Youth hear of seeking Jesus in tragedy

Jul 2, 2015 by and

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Michele Hershberger channeled Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon during her Wednesday evening address to 2,300 youth attending Mennonite Church USA’s convention.

Youth worship services each include a skit led by the Bible character Luke. Here, Luke stands between two contestants on the reality show “Bible Food Network Cookoff.” Jesus, right, won by turning water into wine. — Lowell Brown for MWR

A crowd forms in front of the stage for morning youth worship July 1. Worship band leader Jeremy Kempf, of Glendale, Ariz., plays the trumpet. — Lowell Brown for MWR

First, the Hesston College professor wrote thank you notes, parodying a recurring feature of the Tonight Show, from behind a desk next to a couch.

“Thank you, pool noodles,” she said, as worship bandleader, Jeremy Kempf, played the piano. “For helping Mennonites be able to hit each other and still stay true to their pacifist beliefs.”

Her tone grew serious as she introduced her three “guests.” The first, Alyssa Rodriguez, a member of First Mennonite Church in Iowa City, Iowa, joined via Skype.

Rodriguez talked about a two-year service assignment she was nearly halfway through in Quito, Ecuador, with Mennonite Mission Network. During that time, she was raped. Soon after, she found out the rape caused a pregnancy.

“It’s one of the hardest things that I’ve had to deal with in my life,” she said. “I felt shame because of the sexual assault, anger. And then disbelief, of course, because I was pregnant.”

“Where was Jesus during this time?” Hershberger asked.

“I didn’t know. I don’t know,” Rodriguez said. “I think looking back, I did not want to recognize Jesus in this. I didn’t want to tie Jesus to such an ugly thing. So I can’t tell you where he was.”

Youth worship services each include a skit led by the Bible character Luke. Here, Luke stands between two contestants on the reality show “Bible Food Network Cookoff.” Jesus, right, won by turning water into wine. — Lowell Brown for MWR

Youth worship services each include a skit led by the Bible character Luke. Here, Luke stands between two contestants on the reality show “Bible Food Network Cookoff.” Jesus, right, won by turning water into wine. — Lowell Brown for MWR

Hershberger welcomed her next guest, Kim Litwiller, to the couch.

Litwiller, a youth convention worship leader and the associate conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference, described how her faith was deeply impacted by grief and anger for much of her childhood. Her father was killed in a car accident when she was 2 years old.

“I felt loneliness. I felt confusion. But most of all I felt angry, and as the questions increased, the anger within me just seemed to overtake me,” she said.

Then, when she was 16, her best friend was killed in a car accident.

“I just couldn’t help but scream out why and wonder where on earth Jesus was in that moment,” Litwiller said.

Hershberger’s final guest was Ted Swartz, the Mennonite comedian of Ted & Company and previously, Ted & Lee.

He talked about the depression and suicide of his partner, Lee Eshleman, in 2007.

“Grief does odd things to you,” he said. “I’ve learned that it’s a form of shock, and when you’re in shock you’re not the same person.”

Hershberger asked Swartz if people ever wonder why God didn’t heal Lee.

The youth group from Journey Mennonite Church of Hutchinson, Kan., wore matching green shirts and some had on Panda masks during youth worship on July 1. July 1 was convention’s “Green Out,” where many attendees wore green. — Lowell Brown for MWR

The youth group from Journey Mennonite Church of Hutchinson, Kan., wore matching green shirts and some had on Panda masks during youth worship on July 1. July 1 was convention’s “Green Out,” where many attendees wore green. — Lowell Brown for MWR

Swartz responded that it’s an understandable question if you believe in a system that protects you from harm as long as you’re a good Christian.

When something bad happens, “then, yeah, your system has failed epically,” he said.

“So maybe our understanding of God, that’s the system that’s failing now,” Hershberger said. She is scheduled to speak again during Saturday morning youth worship, when she promised to conclude her “Menno-Night Show.”

Jesus in hospitality

Isaac Villegas, a member of the MC USA Executive Board and pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship, talked about sharing meals and the resurrection Wednesday during morning worship.

He said the Luke 24:28-31 story of Jesus meeting two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus is about Jesus’ resurrection.

“But there’s a more basic level to this resurrection story,” he said. “Resurrection for them is personal. Resurrection means that nothing will stop Jesus from being with his disciples.”

He described a weekly meal he has with members of his church and other local congregations as well as people who join them from the woods behind the box stores along the highway, where they live.

He talked about a class in a local prison he and members of his church take part in. At the end of the semester, they enjoy a homemade southern meal together.

He said once a prisoner said: “The food tastes so good because all of us are here. The people around the table make the food taste so good.”

Villegas also asked why we join together for convention, even though it takes so much work and so many resources.

“Because we believe that something happens when strangers and friends gather together around a table for food and fellowship,” he said.

Something happens, he said, when we share stories — whether of hope, suffering, pain, God’s work — with one another.

“We’re here in Kansas City because we believe that Christ is here,” he said.

“The thing is you never know when Jesus is going to show up,” he said. “If we want to break bread with the resurrected Jesus, we have to learn form those two disciples.”


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