Youth speakers tell of Jesus encounters ‘on the way’

Jul 2, 2015 by and

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Alexa Smith, 16, of West Liberty, Ohio, said she heard a lot during Mennonite Church USA’s youth convention in Kansas City, Mo., about how to deal with the pain life brings.

Kim Litwiller, associate conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference, and Ted Swartz of Ted  Company TheaterWorks sit next to Michele Hershberger as she talks to them about their personal stories of pain at youth worship on July 1. — Lowell Brown for MWR

Kim Litwiller, associate conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference, and Ted Swartz of Ted Company TheaterWorks sit next to Michele Hershberger as she talks to them about their personal stories of pain at youth worship on July 1. — Lowell Brown for MWR

Many worship speakers June 30-July 5 addressed the week’s theme, “On the Way/En el Camino,” and scripture, Luke 24, by describing pain they had experienced and encounters they had had with Jesus — their own roads to Emmaus.

Cyneatha Millsaps, pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., spoke of learning to cope with a schizophrenic mother.

Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Church, described encounters with Jesus through meals with prisoners and homeless people.

John Valenzuela, senior pastor at 210 Church in San Antonio, talked about how easy it is to become divided, even within his own family, with six adopted children.

Smith, who attends Oak Grove Mennonite Church, said she was learning: “It’s OK to not see Jesus [during painful times].”

Smith’s cousin Madeline Kauffman, 16, of Walnut Creek, Ohio, and Berlin Mennonite Church, said she gained new perspectives from many of the speakers.

Six total speakers addressed the youth most mornings and evenings during convention. Many of the 2,300 youth also took part in servant projects, attended dozens of youth seminars and enjoyed meals, music, small groups and evening activities together throughout the week.

“As the week has progressed, the theme has shown more and more,” Kauffman said.

But both Kauffman and Smith were especially struck by speaker Michele Hershberger, chair of the Bible and ministry department at Hesston (Kan.) College, who addressed the youth twice.

On Wednesday evening she brought three guests who told stories of seemingly hopeless pain.

Kauffman said she could hardly wait to hear the conclusion Saturday, when Hershberger brought her guests back again.

Alyssa Rodriguez, a Mennonite Mission Network volunteer, described how her church supported her when she had to leave her service assignment in Quito, Ecuador, early after being raped and becoming pregnant.

She felt she had failed God and her church, First Mennonite Church in Iowa City, Iowa, when she returned from her service early.

“But they helped me see my worth and my future baby’s worth too,” she said.

Her congregation also helped her realize rape was not part of God’s plan.

“Feeling the love and the care that was extended to me, that really showed to me that that [rape] was God’s pain too, and heartbreak,” she said.

Hershberger invited Rodriguez’s daughter, who turned 1 that day, July 4, on stage. Youth sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

Hershberger also brought back Ted Swartz, of Ted & Company TheaterWorks, who said he’s never had a clear moment of healing after his professional partner Lee Eshleman committed suicide.

“I’m not gonna say that healing doesn’t happen,” he said. “But the mess doesn’t always quite get cleaned up. It becomes part of who we are.”

He said he had little moments here and there, and a “naive persistence” that led him back on stage.

Eshleman used to say: “Laughter is a sign that we can never be truly separate from God.”

“I think it’s that search for laughter specifically that was part of my healing,” Swartz said.

Kim Litwiller, a youth convention worship leader and the associate conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference, also finished her story of personal struggle and pain.

Watching her friend dying after a car accident, she said she shouted: “Where are you, Jesus?”

The response, she said, echoed in her soul: “I’m right here, my child, I always have been, I always will be.”

From then on her idea about Jesus’ presence shifted.

“I could suddenly begin to see how he had been with me in all of these different places along the way,” she said.

Hershberger also told her own story of pain, with depression. At a particular low point, she visited her daughters. They attended an outdoor event.

“I didn’t want to go,” Hershberger said. “I wasn’t in the mood for parades.”

They went, and then it started raining. But slowly they each started dancing.

“Jesus didn’t come down from the clouds and say, ‘Yes, now I’m going to make it all better.’ No,” Hershberger said. “But we started dancing, then we started laughing. We danced as if our lives depended on it.”

She said at that moment she knew things were going to get better.

“That’s my Luke 24 story, and you know what? I feel like dancing now,” she said, as she led youth in a short dance party on stage with her guests.


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