by Lora Steiner, managing editor
When people think “urban,” chances are pretty good that Doylestown, Pennsylvania is not a place that comes to mind. Thirty years ago, it was a traditional farming community; now, it’s a well-off, artsy, suburban Philadelphia town. And yet, one congregation, Doylestown Mennonite, is incorporating a program traditionally geared towards urban congregations—the Mennonite Central Committee Summer Service Worker Program—to also reach out to a radically-changed surrounding community.
For the Doylestown congregation, having an MCC summer service worker is one of a number of initiatives they’ve begun in order to meaningfully connect with people in the community, moves that have at times felt stretching, and even risky. Over the last several years, says Pastor Randy Heacock, the church has opened its doors to various local initiatives, including a community garden and a peace camp, taking place this month. Derrick Garrido, who attends Doylestown Mennonite and is a student at Cairn University, spent the summer connecting with artists in the community, working to create space for artistic expression within the community and connect with those who might not have a faith community.
MCC started the summer service program in the ’80s, with the same focus it has today: To work in urban areas and provide employment and leadership opportunities to people of color. The goal, says program coordinator Danilo Sanchez (Whitehall congregation), is to allow people opportunities to stay in their home communities and churches and make a difference where they’re living now. Participants must be a person of color between the ages of 18 and 30, preferably enrolled in a university or college, and be connected with a constituent church of MCC, such as Mennonite Church USA or Brethren in Christ members. Some participants come through Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite colleges. Generally, a congregation submits a proposal first, and regional MCC coordinators review the application. If it is approved, applicants are then invited to apply to the MCC U.S. program. In the past, both Franconia and Lancaster Mennonite conferences have contributed financial support, and a number of congregations, such as Philadelphia Praise Center, have had someone in the program for the last several years.
This year, Mikah Ochieng worked at Philadelphia Praise Center, under the supervision of pastor Aldo Siahaan. Ochieng says he’s grateful for the opportunity to have been both a learner and a teacher in a community that has been so hospitable to him, and the one he calls home. When asked about challenges, Ochieng said that of course there had been obstacles, such as a small number of volunteers, but his experience has been that “what we lack in such resources we make up in our commitment to serve one another.”
“It’s a quality-over-quantity type of thing.”
New Hope Fellowship, in Alexandria, Virginia, has also participated in MCC’s Summer Service Program for many years. This year, Alex Torres worked with the church’s kid’s club, helped a friend of the congregation with a hip hop school, and assisted the Spanish-speaking community in a variety of ways.
Torres says he’d known others from the congregation who had participated in the summer service worker program, and wanted to make an impact in his community. He says his favorite part was working with the kids, and that he wanted to show them a different, more positive route than the one that’s laid out for many children in his community.
“Where I come from, there’s always a lot of not-so-good things happening… I pay a lot of attention to the youth around here.”
Over the last seven years, summer service worker participants at New Hope have chosen different areas: One worked in a homeless shelter, in part because that’s where he lived. Others who are bilingual have helped people navigate the system.
For New Hope’s pastor, Kirk Hanger, the one of the many benefits of the program is that the young adults are from the congregation—they know the context, the congregation and the community, and when it’s done, they stay.
“We get to continue to walk with these young adults and mentor them… and experience more of the fruit of what they’ve learned and done.”
Heacock says that his congregation has worked hard to figure out what it means to be missional—both in the community with relationships that already exist, but also, as he puts it, “How do we not just preserve it for us, but also use our space to be an outpost for the kingdom?”
“If the goal is to learn what God has for us in the midst of it, I really think there’s very little failure.”