ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network)—In August, a group of American Mennonite students from across the country traveled all the way to northeastern France to see some familiar faces—the French students they had hosted the previous summer in an exchange facilitated by Mennonite Mission Network.
Alena Yoder, a 16-year-old from Elkhart, participated in the exchange, first serving last summer as a host to a visiting French student and this summer as the guest of a family in the Alsace-Lorraine district of France.
“The biggest benefit of a reciprocal visit like this is the relationships,” Yoder said. Last year the young people met face-to-face, getting to know one another through planned events and outings. After the visit, the young people kept in contact through Facebook and e-mail, building anticipation of seeing each other again.
“You just can't wait to see them,” Yoder said, of being reunited with her French host and friend, Sarah Ostertag, this summer. “The relationship is already there.”
Isaac Blosser, 19, of Goshen, Ind., agreed.
"When the visit is one-sided …the host learns only a little about the visitor's country,” Blosser said. But with a two-way exchange, Blosser said, he became the guest and took part in his former visitor’s church life, community and culture.
“Host families are significant to the exchange experience,” said Merle Hostetler, a youth sponsor and pastor at East Goshen (Ind.) Mennonite Church who traveled to France this summer with the group. He says host parents on both sides of the exchange went out of their way to ensure that the young people had an enjoyable trip.
Not that it was all vacation time. The French and American youth together cleaned rooms, made general repairs, and washed dishes at Colonia Joie et Vie, a youth camp run by French Mennonites. They also sang at a home for children with disabilities in the town of Wissembourg and at a retirement community in the city of Valdoie. The last few days of their trip were spent in Paris seeing the sights, shopping and relaxing.
The idea for this exchange came from Denis Peterschmitt, director of the French Mennonite association Joie et Vie (Joy and Life). Peterschmitt had a vision for a youth exchange that would allow young people to build relationships and get to know Mennonites in another part of the world. He approached Janie Blough, a Mennonite Mission Network worker serving in France, with his idea. Blough contacted MMN and Peterschmitt’s idea was forwarded to the office of Arloa Bontrager, the director of Youth Venture, a short-term service and learning program for young people.
“I loved the idea as soon as it landed on my desk,” Bontrager said. “I hoped that youth and host families would be able to spend time learning about each other’s lives and faith and culture.”
“There is so much one can learn and understand about spirituality and faith in an exchange with young Christians from another culture,” Peterschmitt said.
Blosser said the biggest surprise of the trip was learning how much he shared in common with the French families. Though he and his host grew up thousands of miles apart and spoke different languages, their families were not that different.
“Knowledge is the enemy of prejudice,” Blosser said. “We all worship the same God.”