WASHINGTON, DC. (Mennonite Mission Network) — The end of a good thing often leads to something even better — like when a grain of wheat falls to the ground and bears fruit, or when people share fond memories of experiences that helped them to grow.
About 15 former Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) participants and members of the Washington, D.C., MVS host congregations Community House Church, Washington, D.C., and Hyattsville Mennonite Church, Hyattsville, Maryland, gathered August 7 to honor the closing of Mennonite Mission Network's 42-year-old MVS Washington D.C. unit.
At the MVS house in Washington, D.C.'s Columbia Heights neighborhood, the group shared food, reminisced, and paused on the front porch to reflect on their experiences.
Sara Swartzendruber was among the first volunteers who served at the house that was purchased and opened in 1980.
"It was very valuable for me to be out of my comfort zone and to get in touch with issues I hadn't thought about before — racism, social justice, immigration," she said.
Originally from Iowa, Swartzendruber attended nursing school after her MVS experience and remained in Washington, D.C., to live and work.
Mira Grieser, an MVSer from 1995 to 1997, said the strong sense of community, fun and service shaped her faith and focus. Originally from Landsdale, Pennsylvania, Grieser remained in Washington, D.C., where she married, raised children, and launched her career in public health.
"For some, their volunteer years turned into a job, while for others it shaped our lives' work in broader areas," she said.
Brad Jenkins recalled "plenty of cooking mishaps" when he served from 2007 to 2009 — like the spicy rice that was more like fiery rice, and the quiche that was not, because the cook "who will remain nameless" made it with sweetened condensed milk, rather than evaporated milk!
"We were young college kids trying to figure life out," said Jenkins, who was a University of Notre Dame student when a Mennonite Mission Network recruiter based in Elkhart, Indiana, visited the campus and inspired him. "One of the things I appreciated about my experience is that there was an interest among all of us of wanting to live in community and be members of the surrounding community."
After graduating law school, Jenkins returned to Washington, D.C., and has been practicing immigration law ever since. He lives nearby and often walks past the MVS house.
"I admit, seeing them take down the 'Pray for Peace' sign in front of the house was a bit emotional for me," he said.
In June, Mission Network, an agency of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA), with the endorsement of Community House Church and Hyattsville Mennonite Church, announced the unit's closure and house sale. The agency will tithe sale proceeds to the host congregations and to Mennonite Church (MC) Canada, which had partnered with MC USA on the house. Agreeing with recommendations from the partner congregations to continue supporting anti-racism work, Mission Network will use the remaining sale proceeds to establish an endowment to directly support organizations engaged in peacemaking, social justice, and anti-racism, and run by people of color.
The MVS Washington, D.C., unit emphasized racial healing and justice toward bringing about what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as the beloved community. The need for that ministry continues, but the decision to close the unit was caused by newer challenges. One of these challenges is the gentrification of Columbia Heights, which for decades was a predominantly Black community with a mix of low- and middle-income residents. Another change is how both Community House and Hyattsville Mennonite have evolved as congregations and reevaluated their ministry capacities. The congregations formed a team to discern the best path for the MVS Washington, D.C., unit. In deciding to close the unit, the team concluded that, though plenty of good work was achieved over the decades, the MVS model of bringing in predominantly White middle- and upper-middle income volunteers from outside of the Washington, D.C., community to serve had too often benefitted the temporary volunteers more than the permanent residents.
Cynthia Lapp, pastor at Hyattsville Mennonite, who often used the MVS house as a meeting place for a women's group, credited Community House Church with taking the lead in getting MVSers emersed in the Columbia Heights community. Reflecting on the unit, Lapp said that other Christian denominations have had to close their Washington, D.C., house ministries for similar reasons.
Since the program's establishment in 1944, MVS participants across the country have played integral roles in transforming social systems relating to health, education, immigration, food, housing and more. The focus of the unit is customized based on the host congregation and location. Current MVS unit locations include Aibonito, Puerto Rico; Alamosa, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois; San Francisco, California; and Tucson, Arizona. Since 1980, 226 volunteers had served at the MVS Washington, D.C., unit.
As the group gathered on the porch and front steps of the MVS Washington, D.C., house, Jodi-Beth McCain, a local program coordinator, acknowledged the sadness of the closure, but also the hope that often comes with endings. She referenced Jesus' teachings about "the grain of wheat that only bears fruit if it falls to the earth..." (John 12:24)
"I ask you to pray for guidance about how we can support what can grow from this grain of wheat," McCain said.