The Elkhart Mennonite Voluntary Service unit has served Elkhart's south-central community since 2007. The unit has now closed its doors, but the impact it had on the people, churches and community cannot be understated.
Prairie Street Mennonite Church (PSMC) felt called to start a Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) unit in Elkhart, Indiana, in 2004. That's when a group of young people from the church lived in the church-owned house and, while there, created a community of service. They called it the Healing Arts House, and it held childbirth and nutrition classes, massage therapy, and was the base of operations for a church-community bond that strengthened over time.
In 2006, the Healing Arts House became an official MVS unit, with the first MVS participants arriving in fall 2007. A report from the support committee noted, "We have been blessed by their energy and their willingness to become involved with [the] surrounding community and the congregation."
Eventually, the unit became so large that another house was needed. During the 2009-2010 MVS term, the unit expanded to an additional home. This house was owned by a member of another church, Fellowship of Hope, which soon became a co-sponsor of the unit.
The house was named Jubilee House, and its mission and values focused on having unit volunteers express the meaning of Jubilee in our world. These values centered around four topics: hospitality and invitation, peacemaking and justice, community, and spirituality.
"[The PSMC congregation] said, 'We really wanted to connect with our neighbors better,'" said Janice Wiebe Ollenburger, the first local leader for the Elkhart MVS unit. "[Starting an MVS unit] was an opportunity to be a Christian witness in the neighborhood."
Placements for the volunteers included jobs with local community services, food and farm sustainability centers, and even bicycle projects. These local, community-forward placements helped carry out the Jubilee House's values.
For years, One of the staple features of the MVS unit was a Wednesday evening potluck that the MVSers would host at the unit house. "It got a little crazy trying to figure out where to put everybody, because there were a lot of people," Wiebe Ollenburger said.
"It was the heart of the unit," added Mary Miller, MVS support committee chair at PSMC.
Wiebe Ollenburger noted that one lasting effect that the unit had on PSMC was that it brought an influx of young people into the community. "And they have stayed in [Elkhart]," she said. Many other units have felt the same effect in their cities and communities.
PSMC felt called to change focus away from supporting the unit in 2018. Fellowship of Hope, a small congregation, continued on for a year, while looking for another congregation to help support the unit. After a year of searching, all signs pointed toward closing. And with PSMC beginning a new prison ministry that could make use of the Jubilee House, the Elkhart unit closed its doors in 2020.
"MVSers have made some significant contributions to our community," said Barb Fridley, the most recent local leader for the Elkhart unit. She mentioned a few specific examples, including Katie Janzen, a 2013-2014 MVSer who started the Seed to Feed program at Church Community Services, which still operates.
The Elkhart unit also began a bicycle co-op, where the community can come toget their bike repaired and learn about bike repair, together. It still operates today.
Evra Tshisola, who came from Congo to participate in MVS, said that the Elkhart unit and community helped him when he didn't have family in the area. "I am still thanking the Elkhart MVS unit for the opportunity that [it] gave me," Tshisola said.
With a 13-year history of MVS-specific service and even more service before then, the MVS Elkhart unit will remain a formational part of the service community surrounding PSMC, Fellowship of Hope and the Elkhart community in general.