Young adults want peace, family in church
Seven young adults say why they are committed to their congregations and how important it is that they be Mennonite.by Anna Groff
Many worry Mennonite Church USA members are becoming older, and membership is becoming fewer. Here are seven young adults who are committed to their congregations—whether the one they grew up in or one they found after moving to a new city.
Janet Trevino-Elizarraraz, San Antonio (Texas) Mennonite Church, Iglesia Menonita Comunidad de Vida, San Antonio
My family and I have made this choice to attend a Mennonite church for our lives, and we believe God has led us here. My husband and I have fulfilled four of the seven sacraments (I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church). I have attended an evangelical Bible school for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. We have been Roman Catholic and Protestant, not knowing we would finally find our home among the radical reformers.
Unfortunately, with the excitement being a part of this marginalized community, I face difficulty calling myself Mennonite. It’s easy to connect this title to ethnicity and culture. At times I feel uncomfortable because my presence may be seen as imposing or, worse, presuming that they speak to my Mexican-American culture. I hope I’m not alone in hoping Mennonite goes beyond the heritage of Russian or Swiss, a certain music style or potlucks. I hope that when we say we’re Mennonite, our common values are clear and our comfortable lives are challenged daily. I’m looking for a relevant faith, and I believe I have found one—one that upholds peace, community, simplicity, justice, hospitality, service and, ultimately, Jesus as our source of life and reason for living and dying.
From an outsider, the Mennonite faith is truly different and life-changing. After many years of struggling to develop a sound set of beliefs, I’ve found a community that has taught me it isn’t about doctrine but about a way of life. As much as I could have boasted about knowing about Jesus with a degree in Bible and theology, now I can say my life is beginning to reflect my faith walk.
I appreciate the story of Mennonites—a suffering, migrant people risking their lives to follow Jesus and loving their enemies. We have a cloud of witnesses whose faithfulness challenges our complacency. My church reminds me I am not alone in this journey. I miss the sacredness and quiet holiness of the Roman Catholic Church, and I miss the fervor and excitement of my evangelical brothers and sisters, but it is here that I have found Jesus, my wonderful shepherd, as I go.
Mark Diller, Lebanon (Ore.) Mennonite Church
Leading up to my now 30 years of age were several transitional times at which I could have made different decisions, yet I acknowledge the foundational experiences that have influenced my commitment to the Mennonite church. Ironically, my senior undergraduate research was on cultural trends in church attendance, and now I share about my own.
The March 13, 1990, Hesston, Kan., tornado occurred at a key time in my formative years. I saw devastation yet also witnessed what’s possible when God’s people come together to comfort, heal and restore. I observed the compassion of those who gave their time to help with Mennonite Disaster Service. The experience influenced me to do likewise when subsequent tornadoes hit locally, which also reinforced to me that faith needs to be active.
My family, my hometown, Hesston, and experiences at Hesston College provided an environment in which I could grow as a Christian. This environment was a constant in my life until two years after my graduation from Hesston College. In 2000, I moved to Salem, Ore., to marry Denise. This was the first time I was away from my home for any extended period and the first time I needed to make a decision about church. Denise and I quickly decided we needed to engage in a church family. It wasn’t a decision of if but which Mennonite congregation to attend. We attended Lebanon Mennonite, where we were married. We soon became members and were encouraged to use our gifts, which were mostly in music. Then we were called to Service Adventure leadership for two years, and since then I have been an elder.
I don’t have a concrete answer as to why I have remained active in the Mennonite church, but it’s not all by my doing. It’s a combination of experiences, support and encouragement by my congregation and choices to contribute to community. Although church life isn’t always easy, opportunities to grow closer to each other through challenging times are practical reminders of what it means to be a Christian.
Katie Friesen, Lebanon (Ore.) Mennonite Church
While building a relationship with someone, I seek that vital characteristic that can only be described as “being real.” Being real is a growth process that includes lots of love and even some pain. As in the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, the shininess is worn off the surface, and what’s inside is put to the test. It is a love that continues even after the newness wears off.
What does that have to do with our church body? We are a bunch of real, sincere people—no fake “churchiness” required. We treat each other as family, helping each other not just spiritually but during times of difficulty and joy. I love witnessing the congregation’s generosity in raising money for a cause or hearing about farmers helping work another’s fields because that farmer is ill or their equipment is unavailable. I have learned the importance of serving others, a value that makes us stand apart from other congregations.
Our pastor, “Mr. Energy Himself,” Brent Kauffman, is such an approachable and sincere guy. He has a knack for reaching out to people and showing God’s love in a down-to-earth manner. The so-called “senior members” of our church know how to enjoy life. Every generation has something to offer, and I have many role models in this family of believers.
The label “Mennonite” isn’t essential to selecting a church, but the values held by Mennonite churches are what keep me coming back. I do not want to conform to the norms of the world and accept society’s messages. Considering the U.S. political situation, I appreciate being part of a group of people that chooses peace over power. Although I could continue to be a pacifist and not attend a Mennonite church, I like gathering in prayer for peace, like the Bible asks us to do.
Pastor Brent often reminds us to be the hands and feet of Jesus during our daily lives. It seems to me the people who have become my extended family at Lebanon Mennonite accomplish this in remarkable ways. We aren’t perfect, the shininess has worn off over the years, but we still demonstrate an amazing Christlike love for each other.
Roxy Allen, Hyattsville (Md.) Mennonite Church
The first thing I do after starting a new job in a new city is check out the local Mennonite church. The first Sunday I judge three things: Are these people crazy? How was I welcomed? Do I fit in here? If these three things check out, I go back another Sunday. I also take in the sermon, people’s dress and which hymns we sing. If I’m lucky, I will build relationships with people I have things in common with, like career goals or work with Mennonite Central Committee. If I’m really lucky, I’ll form a relationship with the pastor(s) that can be my rock through hard times. So far I’ve been really lucky in both San Francisco and Washington, the two U.S. cities I have lived in since graduating from Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., in 2004.
I developed a mentor-mentee relationship with Sheri Hostetler, the pastor of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco. We met to dream and scheme and even half-started to plan a conference for young adults and their mentors but never got it off the ground. Our notes were drawn up on the paper tablecloths at the local Italian cafe. Maybe the conference will happen eventually, but regardless, the process drew the two of us together. I felt I could talk to her about anything.
I moved to D.C. after two years in San Francisco and found Hyattsville Mennonite Church, a welcoming group. A bunch of us played “full contact” Dutch Blitz on the national mall, which was fun. One of the pastors, Adam Tice, happens to be from my home community in Springs, Pa., and I enjoyed connecting with him by tackling each other over giant Dutch Blitz cards.
Life in your 20s brings so many new challenges—a demanding professional life to manage, supporting yourself financially for the first time, ailing grandparents, new cities, friends and, for some, marriage and children. If I am lucky, which I have been so far, I can find a church that will support me in this decade as I move from city to city to accomplish my goals in life. If I am really lucky, I will continue to find emotionally healthy, self-differentiated pastors who offer me guidance and build relationships. I am figuring out how difficult life can be, so to have a healthy church community to de-stress, gain perspective on life and remember that I am part of God’s great plan has been invaluable.
Leah Rice, Deep Run Mennonite Church East, Perkasie, Pa.
I have called Deep Run Mennonite Church East home for more than 25 years. The congregation at Deep Run East has fostered my spiritual, emotional and educational growth. From Sunday school teachers and Christmas play leaders to fellow youth groupers, volunteer leaders and pastors—Deep Run East has supported me through some of the best and worst times of my life.
Looking back on my time in MYF, I now realize how crucial the social and spiritual outlet was in helping mold me into the person I am. Having a group of friends—all from different area schools and all dealing with the same social pressures while trying to keep God at the center of life—was amazingly reassuring and affirming. Also, the adults in the church offered their answers to difficult life and spiritual questions. It’s my personal commitment to help spread the word of God and his grace through my membership and volunteerism at Deep Run East. I want to pass along the same values and unconditional love I experienced.
So many know so little about the Mennonite faith and what it means. Growing up a Mennonite, I took it for granted and am now grasping more what it means to be a Mennonite. I hear and read so much about how Mennonites are making a difference and showing people God’s grace through service, pacifism and social justice education.
Service and a focus on peace have always been a large part of my life. I was part of a Deep Run East outreach project helping a local family build a much-needed rehabilitation room in their home. Seeing God’s work in pulling the right resources (local businesses, supplies and volunteers) together, seeing the difference it has made in this family’s life and hearing their appreciative words reaffirmed the importance of being a Mennonite and a follower of Christ.
In February 2007, I participated in a Deep Run East-organized MAMA Project mission trip to Honduras. Initially I was hesitant to travel to such a different culture. However, during the trip I saw God’s grace in even the smallest acts of kindness—joy in the children’s faces while playing soccer, blowing bubbles and coloring; hugs of appreciation from mothers accepting parasite medication and vitamins; receiving gracious words and gifts from village members and more. The trip was one of the most eye-opening and spiritually renewing experiences of my life and helped ground me in the purpose of our Mennonite faith.
Nikki Aeschliman, Lockport Mennonite Church, Stryker, Ohio
I am committed to my home congregation, Lockport Mennonite Church, because it has always been my family. I feel welcomed and at home when I go to church. Lockport has always strived to provide an exciting, safe and nurturing atmosphere for its children. Our church loves its children, and its children love the church. This is evident through the Sunday school, Bible school and Mennonite Youth Fellowship (MYF) programs as well as how the church welcomes infants.
Throughout my high school years, MYF was an exciting place to grow, learn, serve others and make friendships. When my husband, Chad, and I had our first child several months ago, the church welcomed little Creighton with a freezer full of food, prayers and unending support. I am committed to Lockport because I want the younger generations to have positive experiences at church and because I want to do my part to thank the older generations for the love and support they have given me.
The church’s stance on social justice issues as well as nonviolence are important to me. Like many young adults, I am interested and involved in today’s politics. In a time when it seems politics and religion are one and the same, I find it surprising that many Mennonites support politicians who stand for violence and social injustice. Historically, the Mennonite church has been known as a strong community that cares for all, and I want to be a part of that. As Mennonites we are called to help and live in peace with others.
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