Chicago is known for Willis Tower, deep-dish pizza and loyal sports fans. Since its founding in 1837, the city has had a multicultural foundation, enriched by activism, art and music. Situated at the heart of the city, nestled between parks and cultural landmarks, is the Chicago Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) unit.
Residing in the Pilsen neighborhood, the Chicago MVS unit was historically one of several units in the city. It is now the only one remaining. The Pilsen house has been an MVS unit for nearly 40 years and has marked Pilsen as an introduction to Chicago for Mennonites.
Mark Walden, the current local leader for Chicago MVS, has been involved with the unit for nearly 24 years. He wasn't Mennonite by background, but he had a positive impression of Mennonites from his advisor in graduate school. He was new in town and did not know anyone, so he went looking for Mennonites in Chicago. He ended up in a small, Mennonite house church in Pilsen that was one of the supporting congregations for the MVS unit.
"I was just a young person in the neighborhood with Anabaptist leanings," Walden said. "I lived close by, and at some point, one of the volunteers suggested that I should join the support committee." Walden became committee chair and, then, became the local program coordinator. After an absence from the committee, he's now back to being the chair and local leader, as well as the property manager for the house.
Walden works in economic development, providing small business opportunities and affordable housing as his way of living out a holistic gospel.
"MVS offers hope [by] bridging relational and economic gaps," Walden said, "as it often relocates people into ethnic and socioeconomic contexts that are different from those they grew up in, [as well as putting] them in the work of social justice, through placements in the nonprofit sector."
According to Walden, the Pilsen community is a fantastic place for MVS. He said that Pilsen is a place of political activism, with a long history of environmental work, labor organizing and working against gentrification. Pilsen is also a bilingual neighborhood, with a very strong Spanish-speaking presence.
Kris Ituralde, a support committee member and former Pilsen MVSer, learned about MVS from her college roommate. Iturralde served in 1990 with Mujeres Latinas en Acción (Latina Women in Action)¸ a community-based social service organization in Pilsen. Ituralde moved back to the Pilsen neighborhood after graduate school. Her bachelor's degree was in anthropology, but her graduate degree was in social work — a change she made because of her experience with MVS.
"MVS helped me find [what I wanted to do] and gave me the opportunity to be a part of this community, living right there in the same community that I was working in," Ituralde said.
The Pilsen neighborhood is a young, dynamic neighborhood. It has more than one hundred years of immigrant and working-class history. The neighborhood is full of coffee shops, murals, music and art. There is a whole street full of art galleries. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pilsen saw four street festivals every summer. The National Museum of Mexican Art also finds its home in the neighborhood.
The Mexican-American culture is robust in Pilsen, but the diversity doesn't stop there, Walden said. The neighborhood is directly east of Chinatown and south of Little Italy and Greektown, making Pilsen a cultural intersection of sorts. Additionally, downtown Chicago is relatively close by, with all the big-city significance it carries.
2019-2020 MVSers Joel Klassen and Lara Scott at the Cloud Gate sculpture at Chicago's Millenium Park. Photo by Joel Klassen.
Despite its proximity to downtown Chicago, Pilsen remains a tightly-knit community. MVSers started an ultimate frisbee game 30 years ago and it remains active to this day, with games played every Sunday.
Chicago Community Mennonite Church (CCMC), the Pilsen unit's supporting congregation, appreciates the energy that the MVSers bring to the community, according to Justin Hochstetler, support committee member and former MVSer. Hochstetler served with Erie Neighborhood House through MVS from 2011-2013. After MVS, he remained in the community, working with Erie House for a few more years.
"The church members appreciate the personal connections they form with the MVSers and the new life and vitality they bring to the church," Hochstetler said. "CCMC also benefits from the number of former MVSers like me who have stayed in Chicago and attend CCMC. [The] MVS unit is one of the ways that CCMC connects with our community."
In the MVS Chicago unit, community is key — both inside and outside of the MVS unit. "You're definitely going to meet your neighbors," Ituralde said. "You come and you have this instant community because the house has been there for a long time. You get to be a part of Pilsen and a part of the volunteer community."