HILLSBORO, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Some pastors take a sabbatical to be stretched and refreshed. Some to experience a new culture and enlarge their world. Others to establish new life rhythms of meditation and prayer.
Judy and Ron Zook experienced all of the above as they spent two weeks of a pastoral sabbatical with SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners) at Finca CREER (Center for Retreats and Meetings El Recreo) near Cachipay, Colombia. SOOP is a program of Mennonite Mission Network.
The Zooks, who work together as co-pastors at Laurel Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, chose Colombia for several reasons. For one, members of their church have either served in or are from Colombia. Also, several Mennonites from Colombia have visited their congregation. Furthermore, their son-in-law is from Colombia's neighboring country of Ecuador and his family speaks Spanish.
"We look for yearly opportunities to travel to a Spanish-speaking country and this SOOP opportunity gave us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Spanish for two weeks," Judy Zook said.
One of their sabbatical goals was to learn and practice spiritual disciplines such as meditation and centering prayer. The retreat center proved to be a perfect setting, surrounded by lush orchids and coffee, banana and mango trees.
"Practicing solitude in this amazing piece of God's artwork was a great way to end our sabbatical," Ron Zook said.
Without the long to-do lists, text messages, phone calls or meetings to sabotage their intentions, the Zooks built in 20 to 30 minutes of meditation and prayer before their daily work and prior to their evening meal. They painted a building for their service project, which provided a very low-stress physical activity. This gave them abundant time to reflect, listen to podcasts, and to just be, in solitude.
The Zooks also wanted to learn about the history and mission of the Mennonite Church in Colombia, they said. The retreat center proved to be the perfect place to do so, as it used to be a school at the heart of the early mission work in Colombia. They also visited the Mennonite churches in Cachipay, La Mesa and Bogota and learned about their origins and ministries.
"We were blessed to be able to spend two weekends with DeeDee and Mark Landes and their three children," Ron Zook said. DeeDee and Mark serve with Mennonite Mission Network in La Mesa and work with education and outreach ministries. "The many ways they are intentionally immersing themselves in the local culture and the ministries of the church, school and community was inspiring and encouraging," he said. "We are very grateful for this new friendship!"
Another new friendship connection was the family that took care of the retreat grounds and cooked delicious traditional lunches for them. "The young daughter took great delight in introducing us to the retreat grounds and all her favorite places," Judy Zook recalled.
"SOOP provided us an opportunity to serve in a totally different way than in our congregation, while broadening our perspective of the Mennonite Church in a different community and culture," she said. "Volunteering connected us with new friends; we could be observers of other congregations and listen in on how they are confronting issues they are facing in their cultural context."
There was also the small issue of bugs and spiders.
"It was a beautiful natural habitat, and that included bugs and spiders of all shapes and sizes," Judy Zook said. "My challenge was to accept their presence and live alongside them creatively and without fear. This included checking my bed for spiders and turning lights on in the kitchen to discourage the presence of 'water bugs.'"
Ron Zook commented, "Leaving behind our comfort and stepping out into the unknown was an adventure in trusting God and growing in our self-awareness. We found ourselves in vulnerable places and reliant on God. We were challenged, stretched, enriched, and strengthened in faith. SOOP provided us with the opportunity to notice God in unexpected places and discover beauty in diversity."
"We returned to our home refreshed and ready to engage in ministry," Judy Zook concluded.