HOPEDALE, Ill. (Mennonite Mission Network) – On Sept. 8, the spiritual descendants of the “quiet in the land” raised their voices in prayer and praise from a park near the busiest intersection of Lebanon, Ill. Many heads turned as cars passed the group gathered from several states and two continents in public worship uncharacteristic for North American Mennonites.
This type of open acknowledgement of faith is part of the movement that led to that goup's same-day dedication of a new place of worship in Mount Vernon, some 60 miles away.
“Somehow we thought this sort of thing only happened in other countries,” said Marilyn Toelke, member of Freeport (Ill.) Mennonite Church. “[Before our involvement in mission partnership], we tended to think you make a building, and then you tell the people to come in. We needed to realize you go and find the people who want you.”
The public worship in Lebanon and the dedication of Crossroads Christian Center are just two of the fruits growing on the tree of partnership between Iglesias Menonitas de la Patagonia
(the Mennonite churches of the southern zone of the Argentina Mennonite Church) and Arm in Arm (three Mennonite churches in Illinois: East Bend
, Freeport and Hopedale).
The partnership is rooted in a two-way, hands-on vision for mission as done by Mennonite pastors from Patagonia, outlined when they visited Illinois in 1995. Formally launched in 1998, the joint endeavor has been breathing new life into existing congregations and rekindling fervor for mission, in both North and South American congregations since that time.
The partnership encourages two mission projects, the Patagonia Mission Project and the Southern Illinois Mission Partnership (which involves more than just Arm in Arm congregations and Illinois Mennonite Conference). Annual visits foster relationships and encourage the sharing of resources. On even-numbered years, an Illinois delegation travels to Argentina and on alternate years, Argentine representatives visit Illinois.
At the beginning of this adventure in mission, PMP set a goal of planting a new congregation in Argentina each year. In the 11 intervening years, that goal has been doubly blessed with 22 contacts growing out of intentional mission. Some of these contacts have grown into fully functioning congregations. Others are at various stages in growth; from positive responses to exploratory visits to weekly or monthly meetings.
Although it took the Southern Illinois Mission Partnership eight years to get organized, in addition to the Crossroads Christian Center, visits have been made to 12 locations that may result in new congregations. Lebanon is one of these locations.
An Argentine church leader, Juan Sieber, and his family have mentored members of the Arm in Arm congregations who have a passion for mission. After serving as catalysts in 2004-2005, the Siebers felt called by the Lord to return to Illinois again this year – a call affirmed by the Patagonia churches and Arm in Arm.
Juan Sieber and a mission leadership team adapted the Argentine model of mission to the Illinois context. They began praying as they drove south one day in April 2005. In search of the place that God would have them begin a new outreach, they encountered a couple, David and Sue Houseworth, who had been praying for 10 years that God might send them church partners. On that same trip, the team was also directed to the property on which Crossroads Christian Center now stands.
In December of that year, monthly house-church meetings began on the second Saturday of each month, with work during the day and worship in the evening.
In July 2006, 30-50 children from the area around Mount Vernon attended Vacation Bible School sponsored by the Hopedale youth. A month later, the new mission center building was erected barn-raising style in three days with more than 40 workers from many Illinois congregations. Siding and roofing were completed in October and the first worship service was held in the newly constructed building, although the formal dedication didn’t take place until Sept. 2007.
As participants reflected on a decade of partnership during the annual meetings of which the Crossroads dedication was a part, many marveled at the lessons learned when they had the courage to move out of their comfort zone.
“It has helped us to grow in our faith seeing God at work without our planning and administering all the action,” Jeanne Birky of Hopedale said. “We step forward, and God makes things happen through the Holy Spirit. It’s just like the stories we hear about missionaries in the foreign field who tell about God miraculously providing this and that.”
Birky also commented on how the partnership created not only friendships between Argentines and Americans, but better relationships between the Illinois congregations as they work and worshiped together.
Ray Nachtigall, also from Hopedale, commented on the prison that church buildings can become as they help us to avoid people and rejection.
“Buildings cater to our fear of people. There is safety in buildings. We need to pray for boldness to go out,” he said.
Sieber emphasized the need for prayer and an intimate relationship with the “Master of the church” as the key to mission.
“The church has to recognize that it’s not just finding a strategy,” Sieber said. “Any strategy can work if we operate with the love of Jesus.”
Mennonite Mission Network has facilitated the Patagonia-Illinois partnership from its inception, providing administrative support and building bridges necessary for cross-cultural communication. Linda Shelly, Mission Network director for Latin America, said an exciting part of international mission partnerships is that it often has an end result of Mennonite Church USA congregations becoming more missional in their own communities.
“Partnership begets partnership,” said Mennonite Mission Network’s co-director for U. S. Ministries, Dean Heisey. “Positive engagement in mission leads to yet deeper positive engagement in mission.”