Youth speakers share stories of pain on life’s road

Jul 20, 2015 by and

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Most of the six youth worship speakers addressed the week’s theme, “On the Way,” and scripture, Luke 24, by describing pain they had experienced and encounters they had with Jesus — their own roads to Emmaus.

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

Youth speaker Michele Hershberger interviews Ted Swartz July 1 while Kim Litwiller listens. Litwiller and Swartz both told of times in their lives when they couldn’t find Jesus. — Lowell Brown for MWR

Michele Hershberger did it by inviting three people to tell their own stories of pain on the “Menno-Night Show,” a parody of The To­night Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. She interviewed them one by one on a couch while she sat behind a desk on stage.

Hershberger, chair of the Bible and ministry department at Hesston (Kan.) College, spoke twice. On July 1, each guest described a time he or she couldn’t see Jesus.

Alyssa Rodriguez, a member of First Mennonite Church in Iowa City, said she was nine months into a two-year Mennonite Mission Network service assignment in Quito, Ecuador, when she was raped and became pregnant.

“I think, looking back, I did not want to recognize Jesus in this,” she said. “I didn’t want to tie Jesus to such an ugly thing.”

Kim Litwiller, youth convention worship leader and the associate conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference, grew up with anger after her father died in a car accident when she was a child. Then, at 16, her best friend died in a car accident.

Band members Jorge Mosqueda and Jeremy Kempf sing together during youth worship. — Lowell Brown for MWR

Band members Jorge Mosqueda and Jeremy Kempf sing together during youth worship. — Lowell Brown for MWR

“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.

Ted Swartz, of Ted & Company TheaterWorks, talked about his own depression after the 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.”

In painful times, we can’t always find Jesus, Hershberger said. Reject easy answers and despair at those times, she said, and “just be” in the middle ground.

When she spoke again July 4, she brought each guest back to conclude his or her story.

Litwiller said that after her friend was killed, she shouted: “Where are you, Jesus?”

The response came to her: “I’m right here, my child. I always have been. I always will be.”

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.

Swartz said he’d never had a clear moment of healing.

“I’m not going to 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.”

Rodriguez surprised youth by showing up in person to finish her story, and brought along her daughter, who turned 1 that day.

She felt she’d failed when she returned from her service early. But her congregation helped her see her worth and 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 [rape] was God’s pain too, and heartbreak,” she said.

Hershberger told about her own depression. At a low point, she was at a parade with her daughters, and it began raining.

“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.”

At that moment she knew things were going to get better.


Isaac Villegas, a member of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board and pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship, spoke July 1. He said the story of the road to Emmaus is about Jesus’ resurrection.

Isaac Villegas: “The thing is, you never know when Jesus is going to show up.” — Lowell Brown for MWR

Isaac Villegas: “The thing is, you never know when Jesus is going to show up.” — Lowell Brown for MWR

“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 spoke of meals he’d shared: with the homeless, with prisoners, with teens from sister Mennonite churches in Texas and Kansas.

Villegas asked why we join together for convention, despite the resources and work required.

“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 with one another.

“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 from those two disciples.”

Relying on others

Cyneatha Millsaps, pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., spoke July 3 of learning to cope growing up with a schizophrenic mother.

She compared trying to rely on an unreliable mother to the disciples looking for Jesus in an empty tomb. She returned hoping to find “the mother I knew was no longer in that vessel.”

As an adult, people stepped into Millsaps’ life to support her.

“I came to understand that God had given me so many mothers,” she said.

She no longer had to run back to an empty tomb but could lean on people God had put in her life.

“No matter what you might be feeling right now for your life, God has a plan, and he will make it possible as long as you look around and be aware of the people around you,” she said.

Grocery gospel

Lesley Francisco McClendon, youth pastor of Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Va., brought a tomato, a cucumber and a carton of eggs with her on stage when she addressed the youth July 2. She said God spoke to her in the grocery aisle.

Each was a metaphor for how people can feel sometimes: “Tomatoes” are people who seem like they are too fragile. “Cucumbers” have hardened themselves to the outside world. “Eggs” can crack under pressure.

But each gets better with help and effort: tomatoes can be salsa, cucumbers become pickles, and eggs are transformed when cooked.

In the midst of a hard time, life may feel hopeless, she said.

But, she said, “there is purpose in your process, and you too can have peace in the midst of your pain.”

McClendon led youth in a time of prayer. Deacons were available for one-on-one prayer.

Passion and action

Glen Guyton, chief operating officer of MC USA, told youth July 3 about recognizing Jesus — in Luke 24, in other people today, in Mennonites during convention.

Glen Guyton: “You have to walk with the people who are in need.” — Lowell Brown for MWR

Glen Guyton: “You have to walk with the people who are in need.” — Lowell Brown for MWR

Mennonites, he said, can get caught up in their own laws, statements and heritage.

“I wouldn’t want to be part of a church that only puts out statements about what they believe,” he said. “I want to be a part of a church that burns with passion as it does what it believes.”

He said youth would need to get their hands dirty to change the world.

“You have to walk with the people who are in need,” he said.

He said their biggest challenge was not whether MC USA stays together but that the church remains relevant.

Better united

John Valenzuela, senior pastor at 210 Church in San Antonio, spoke to youth July 4 about how the devil wants a divided church.

He had youth shout their home state. Then he had them shout the name of their church. Both were indecipherable.

Then he had them shout the name of their Savior.

“Do you see the power of what happens when we focus on the things that unite us?” he asked.

He said the gates of hell are afraid of a united church, family, community, nation and more.

“The biggest thing we want to try to do is stay on the same page,” he said.

He talked about the power of a loving witness.

“When love is felt, the gospel is heard,” he said. “Terrorism evangelism doesn’t work. Friendship evangelism works.”

He said when you love Jesus every day, Jesus will use your life to change the world.

“What would happen when all of us come taught as one and we start doing the same thing together?” he asked.

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