becomes clear to me what happens from a simple prayer and willingness to say yes to God, no matter where it takes you. There has been some wrestling and some discerning, but God’s call in my life has become clear.
Danilo Sanchez is the youth minister for Whitehall Mennonite Church, Ripple, and Vietnamese Gospel in the Allentown, PA area. For more about Danilo’s work as an urban youth minister check out his blog post for The Gathering Place.
In the early 90s, a popular children’s television game show called “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” was broadcast on PBS. The show was based on a series of computer games designed to help viewers sharpen their geography skills.
In Franconia Conference, you could ask a similar question—“Where in the world is Steve Kriss?”—and in the process, learn many wonderful things about people and congregations of Franconia Conference. You’ll need a map of the east coast of the United States to trace Steve’s travels; geographical stretch, in Steve’s case, is an understatement.
Steve carries LEADership minister responsibilities for 12 congregations, located as far north as Vermont and as far south as Georgia. Currently, four of the congregations are in pastoral search processes, and another is working on a pastoral review. Steve’s goal is to nurture healthy relationships with all the congregations he walks alongside.
Next, watch for the locations of new congregations. Steve is often involved with helping them to launch their ministries and build connections in the conference and denomination.
“It’s a privilege to walk with them. I enjoy the energy and enthusiasm they bring to God’s work,” Steve says. Right now, Steve works with three new congregations emerging in South Philly.
Some of the congregations Steve works with are in the same area, such as the Lehigh Valley trio of Whitehall Mennonite Church, Ripple and Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church.
“Networking, creativity, and thinking outside the box are some of Steve’s greatest gifts,” says Rose Bender, pastor of the Whitehall congregation. “He’s always asking, ‘What might God be doing here? ‘How can we dream God’s vision?’ He sees the big picture and helps us make vital connections. Each conference staff person has a niche and expertise to offer us. These are the things our congregation appreciates about our relationship with Steve.”
At the new conference center on the campus of Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, Steve serves with the conference board’s ministerial committee as its staff person. This group guides the licensing and ordaining processes for new ministers and cares for credential transfers when ministers move in and out of the conference. The committee also provides continuing education for credentialed leaders. In this role, Steve also provides coordination among the LEADership ministers.
On the road again, Steve preaches usually twice a month around the conference, and handles all manner of inquiries about congregational leadership.
If you watch closely, you might find young adults and new pastors “on location” with Steve. Mentoring is an important part of cultivating leaders for the church. You will find him teaching in a classroom for Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s satellite classrooms in Philadelphia, Norristown, or Souderton. Sometimes his many travels double as field trips.
Look behind the scenes, too. As director of the conference’s communication team, Steve’s travels around the conference inform the planning and writing for Intersectings (the conference e-zine), Intersections (the newsletter), the conference’s website and other communication tools. The goal is to help make connections in the conference, and raise awareness of what is happening conference-wide.
In any given week, Steve may be found in enough places to highlight in a half-hour game show from Blooming Glen, Pennsylvania to Bridgewater Corners, Vermont or Sky Cafe in South Philly. But these travels mean more than that; they’re part of cultivating God’s dream in all of the places the people of Franconia conference live, work and worship.
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.
What comes to mind when you imagine Franconia Conference LEADership ministers and the work they do? You may be surprised to know that the new conference office at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School is probably not the place to find them, although a phone call there will certainly get you connected.
Steve Kriss, Jenifer Eriksen Morales, Aldo Siahaan, John Bender, Noel Santiago, and Ertell Whigham are always on the go. Each one connects with anywhere from three to 12 congregations in Vermont, northern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley, southeastern Pennsylvania, and Georgia. They give much time and energy to congregations in transition and emerging congregations. An estimated 50 percent of conference congregations are in the midst of transition and/or growth.
Pastoral leadership is a common transition. Some congregations choose to work with an intentional interim pastor who stands in the gap and prepares the congregation to receive a new pastor. The LEAD ministers provide guidance for both search processes, and support elders and lay leaders in managing the congregation’s current and future priorities.
Jenifer Eriksen Morales, minister of transitional ministries, also works with other Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) conferences on the east coast to train intentional interim pastors, and serves on the MCUSA task force for interim pastoral ministries.
Emerging and growing congregations are another focus. These congregations are high maintenance, but in a very good way. LEAD ministers help to address staffing needs, work with pastors who are new to the Anabaptist faith, and build relationships—in essence, anything that propels the missional vision forward.
The work of the LEAD ministers sometimes crisscrosses when their congregations work together. The Lehigh Valley youth ministry partnership is shared by the Whitehall, Ripple and Vietnamese Gospel congregations and led by Danilo Sanchez. Vietnamese Gospel Church in Allentown and Philadelphia Praise Center are partnering in a joint worship and outreach ministry with the Vietnamese community in south Philly. The LEAD ministers must also nurture their relationships with each other so their collaborations are fluid and fruitful.
Last summer, Aldo Siahaan and Steve Kriss received a “Macedonia call” (Acts 16:9-10). Could they meet with a Mara (Burmese) church during their visit with Georgia Praise Center leaders? This congregation in Atlanta is part of a network of Mara churches in Indianapolis, Indiana, Baltimore, Maryland, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The network is reaching out to Mennonite conferences on the east coast for assistance in establishing pastoral leadership. The exploratory relationship has many possibilities.
“As an immigrant pastor myself, it’s exciting to walk with the Mara Christians, to see them reach their destiny as a people, a church in this country,” says Aldo. “If they choose to join Mennonite Church USA, how will we receive each other and grow in ministry together?”
Each LEAD minister offers her or his unique gifts to their congregations. Noel enjoys helping pastors, elders and lay leaders experience the values and practices of intercessory prayer. Jenifer weaves in a missional focus with unchurched neighbors, adapted from the Kairos in Chaos ministry she’s involved with in Souderton. Aldo enjoys a natural affinity with the Mara church through their similar languages of Indonesian and Malay. Steve and Ertell always bring best practices of intercultural competencies to the mix.
Looking for your congregation’s LEAD minister? She or he may be in a meeting, consulting with pastors or elders in a coffee shop, or in a car on the way to your church.
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 the minister of worship.
by Luke Martin, Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church
In June, security police attacked a Mennonite church gathering in Vietnam, where pastors and theological students were gathered for a conference and graduation ceremony. The event took place north of Ho Chi Minh City, at the Evangelical Mennonite Church, a congregation not officially registered in Vietnam. This past week, members of that church arrived as refugees in Allentown.
Police arrived at the church at 11 p.m. local time, after attendees were asleep on mats laid out on the floor. Police called for two people to open the door for an “administrative investigation,” and a few minutes later, they broke down the door, turned on the lights, and stormed the building, assaulting students and church leaders. Those attending—76 in total—were led to waiting trucks, taken to the local police station, and booked, though no arrest warrants were produced nor any reason given for the beatings and arrests. Police searched the premises, destroying some property in the process, and there are reports that police incited onlookers to throw stones at the church, breaking windows and roof tiles. Church leaders estimated the size of the crowd was around 300 people.
All of those arrested were released by the next morning, but attacks on the building—throwing bricks, stones and rotten eggs—continued for several days, and those coming to the center were searched and had property confiscated. Electricity and water were cut in the area, affecting other neighbors as well. One pastor was charged with resisting administrative investigation and local disorderly conduct.
Church leaders are petitioning authorities and have laid five charges against the local police.
Incidents like this were more common in Vietnam as recently as ten years ago, but Vietnam’s government, wanting better international relations, has improved its record on human rights and religious freedom. One of the two groups that make up Vietnam’s Mennonite community was granted official status in 2008; it became an official member of Mennonite World Conference in 2009. Both groups have around 5,000 members each and have adopted the Mennonite Confession of Faith.
Still, stories of arrests, beatings, destruction of property, and other violence against Mennonites have been common. In 2004, one pastor was arrested and convicted on charges of preventing a police office from carrying out activities, a common charge used against religious leaders. That pastor was sentenced to three years in prison bur released after 14 months after an international appeal for his release.
And receiving official status as a church in Vietnam isn’t easy: churches must have been in existence for 20 years before they can request legal status, meaning churches must function illegally for some time. New congregations can request permission from local authorities to meet; sometimes they get it, sometimes not. When local authorities aren’t pleased with leaders or the activities of churches—whether registered or unregistered—they often resort to harassment.
The family that came to Allentown has been recognized as refugees by the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees. Nhan Thanh Nguyen, his wife Ngoc Ha Than and their daughter, who celebrated her sixth birthday last week, are members of the Evangelical Mennonite Church, where Nhan Thanh Nguyen took courses on the Bible and theology, led the youth group, and preached. He was repeatedly arrested and harassed, and he and his family fled to Thailand in 2011 where they were granted refugee status, and where Nhan Thanh Nguyen continued to minister and preach to Christian refugees in Bangkok.
Pastor Hien Truong, of Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church in Allentown, sponsored the family to come to the United States, through Lutheran Children & Family Services of Allentown.
Parts of this article were first published by Mennonite World Conference, and you can read the full article here. Reposted with permission.
Many Christian congregations commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday, and three Franconia Conference congregations in particular acknowledged the Spirit’s movement through the credentialing of leaders for ministry.
On June 8, all occurring in southeastern Pennsylvania, Donna Merow was ordained and Danilo Sanchez and Phil Bergey were licensed for ministry. Their credentialing brings the number of credentialed leaders in the conference to approximately 160 men and women serving in at least seven states and four countries.
Merow was ordained for pastoral ministry at the Ambler congregation, where she has pastored for more than four years. LEAD minister Jenifer Eriksen Morales led Merow’s credentialing. Merow chose to be ordained on Pentecost Sunday after discovering she was confirmed in the United Methodist church on Pentecost 40 years prior.
“The 40-year journey from one public confession of faith to another,” Merow said, “has been a significant one for me — including marriage and becoming a mother and grandmother, completing college and graduate work, worshipping in multiple traditions other than the one in which I grew up, and facing the challenges of breast cancer and kidney disease.”
Merow was only 12 when the possibility of religious vocation was first suggested to her. Between now and then, she “worked at a church camp, dropped out of college, cared for blind students, got married, and raised two daughters.” She has also been an active participant in churches from several denominations: Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Mennonite.
She described her credentialing ceremony as “an outward acknowledgement of an inward change in identity as I became a pastor in the process of practicing pastoral care.”
Sanchez was licensed for youth ministry among multiple Anabaptist congregations in and around Allentown. LEAD minister Steve Kriss led the credentialing. Sanchez is primarily working with Whitehall and Ripple, both Franconia congregations, by leading music or teaching children, but is also working alongside Karen Fellowship (independent), Iglesia Menonita Evangelica Restoracion (Lancaster Conference), Christ Fellowship (Eastern District Conference), and Vietnamese Gospel (Franconia Conference).
Sanchez said his licensing felt like an important personal and professional step because many people and institutions, including Franconia Conference and Whitehall, “are recognizing my gifts and willing to walk alongside me as a pastor.” Sanchez, grew up in the Boyertown congregation and has interned with both Souderton congregation and Philadelphia Praise Center while a student at Eastern University. He graduated from Eastern Mennonite Seminary last year with a Master of Divinity degree.
“I finally feel like a pastor,” he said. “I am so honored that God has called me to be a leader. I’m thankful for the ways that Whitehall and Ripple will shape me into the leader God has called me to be.”
Bergey was licensed as interim lead pastor of the Blooming Glen congregation, where he has been a member for about 20 years. Ertell Whigham, executive minister of Franconia Conference, led the credentialing. Bergey is former conference executive of Franconia Mennonite Conference.
In the wake of Firman Gingerich’s resignation as Blooming Glen’s lead pastor, the congregation’s board invited Bergey to assume a part-time interim lead pastorate. The congregation is searching for a long-term pastor.
Bergey preached the morning of his licensing, focusing on the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12. He framed the commencement of his pastoral leadership and the pastoral search processes not as the beginning of a journey but the continuation of a journey. That journey, he said, includes the history of the Blooming Glen congregation, the Anabaptist tradition, and the Christian church, going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.
Bergey said: “Blooming Glen, like other congregations, has been through pastoral transitions before; it is simply part of a congregation’s life together. And pastoral transitions are especially true for a congregation that is approaching 300 years of age.”
HARLEYSVILLE, Pa. – Some of the most diverse growth in Anabaptism along the East Coast is occurring in Allentown, Pennsylvania’s fastest growing city and now a city that is majority Hispanic. Even so, none of the city’s broad range of Anabaptist congregations has enough resources or even youth to maintain a youth pastor. That’s why Franconia Conference, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) East Coast, and six Lehigh Valley congregations have come together to hire a half-time youth worker, Danilo Sanchez, to minister across the various Anabaptist communities.
Through this role, Sanchez, who graduated this spring from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va., is involved regularly with a diverse combination of congregations unlike those served by just about any other Anabaptist minister in the U.S.: Karen Fellowship, Iglesia Menonita Evangelica Restoracion, Christ Fellowship, Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church, Whitehall Mennonite Church, and Ripple. Franconia Conference, MCC East Coast, Whitehall, and Ripple share financial support of the position.
Sanchez is primarily responsible for organizing gatherings for Lehigh Valley youth, leading worship at the Whitehall and Ripple congregations, organizing after-school youth activities, and engaging the myriad Lehigh Valley Anabaptist congregations.
“I’m excited to join the vision of creating a context where next-generation intercultural Anabaptist leadership can flourish and strengthening relationships across Anabaptist communities in the Allentown area,” Sanchez said. “While I have experience working with youth in many types of Mennonite churches, this will be a new challenge. I never expected myself to be in urban ministry, but that seems to be where God is calling me, and I’m willing to follow the Spirit’s call in my life.”
Youth have a reputation for being an especially challenging demographic for people in ministry, and Sanchez’s experience in Allentown will likely be no different. The youth of Whitehall and Ripple, though few, come from challenging, high-need situations, including coming to Allentown as refugees and being born into cycles of poverty, according to Whitehall pastor Rose Bender, who is Sanchez’s supervisor. “As a part-time pastor,” she said, “I am already feeling stretched beyond what I can give. So, the idea of adding a youth worker that would connect with Whitehall as well as some of the other congregations is very exciting.”
The partnership of so many groups and congregations makes sense to Bender. She noted that many people from Whitehall and Ripple in particular are neighbors, and some people worship with both groups. The connection with Franconia Conference and MCC East Coast, she said, is yet another example that people “are looking for ways to connect here and make a difference.” Many congregations already partner with Ripple by cooking meals or sending youth groups to work with children in the city.
Angela Moyer, co-pastor of Ripple, wants all different types of people feel like they are welcomed and wanted in the Ripple community, and she hopes Sanchez’s leadership will help Ripple work toward that.
“Danilo has a deep compassion for youth who typically are on the margins in their schools, families, and communities,” she said. “With Danilo, the teenagers at Ripple hopefully will find a place where they belong, are nurtured, and supported in their specific life stage.”
Thanh Pham, a pastor from Vietnamese Gospel, echoed Moyer’s hope that Sanchez will help youth to flourish. Pham said he prays the youth’s parents will “see our community as a place they can trust to send their children to learn more about God.”
A partnership between MCC and local congregations isn’t commonplace, though it does exist elsewhere. Sanchez’s position is one that “resonates deeply” with ongoing MCC work related to youth, urban ministry, collaboration with churches representing diverse ethnic backgrounds, and leadership development, said Kim Dyer, young adult program coordinator of MCC East Coast. “We are excited to be able to respond to an initiative coming from the church in a local context that connects so deeply to MCC’s areas of focus.”
“This new collaboration is a creative way to build on both strengths and possibilities,” said Steve Kriss, director of leadership cultivation for Franconia Conference. “Danilo has been shaped through numerous points of engagement within Franconia Conference. This work provides space for something new to emerge alongside the congregations of the Lehigh Valley. We’re grateful for the opportunity to work together through MCC’s Community Service Worker initiative.”
Sanchez, who is also working half time at MCC as national director for their Summer Service Worker program, said what makes him most excited and hopeful about the new position is that he can serve alongside the next generation of Anabaptist leaders who God is raising up.
“I don’t know what the church will look like, but I trust that the Spirit is leading and at work in the lives of these young people in Allentown,” he said.
I hate the cold. I mean, really hate the cold. Sure, snow is beautiful resting on the barn roof or lightly coating the hedge, but when it’s on my car, the road, or me, enough is enough.
I’ve found myself this winter dreaming about moving to Hawaii. I’ve never been to Hawaii, but on TV it looks like the sun is always shining and a gentle ocean breeze always keeps it at a comfortable temperature for flip-flops and shorts. They don’t have winter in Hawaii. That sounds just about perfect to me.
I can’t imagine life in C.S. Lewis’ fictional land of Narnia, held captive by an evil queen’s spell, always winter (and never Christmas). It was an unchanging reality, the way it had always been and the way it always would be. I wonder how they must have felt when they saw their home beginning to thaw, when green grass began to emerge from the melting snow, rivers began rushing, trees began blooming, and the chill in the air was replaced by a breeze that smelled of soil and warmth.
And then, how must they have felt their first winter after the land’s rightful king, Aslan, won back the kingdom? Did the first snowflake send a chill up their spines? Did the first winter’s frost send them into a panic—oh, no, not this again? Because Aslan didn’t bring eternal spring to replace the eternal winter; instead, he put the world right, returning Narnia to the rhythm of seasons.
Last Sunday, I joined the Vietnamese Gospel congregation in Allentown, Pa. for their annual Tet (New Year) celebration. Among Scripture readings and songs welcoming the rain and possibilities of a new year, Pastor Hien and his wife Nga performed a song called, “Only Jesus Brings the Spring.” I was struck by this simple statement of faith, a reminder that Jesus, through whom the world was created, set our seasons in motion.
And how wonderful that the Vietnamese Tet occurred the Sunday before Lent this year! Lent (which means “spring” or, literally, the “lengthening of days”), begins with ashes and ends with lilies, a reminder that this season will pass and a new, glorious season is on its way, a season that only Jesus can bring.
Seasons and change aren’t necessarily a bad thing. On a very fundamental level, they remind us that whatever we’re going through, however challenging our life is, whatever seems impossible or insurmountable, this, too, shall pass. Just as the people of Narnia heard the trickle of melting snow and murmured in awe, “Aslan is on the move!” we, too, see signs of change in our lives and know that Jesus is lengthening our days, bringing spring to our winter, offering the promise of resurrection and the hope of a world that one day will be made right again.
Seasons change. Continual spring or summer could end up feeling as confining as the snow and cold of winter. Just as winter prepares the land for the fruitfulness of planting and harvest, the challenging seasons of our lives shape our character and prepare us for what’s coming next. Seasons of rest prepare us for seasons of action. Seasons of learning prepare us for seasons of teaching. Seasons of pain prepare us for seasons of strength.
Seasons change. This Lent, I’m giving up my longing for Hawaii and looking ahead to the promise of a spring that only Jesus can bring.
The Mennonite Church USA congregations in Pennsylvania’s third largest city hadn’t to anyone’s recollection gathered for worship together until Sunday, January 29, at the Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church. The four diverse communities—Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church, Whitehall Mennonite Church and Ripple all associated with Franconia Conference and Christ Fellowship, an Eastern District Conference congregation—met together to celebrate Tet (Vietnamese New Year) through an eclectic multilingual worship that featured singing in three languages, Scripture reading in six languages, and storytelling from each congregation on the theme of God’s abundance in a time of scarcity.
Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church pastor Hien Truong welcomed those gathered, explaining, “Vietnamese New Year is a marking of springtime. It’s a time of new growth and a special time of asking forgiveness and moving into new ways of building relationships.” While planned by a team from the four congregations, the gathered worship took on a Vietnamese flair with scripture blessings distributed to adults and traditional li xi gifts ($2 bills in red envelopes) for children. Afterward, the congregations enjoyed a carry-in meal that was held together around Vietnamese New Year foods.
According to Rose Bender, pastor at Whitehall Mennonite who also helped plan the gathered worship, “The worship service was such a joyous occasion for me because of the great diversity of God’s kingdom that was represented. It was a foreshadowing of heaven—all nations, all tribes—declaring God’s glory! . . . I am so excited to see what God is doing in the Lehigh Valley—and encouraged by four small congregations coming together and proclaiming God’s bounty as we face a new year.”
Allentown, PA—New Franconia Conference pastors experienced life in the city on May 14 as their Formation Class took them into the heart of Allentown. The day included Bible study at the Zume House, a prayer walk through the neighborhood where Ripple ministers, a meal with the Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church, and an afternoon discussion on crossing borders.
Formation Classes are required for every newly credentialed pastor in Franconia Conference as well as those who are new to ministering within Franconia Conference congregations. This class’ trip to Allentown reflects a return to the traditional function of the Formation Class—to orient new pastors to the Franconia Conference story. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” said Gay Brunt Miller, coordinator of the School for Leadership Formation. “Being there is so much better than sitting in a conference room hearing about it. It’s the full sensory experience.”
The day began with a time of reflection and discussion at Zume House, an intentional community birthed out of Whitehall Mennonite congregation. Zume’s Rose Bender and Samantha Lioi shared about their vision of being yeast in their neighborhood (“Zume” is Greek for “yeast”). It’s a process that takes time and an image that challenged the pastors about their own contexts. “It means that church is going into the community,” pondered Tim Moyer, pastor of Vincent Mennonite Church at Spring City, PA. “Am I equipping my congregation to be yeast in our community?”
A highlight of the day was the prayer walk, led by Ripple pastors Tom and Carolyn Albright. “I saw how the Lord is doing a new thing,” said Ubaldo Rodriguez who leads Nueva Esperanza—Baltimore. “We heard each other’s stories, listened to a new generation’s dreams and hopes.” Among their stops was Franklin Park, where Allentown Mennonites recently “planted” a peace pole, and a Thai restaurantwhere Peter, the owner, spoke about doing business in the city. Connie Detwiler, associate pastor of Lakeview Mennonite in Susquehanna, PA, was particularly moved by Peter’s witness. “He was a light in a very dark place,” she reflected. “I felt the presence of God there.”
The pastors were warmly welcomed to share lunch with members of the Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church. Pastor Hien Truong worked as a leader in the persecuted church and with human rights law in Vietnam and Cambodia before he was forced to flee to the US. He asked his colleagues to remember his people in their prayers: “The Lord has been noticing our small congregation and caring for us.”
Luke Martin, former missionary to Vietnam and long-term Allentown resident, shared about his life of “border-crossings.” “I went there as a missionary, I came back as a missionary,” he explained. It only seemed natural to continue his mission work in Allentown, a place he’s called home for over 30 years. Much has changed in that time, but he still thrives in being a part of God’s work.
“The big changes and border-crossings in his life were from mustard seeds of faith,” Fuller Theological Seminary student and guest Joe Paparone of Saratoga, New York, reflected as he listened to Luke’s story. “We have to trust those mustard seeds of faith.”
And these border-crossings surround us in our own neighborhoods and within our relationships in Franconia Conference. John Goshow, Conference Moderator, and Ertell Whigham, Conference Executive Minister, led a conversation on the Conference’s work to be formational, intercultural, and missional. “We need to be able to articulate this in our own particular contexts,” explained Whigham. The group was particularly interested in what it meant to be intercultural. “I am glad that the Mennonite Church in the US and Canada is inviting other voices from the global south,” said Rodriguez, originally from Colombia. “We need each other!”
Going to Allentown allowed leaders to engage with and learn from their peers in a practical way, said Steve Kriss, Director of Leadership Cultivation for Franconia Conference. “We were offered the opportunity to be in a place that is not only historically significant in the missional journey of Franconia Conference but also where the Spirit is stirring up new things.”