The pandemic shut down many endeavors, but it did not succeed in doing so with Mission Network's Christian Service programs. In all cases, directors are either reconfiguring service and discipleship opportunities or regrouping for 2021.
Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR) executive director Andrea Sawyer-Kirksey:
Instead of canceling summer programs, DOOR, a partner agency with Mission Network, redesigned them. The agency is offering virtual learning whenever and wherever possible, Sawyer-Kirksey says. DOOR recently started a new program called UpNext Young Adults Leadership Program. It engages young adults of color who want to explore how their faith intersects with their commitment to justice in a yearlong leadership development program.
Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), Director Marisa Smucker:
Smucker, with the MVS administrative team and advisory committee, has helped MVS units over the previous fiscal year transition into a new framework. MVS's job is to recruit participants, provide program human resources, sponsor leadership and participant retreats, and offer ongoing support and resources. The host congregation's job is to transition into being fully responsible for the unit houses and being the participants' employer.
This fall, five units opened, and MVS welcomed new and returning MVS participants. One of the service units has associates, and another unit has a participant completing an extended term. Associates are people living in unit houses who are not formal MVS participants but who are involved in other service and community initiatives. The San Francisco (California) unit is the first to make a full transition.
The new model empowers each unit to more deeply define who they are, said Joanna Lawrence Shenk, associate pastor of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco and leader of the congregation's MVS unit, during a telephone interview.
"It is allowing more autonomy to each unit," she said. "Different communities and different states have different realities, and we can tailor our unit to those realities."
This time of transition is not fixing something that was broken or righting any wrongs, Smucker said. Rather, it is about being open to new creative opportunities … "in whatever style that may be" and to invite new initiatives to spring up.
Service Adventure, Director Susan Nisly:
Service Adventure unit leader Cindy Headings says that not even a pandemic has squelched her passion for serving for a fourth consecutive year. In fact, Headings says her longtime enthusiasm for leading the Colorado Springs, Colorado, unit was stoked even higher the first week of August.
That's when she joined her fellow unit leaders in an online orientation retreat. Nisly and other staff members and presenters led the eight leaders in program resourcing, anti-racism training, pandemic protocols, and an afternoon of fun.
"While I missed being in the same room with these awesome people, it was great to brainstorm together about how things can work out amidst a lot of unknowns," Headings wrote in a recent email.
After closing two months early last program season, Service Adventure launched the new year in late August with five units. Eleven participants started in the fall, with the possibility of several other participants from Argentina and Germany arriving later.
"It's been a challenge to have to re-arrange everything … yet I still believe the year will be full of learning and growing," Nisly said. "By serving and living in community, people can join God's work in the world. It's also an amazing time for young adults to discern who they want to be."
Service Opportunities with Our Partners (SOOP), Director Arloa Bontrager:
In mid-March, all volunteer assignments and their host locations were canceled until June 1. But by this summer, a few volunteers braved the new world of pandemic realities and signed up, Bontrager and her assistant, Stephanie Weaver, reported. One example is the Katrina and Matt Eberly family. The couple and their four children served at Camp Deerpark in upstate New York from late July until early August.
This is from a letter Katrina Eberly sent to Bontrager and Weaver shortly after their volunteer assignment:
"… Yes, we worked hard and sweated through many t-shirts, but it was so good to work as a family and share laughs together. As we raked mulch on the Children's Forest trail, we prayed for the many kids who would freely run through it. And as Matt cut up firewood, he prayed over the wood and the many conversations that would happen around the campfires. …
"Our souls truly are overflowing with the goodness of God that we experienced at Camp Deerpark. Thank you for this opportunity! I am certain that we will want to do another SOOP trip in the coming years."
Youth Venture, Director Arloa Bontrager:
In a recent board report, Bontrager wrote: "This has been a difficult season for Youth Venture. It has gone from much excitement about the summer and planning with six host locations, to, after many careful conversations between local partners and our Youth Venture staff team, making the decision to cancel all the planned Youth Venture teams. As air travel became more and more uncertain, along with uncertainty about the trajectory of the virus, it became clear it would not be in the best interest of our local partners to host teams, or for participants to engage in travel. Youth Venture was not designed for social distancing! We look forward to regrouping and planning for 2021."
Stories in the series:
Introduction: A tale of two worlds and one God of abundant hope
Story 1: Distributing care packages; reformatting ministries
Story 2: Providing an emotional-spiritual "vaccine" for isolation
Story 3: Praying and caring for supporters
Story 4: Persevering in Christian Service programs
Story 5: Dismantling systemic racism