Individual articles from the Fall 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.
Connection is a core human need and connecting people has been at the core of MCC’s work over the past century. Connecting people has its roots in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his example of living among us to break down barriers. As the author to the letter to the church in Ephesus writes: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14, NRSV). When Orie Miller and Clayton Katz traveled to southern Russia (now Ukraine) in 1920 to visit Mennonite brothers and sisters in need, they were making connections on opposite sides of the Atlantic. This inter-Anabaptist connection was the beginning of an institution that has linked churches and communities around the globe through service workers, exchange programs and volunteers.
The connecting piece of MCC’s work, however, was institutionally strengthened through MCC’s experiences and work in Central America in the eighties and nineties. During this time of disasters (earthquakes and hurricanes), violence (conflicts and war) and U.S. intervention, MCC organized many learning tours, work-and-learn teams and south-south exchanges. Some were oriented toward helping with a specific construction project and others toward education and advocacy, but they shared the goal of building understanding and relationships between people and churches in the Americas.
Connecting people activities sometimes proved challenging: for example, not everyone coming to clean up after a disaster or build houses as part of a work-and-learn team was eager for the “learning” component or for making connections. MCC had to invest time and resources before, during and after exchange events in order to ensure that they would be mutually transformative, respecting the skills and agency of local communities and thus making a broad and lasting impact. Together with other MCC staff, I helped create a “Connecting Peoples Manual” in 2003 that offered resources for team leaders and MCC staff as they facilitated connections that would foster solidarity and transformation through experiential education.
Unexpected moments of transformation upended expectations of who gives and who receives. For example, when the first work-and-learn team came to Guatemala to help “build houses” for widows in the Rut and Nohemi group, no one knew exactly what this would involve. The group from Canada worked hard before the trip to raise money for the houses and worked even harder for two weeks carrying cement blocks and sand from the church at the top of the mountain to the building site at the bottom. Before they left, the widows gifted them with a wonderful meal, a weaving and their gratitude. Through tears, they thanked the group in Quiché for doing the work their husbands and sons would have done had they still been alive—that is, if they had not been killed or disappeared during the years of violence. Through tears, the pastor’s wife spoke their words in Spanish and through more tears I spoke them in English. Everyone had given and everyone had received.
In my experience facilitating these learning tours, most people involved agreed that the connections formed through the tours were positive. Participants built relationships as well as houses and often broke down stereotypes in the process. Hosts and visitors learned about the “other’s” culture as well as about their own. Many in Central America felt supported by these learning tours. Learning tour participants were inspired to share what they had seen and heard with congressional representatives and churches, participate on local refugee committees, start sister church relationships or begin treating their Hispanic co-workers and neighbors differently.
By the time MCC revised the “MCC Principles that Guide Our Mission” statement in 1999, connecting people had become acknowledged as an integral part of MCC’s mission. “MCC serves as a channel of interchange by building relationships that are mutually transformative,” MCC’s board declared, stating that a key priority for MCC was to facilitate “interchange and mutual learning between its supporting constituency and those with whom we work around the world, so that all may give and receive.”
With connecting people becoming a key priority, structures expanded within MCC that supported connecting peoples work, while country programs began adding staff dedicated to supporting learning exchanges. These connecting peoples staff routinely facilitated learning tours and work-and-learn teams while also facilitating longer-term exchanges through MCC’s eleven-month service and learning programs for young adults (SALT, IVEP and YAMEN).
Challenges and questions abound with most learning exchanges, whether they last for two weeks or two years. MCC has worked hard to address the difficult issues of mutuality, inequality and money. While not perfect, the emphasis MCC places on relationships and learning in these exchanges distinguishes these programs from many typical short-term missions experiences.
At their core, connecting experiences are opportunities for change and transformation. In our contemporary world marked by militarized borders, discrimination and hostility, we need encounters, solidarity and education more than ever. Such exchanges are key to changing our world views—our understandings of ourselves, other people, the world and God. They are key to personal and systemic transformation. We need MCC to continue to provide opportunities that help us look at new issues and places, listen to different voices, learn from each other and live in ways that create a more just, humane, sustainable and peaceful world.
Elaine Zook-Barge is a trauma and resilience educator. From 1984 to 1998, she worked with MCC in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, while from 1999 to 2005 she served as Latin America connecting peoples coordinator, MCC East Coast peace and justice associate and MCC representative at Eastern Mennonite University
MCC’s young adult service programs and the church’s witness
When visiting Anabaptist church leaders in various countries around the world, one routinely encounters people who share that they had participated in one of MCC’s young adult service programs, such as the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) or the Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN). These MCC young adult service and exchange programs have not only equipped young adults with leadership skills—they have helped stoke passions for the church and its mission, enriching the church through mutual exchange and strengthening the church by building up future leaders. Here are reflections from some church leaders about the impact MCC’s young adult programs had on their understanding of the church and its witness.—The editors.
Serving in Goshen, Indiana
My church experience has been one of opportunities—opportunities to develop skills, use my gifts, learn and serve. One of those opportunities came during the summers of 2002 and 2003, when I got to experience MCC for the first time through the MCC U.S. Summer Service program, a program that partners with communities of color and immigrant congregations to give young adults opportunities to serve their communities and strengthen their leadership capabilities while earning reasonable wages.
At that time, I was a student in Goshen College’s Hispanic Ministries department, attending Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor, in Goshen, Indiana. Our congregation was a mix of Goshen College students, factory workers and Spanish-speaking professors from Goshen College. In total, we represented 13 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Our resources were very limited to support our pastor or to carry out any church outreach projects. The MCC Great Lakes office approached our congregation and asked if we were interested in participating in the Summer Service program. My opportunities for work during that summer were very limited and the offer from MCC presented a new and exciting opportunity. I had known about MCC’s work for a few years and had admired its focus on peace and justice. I had also wished to work with MCC at some point, so the invitation to be a part of an MCC program was extremely exciting.
I carried out several projects during my Summer Service assignments. They varied from organizing youth programs, building a church library, completing several maintenance projects in the church building, helping with vacation bible school and raising $7,000 for our youth group to attend the MC USA Convention in Atlanta in 2003—that last one meant organizing several garage sales, fundraiser meals and more. Not only did Summer Service give me the chance to help further my congregation’s mission, it also helped me build my leadership skills.
The biggest impact of Summer Service on my life and on my understanding of the church’s mission, however, goes beyond the projects I was able to implement during my service or the leadership skills I acquired. During the Summer Service orientation in Akron, Pennsylvania, I felt a part of something larger, a bigger family, a worldwide church community that cared about poverty, racism, immigration, peace and justice and people of color, while at the same time passionate about the issues and challenges that our local church was facing. That week in Akron was my first introduction to theological ways to think critically about issues of justice confronting U.S. society, learning about inequities in the criminal justice system, efforts to promote restorative justice, the importance of striving for gender equity and more. I received an extended vision of mission, mission that cares about souls, but that also cares about how we live our lives, mission that strives for liberated communities, mission that addresses the root causes of the challenges our communities face. My view of church mission expanded to include advocacy to government. My commitment to working for the church was strengthened and my interest in peace and justice work within the church found a place where I could learn and explore more. By this time, I knew I wanted to work for the church, but I knew I did not want to be a pastor. Working those two summers with MCC’s Summer Service program allowed me to dream about new ways to serve within the church. I was given new lenses to see the church and to discern how I might join in God’s mission through the church.
In 2008, as I was finishing my studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, I was tapped on the shoulder by someone at Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor to apply for the MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator position, a position through which I have been privileged to serve the church for twelve years. In my work today with MCC, I continuously feel the sense of belonging to a global church, remembering the gratitude and excitement that I felt during my Summer Service days. I am grateful for the opportunity given then and now to develop my leadership skills, to serve the church, to work for peace and justice and to be a part of God’s mission through development, relief and peace in the name of Christ.
Saulo Padilla is immigration education coordinator for MCC U.S.
From Canada to Brazil
I will admit at the outset that there is a strong probability that my recollections and rememberings of my SALT experience are tinged with a golden hue of times past that makes everything seem better than it truly was. Through a series of highly improbable, though I would daresay providential, events in my life, I found myself as part of a team of five young adults headed to Brazil in 1993-94 to serve with MCC. That year of voluntary service was a turning point in my life which has led to a lifelong call into pastoral ministry as well as an abiding appreciation for rice and black beans.
In my late teens I had found it increasingly difficult to reconcile my understanding of faith in Jesus and what I saw in the scriptures with my experience of the local church. Perhaps it was in part my own youthful rebelliousness, but it seemed to me that people were more concerned with dogmatic expressions of doctrine and moralistic judgment than in emulating Christ. As I found the opportunity over the next few years and as I became more independent, I began to distance myself from the church and eventually ceased my involvement with Christian fellowship altogether.
Rather than leading to a spiritual life of freedom and greater depth, I instead found myself in a deepening well of spiritual malaise and aimlessness. Knowing that I desperately needed a change of circumstances, I grasped at the possibility of a year abroad as a participant in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program. It didn’t matter to me where I went or what I would be doing—I just needed to get away! By God’s grace (and MCC’s help) I ended up going exactly where I needed to be.
Aside from the lifelong friendships and cultural appreciation that I gained in my SALT year, the greatest gift I received was the experience of true fellowship in the context of a church community. Although many of the same troubling issues were present in Brazil and the doctrinal stance was in fact considerably more conservative than in my home church community, the depth of relationship and mutuality I experienced there awakened a new understanding of what church could be.
One example of this deeper fellowship was how the church functioned as the centre for community life and relationships. At first I was slightly annoyed with how often we went to the church in those first few months. Then I began to realize that we often ended up at the church or in someone’s home even when there were no youth programs, prayer meetings or Bible studies to attend. These people wanted to be together—all the time! This lived reality of the church was not even primarily about requisite religious activities. This kind of church was about living a shared life in which the entirety of the human condition was meant to be experienced within the mutuality of spiritual friendship.
Some may say it is simply the product of a warm culture in contrast to the relative coldness of North American relationships. Others might suggest that when people have so few resources, then reliance on community for support is a natural outcome. I believe that there must be more to it than that. What I do know is that something within my spirit was transformed by my experience of that Brazilian church community in loving fellowship with one another. And as a result, I fell in love again with the possibility that the church is the most profound expression of the Kingdom of God.
Carl Heppner is pastor at Fort Garry MB Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Serving in Atlanta
If I were to describe my experience in MCC’s Summer Service program in one word, it would be unforgettable. In the summer of 2016, I received the opportunity to work as an intern at Berea Mennonite Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Until then, my journey to continue my education was full of closed doors, including difficulty securing an internship, until the Summer Service program opened its doors to me. Summer Service gave me the opportunity to travel outside the state to Pennsylvania and spend an entire week with amazing individuals who wanted change and to leave a positive impact on their communities. The training week ended with a talent night with poetry and singing that united us in the struggle of survival, the struggle of moving forward towards a brighter future.
At Berea Mennonite Church, I helped with the Peace and Carrots program, where we taught campers peacebuilding skills and about important leaders in civil rights movements. My role as a camp director was to guide volunteers through the daily tasks that needed to be accomplished around the church. During that summer, we laid out a concrete floor and set up a fence. The most interesting thing about Berea Mennonite Church is that it is not only a church, but also a farm that is family to chickens, a pig, goats and sheep. Being surrounded by the daily work of a farm connected me with the land and the importance of not taking it for granted. Pastor John taught me that cultivating the land is the same as cultivating your spirit, your soul. If you irrigate a plant and provide it with the right nutrients to grow, the result is an amazing plant that will provide good fruit. The same concept applies to your spiritual growth—the more you learn about God, the more powerful your connection with God becomes. Having a strong connection with God helps you impact the world and look at everyone as your brothers and sisters.
My work at Berea Mennonite was energizing, but the most important thing for me was that I got to connect the volunteers with the struggles of undocumented people. I tried my best to explain how the undocumented community is affected by different policies that have banned undocumented students from higher education. I sought to spur conversations about how the church community could get involved in the fight against injustice. It was difficult to transmit this message, but I still gave it my best shot. One day, campers in the Peace and Carrots program surprised me when I gave them a small introduction on immigration. They were full of many questions and declarations like “I love my Mexican friends, I don’t want them to go”—showing me that children do not know borders, but only love for one another. The Peace and Carrots campers came from hard environments, but they still smiled and lived life to the fullest. They reminded me that it does not matter how hard life becomes, because there is still time to smile.
Geovani Serrano served with the Berea Mennonite Church in Georgia through the MCC U.S. Summer Service Program.
From the Republic of Korea to the United States
Over the course of my year with IVEP, I met many people who served in the name of Christ. Before IVEP, I thought about mission as something one does if one has enough time or money. I made excuses about not being engaged in mission, because my understanding of mission was too limited. However, after serving through IVEP, my understanding about service and mission changed. I came to see mission and service as followers of Jesus sharing with others whatever abilities and talents that God has given us wherever we are.
When I returned to the Republic of Korea from IVEP, I was committed to serving as God’s instrument of peace in my Korean context, dedicating my talents to God’s work. I sought to be God’s instrument of peace. My writings about my IVEP year and about women active in the peace movement are being published serially in Korean-language Catholic magazines. Readers have been particularly interested in my reflections on experiences with the Amish. In my current work with a Catholic publisher, I strive to live out a life of mission, sharing the words of the Lord of life.
Serving through IVEP has inspired me to be more active in working and witnessing for peace in Korea. I learned about MCC workers in Laos, Vietnam and DPRK (North Korea) who work tirelessly to bind up the wounds of war and to promote peace. I have seen MCC embody mission in the name of Christ, working across Christian denominations and for all people. Moved by MCC’s example, I have dedicated myself to writing and to public speaking for peace and justice, calling people to make peace part of their daily lives and their understandings of mission. Good theories are useless unless they are connected with practice. Our mission must be to serve as God’s instruments, living out in practice the vision of God’s Kingdom. We must reflect: What will we do for peace? Where will we head as we go out in our daily lives in mission?
Now I am part of the global IVEP network. Through my involvement in this network, I have been pushed to ask myself what direction my life will go. I have learned about the painful problems other nations face—what was once distant from me has become close. I have become convinced that all Christians, including myself, are called to work for peace and plant seeds of God’s kingdom. By working for peace and striving for God’s Kingdom, we can picture futures never before imagined.
Eunhee Jang served with IVEP in 2017-2018 as a pastoral intern and life enrichment coordinator at Garden Spot Village in New Holland, Pennsylvania.
From DR Congo to the Republic of Korea
My time with YAMEN in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was a time of service, learning and growth. I taught African history at the Korea Anabaptist Center (KAC) and offered English language instruction to high school students at the Dandelion Community, while also working at a daycare belonging to a KAC church partner.
Most of the Koreans I met through these institutions grew up in a context of a country that had not had significant contact with other cultures until recent decades. I remember the times when people on a train, at church or in other places wanted to shake my hand, simply because I was the very first black person they had ever met.
One time, as I was invited to talk to a group of kids at church on a Sunday morning, I made an illustration to explain how we all are one people in God’s family, no matter the color of our skin. I asked them: “When you bleed, what is the color of your blood”? They answered “red.” I continued asking: “If I were injured, what color you think my blood would be?” They replied “red.” I then asked them: “Why do you think my blood is as red as yours?” A child answered: “We can’t think of blood with a color other than red!” We all paused for one second and I told them: “See, just because I can’t speak Korean or because you don’t look like I do, doesn’t mean we are different; we are all brothers and sisters.” I thought that was a message for little children but, to my surprise, some adults came to thank me after the service for what they thought was an important message for adults to hear as well.
I will never forget one young lady, who was not a Christian and knew nothing about churches but volunteered to be my Korean language instructor. Over the course of our lessons, we learned from one another: I learned about Korean culture through my language classes, and she learned about me, my country and my culture.
The church has no greater mission than bringing people and cultures together to celebrate the wonderful diversity of our creation in God’s image. The reality of intercultural connection goes beyond words: it is lived experience. Programs like YAMEN, SALT and IVEP are the best way to break barriers of cultures, languages and races. Our differences can bring us together and be celebrated. As I said previously, what brings us together as people is stronger than what divides us. YAMEN and other exchange programs are good ways to fight racism and other forms of segregation. People fear strangers either because that is how they were taught or they have not had a chance to live with them and experience the joy of diversity.
Osée Tshiwape, originally from DR Congo, served through MCC’s YAMEN program in 2008-2009 in the Republic of Korea and currently lives in Elkhart, Indiana.
From Puerto Rico to Nigeria
For as long as I can remember, I have heard in the church that the church’s primary mission is to evangelize—to talk to others about the word of God, to preach around the world and to make disciples, as the Great Commission says. In the congregation in which I grew up, I learned the importance of missions, with a focus on teaching the word of God. I dedicated myself to planning mission trips focused on changing lives through preaching the gospel. This understanding of mission that I learned growing up isn’t wrong, but I have come to believe that it misses an essential part of the church’s mission, which is to serve people in need. When I became part of the Mennonite Church in Puerto Rico, I started to see the church’s mission differently and more holistically. I decided to apply to MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program so that I would not only talk about Jesus’ love but also show it. I never thought that the way I learned about the mission of the church would change.
I spent my SALT year working as a nurse in a hospital in Nigeria, assisting about 30 to 40 patients daily. Among the patients we served, many were not Christians. If mission is simply about preaching about God’s love, then was my providing nursing care for Muslims a form of Christian mission? Reflecting on what I was doing further transformed my understanding of Christian mission, a transformation that had started after becoming part of the Mennonite Church in Puerto Rico. I began to understand that perhaps it was necessary for me to put aside what I had learned about mission and to begin to demonstrate God’s love through my profession. The meaning of Jesus’ message to his disciples in Matthew 25, that when they give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, they are doing that for Jesus, became clear to me. To be a witness to my Muslim patients in Nigeria, I had to put aside words in order to be the tool that God would use to show God’s love.
As a church we often focus on buildings, amazing programs and beautiful messages for church members—all of which are of course important! However, during my SALT year I learned that the most crucial mission of the church is to be the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth. Only when we are “the Church that serves” can we fulfill the Great Commission, showing the Kingdom of God in every wound we heal, so that we can then talk about what Jesus has already begun to do in people’s lives through our actions. Let us remember the words of the Apostle James: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” (James 2:14, NRSV).
Edith Rodriguez worked with SALT in 2017-2018 at the Faith Alive Clinic in Jos, Nigeria.
From Bangladesh to Canada
IVEP split my life into two periods—before IVEP and after IVEP. My identity, my calling and my understanding of the church, mission and service were completely altered by my IVEP experience—for the good.
Without realizing it, I “worked” for years at being perfectly acceptable to God. But during my IVEP year God used the way I was embraced by the communities I lived and served with to reveal the truth. One winter morning, I woke up seized by the thought that all I had to do was to respond to his love. I said yes to Jesus and repented of the years I had spent trying to earn his love. I experienced freedom in my soul and spirit. It was one of the turning points of my spiritual life, one that launched me to serve from a place of love and true identity.
During my IVEP year, I served at two placements in Ontario—the first as a teacher’s assistant to differently-abled students at a public school and the latter as a program assistant at a camp. At the first placement, I learned that it was not always necessary to see the results of my service. I had to obey, surrender and trust that God was using all that I offered for his glory. What I was doing had an eternal impact even if I could not see it. This was a key lesson that helped me overcome homesickness, confusion and the question, “Did I make the right choice by coming here?”
At the second placement, the leaders taught me the importance of being present to God, for out of being present to God would flow a love for and desire to serve others. The leaders taught it and lived it. I learned to view every act of service as a blessing, even if it was cleaning the washrooms or piloting a garden to attract wild deer. It was here in this placement that I understood, for the first time, the importance of identifying with the mission, vision and values of the organization I was serving. This has become a personal value and prayer as I embody these things in my current workplace.
I believed the words in Proverbs 16:3 even though I did not know what God had in store for me post-IVEP. Before IVEP, I only thought of serving in the church. However, I discovered that mission can also happen outside of the church. Through the people I met in Ontario, I realized I wanted to be out in the marketplace, serving the vulnerable by using my skills and abilities. This is what I am doing now; working in a manufacturing business that employs vulnerable people. All the lessons learned during IVEP are bearing fruit in this place and calling.
I can confidently say that people were the main reason for my incredible IVEP experience. I believe mission in cross-cultural settings would be nearly impossible if it were not for the body of Christ offering love and support—and that is exactly what I experienced in IVEP.
Helena Sanbam served with IVEP in Ontario in 2013-2014 at Eden High School and Camp Crossroads.
From India to the United States
The IVEP program had a big influence on my life choices at many levels. First, through IVEP I learned about and experienced the world and the global Mennonite church, meeting many wonderful people from around the world and opening me up to the rich diversity of God’s people. Second, IVEP gave me the opportunity to better understand the people who had come from other parts of the world to serve us in India. From the time I was in high school, I had asked myself: “What is it that makes these missionaries leave their comfort zones to serve others in place like India?” Serving with IVEP pressed me to ask that question about myself.
During my first IVEP assignment, my host family told me that they attended a house church. This was a totally new concept for me. I joined my host family as they gathered with three or four other families to worship together on a rotating basis in their homes. There was no pastor as such, but we together studied the Word of God and tried to learn from our life experiences. We shared how God was being faithful in our lives. Back in India, I worshipped in a big church building with up to 500 other people, so getting used to house church worship was a big adjustment. But I came to love this small group fellowship. I soon realized that in this small group we not only worshiped, studied Bible together and shared, but we also supported and helped each other at the time of need.
This part of my IVEP experience helped me to see the church from a different perspective. I learned that the church should be a place to worship, fellowship and share what we have. I felt that this was not happening sufficiently back in our churches in India. I returned to India with the hope for the church to provide more space for people to share and to support each other. In IVEP, I learned that people are not interested in church politics, but rather want to share and serve in a fruitful manner.
I also learned the importance of as sacrificial lifestyle while in IVEP. My host families, my colleagues and fellow church members witnessed to me by how they were helpful in many ways not only to the people around them but also to the people who are in need. This witness influenced me a lot. I learned to give whatever I have for others and desire to see the same in my people.
My assignment was at a SELFHELP Crafts warehouse (later Ten Thousand Villages). I unloaded shipments and priced and tagged articles from various countries. In the beginning, I asked myself, “What am I doing here? Is this the work I am here for?” As time passed by, I learned to enjoy my time working with other volunteers, from church groups to groups of college students. I listened to stories from old people and shared mine with them. I was inspired by how congregations encouraged their members to volunteer their time to support MCC so that MCC could serve people in need. Every volunteer gave their all in whatever work they were assigned. I was fascinated by their dedication to serve people in the other parts of the world. Living a life for others and thinking about other people in need are the key lessons I learned from my time with IVEP. God had a purpose when He placed me at this site, opening my eyes to how the church in India could be motivated to serve as well.
Vikal Pravin Rao served with IVEP in the 1993-1994 year in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Fresno, California. He lives in Rajnandgaon, Chhattisgarh, India, and serves as executive secretary of the Mennonite Church in India and as director for the Christian Society for Education and Training.