The great (de)commission

Aug 12, 2015 by

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Now the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. — Matt. 28: 16-20

Last winter I felt as if I was preparing for Mennonite Mission Network’s version of NCAA’s Selection Sunday. MMN was about to announce which Mennonite Voluntary Service units would continue and which units would close in August 2015. I was rooting for two units in particular — the Kansas City, Mo., unit, in the city where I live and pastor, and the Evansville, Ind., unit, where my husband completed two years of MVS, and where I lived for a short time as an associate member. Both sites had impressive rosters, records and statistics, both sites wanted to continue, and I knew firsthand that both sites had much to offer future VSers. Last December when the caller ID said Mennonite Mission Network, I picked up the phone and awaited the news with both anticipation and fear. The news, as I feared, was mixed. Yes, Kansas City was one of the 11 units that would survive and no, Evansville would not continue as an official MVS site.

Those impacted by the Evansville MVS unit during its run from 1988-2015 gathered Aug. 1 for a decommissioning service.

Those impacted by the Evansville MVS unit during its run from 1988-2015 gathered Aug. 1 for a decommissioning service.

My husband, who now serves on the Kansas City MVS Support Board, and I spent the next many months wondering why Team Evansville didn’t make the cut. We commiserated with our Evansville friends, many of whom now feel like family. We dusted off our Evansville MVS scrapbooks and photo albums and talked about how our lives would be poorer had my husband not done MVS in Evansville. Evansville was unique in several ways. For one, it was one of the only units at that time that offered something of an art and music focus for my husband. Another reason this MVS site was unique is that unlike most of the other units, there was not a Mennonite church in the city of Evansville. I’m told that in 1985 when the Evansville unit went through the initial application with what was then called the Mennonite Board of Missions of the General Conference Church, one of the things that was attractive about Evansville was that it didn’t have a Mennonite church. Sending people to places near and far was part of their understanding of The Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). The disciples were sent into unknown territories without a lot of guarantees other than that Jesus would be with them.

I don’t think the fact that Evansville does not have a Mennonite church was the primary reason for closing Evansville, but in hindsight we both agree that living and working in a place outside of the Mennonite bubble was just what the two of us born and raised Kansas Mennonites needed in 2000-2002. We both had four wonderful years at a Mennonite liberal arts school Bethel College in North Newton, Kan. After that we were ready to branch out and learn and work alongside people of different faiths and traditions. Sure, there were a few Mennonites here and there in Evansville, and we enjoyed monthly Mennonite gatherings with them. But as we said often, “it’s probably best that we don’t start a Mennonite church because we’re bound to split anyway.”

I often tell people that when I studied Spanish in college I learned just as much about the English language as I did about Spanish. The same could be said about our sense of Mennonite identity and belonging — the more we learned about other faiths and denominational upbringings, the more we learned to situate ourselves as Mennonites in this pluralistic world. It was good, for example, to remember that when most people talk about doing service, many assume the reference is to military service.

A peace lamp was given to Patchwork Central by Mennonite Mission Network as a “reminder of our long history together, and an encouragement to continue to be a light in your community.”

A peace lamp was given to Patchwork Central by Mennonite Mission Network as a “reminder of our long history together, and an encouragement to continue to be a light in your community.”

The people of Evansville make up a big part of our cloud of witnesses and the closing of the MVS unit will not change that. Still, my husband and I couldn’t help but feel sad on Aug. 1 as we traveled the familiar roads to Evansville for an MVS decommissioning service. I thought of the Great Commission as told in Matthew. Just because Team MVS Evansville is ending doesn’t mean the Great Commission has ended. Still, once you’ve experienced a glimpse of the Great Commission here on Earth, once you’ve gardened, built custom bikes, created artwork indoors and out, and tutored neighborhood children, one can’t help but wonder what might have been had this unit continued.

This decommissioning was like most commissioning services: there was singing, praying, hugs, sharing stories and memories, crying, and yes, some laughing. Biff Weidman, the Mennonite who helped secure Evansville as an MVS site in 1988, read from the first book of the New Testament (Matt. 5:1-12) and Elizabeth Syre, the last VSer to arrive at Evansville, read a passage from the last book of the New Testament (Revelation 21).

There was and is much to be grateful for. Our memories and our friendships are still very much alive. An enduring spirit lives on, inspiring all of us in the work of service, community and justice throughout the world, in joy without end.

“We look to the future, to God’s future,” we said in the Litany of Decommissioning, “and know that the Evansville MVS unit is not dead but will rise again in new and surprising ways. It will rise again in moments of service and song, in acts of mercy and justice, in organizations and programs that will not even know the debt they owe Evansville MVS, and in lives transformed that may not even understand the connection.”

Miriam Regier, the last Evansville VSer to leave Evansville, summed it up nicely when she said, “This place is a little bit of the gospel I love to share.”

How I hope that future VSers in Kansas City and the 10 other sites will say the same upon their departure.

I close with a prayer offered on Aug. 2 by former Evansville local site coordinator, Nelia Kimbrough. Nelia, an ordained Methodist pastor, was one of my husband’s MVS supervisors at Patchwork Central. Patchwork Central is a neighborhood ministry that served as both the local congregation for all and the work site for many Evansville VSers. Patchwork’s activities include worship services, children’s programming, a food pantry, a bicycle program, a health ministry and general neighborhood hospitality.

Nelia also officiated at our wedding in 2002. Nelia was one of the women who inspired me to go to Mennonite seminary, and she preached at my ordination service in 2009 at Bethel College Mennonite Church.

Here’s Nelia’s prayer:

We thank you for this place, a place of love, acceptance, a place of challenge, a place of laughter, a place of wonderful, abundant food, a place of art, growth and healing. God, we give you thanks and praise for this particular moment when we lift up all the work of the voluntary service unit of Patchwork Central Community. For all of the years of service that have been given, for all of these wonderful, beautiful and talented young people who have come and been willing to do the work and who have been willing to go forth into the world to continue the work.

We pray that as we have gathered together that we will be nourished by the stories we have told; that our memories will be deepened of what it means to come together and work as a community; of what it means to come and be willing to bear the load of what it means to come and to bring ideas and to see them come to fruition; and to be challenged, and be questioned, and to be called in what we are doing, yet in the midst of all that, to grow.

We lift up all of the other units of voluntary service that will continue as official units of the Mennonite Church. We ask your blessing upon them. We ask that their time will be rich in service and we pray that here in this place, the memory and the spirit of the service of the MVS unit will continue to grow and carry forth in all the work that was done.

We give thanks and praise for the gift of your Son Jesus who showed us the way, a way of love and forgiveness, a way of gathering all those on the edges and the margins in opening the table so that everyone can be included.

God, we give you thanks and praise for life itself. For the gift of drawing breath; For the gift of knowing this life, this way.

Ruth Harder is the pastor of Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Mo.

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