CHICAGO (Mennonite Mission Network) — At the age of 7, Daniel Ventura boarded the night train from Chicago to Kalona, Iowa, alone. He would spend two weeks on Daniel Yoder's Amish farm as part of a Fresh Air program to help city kids experience rural life.
“I knew I was in a different place with different people but I didn’t feel alone,” Ventura said.
For some young people, rural or urban experiences are as cross-cultural as a trip halfway around the world. Ventura ventured to the country while Krista Dutt, a small-town girl now Chicago City Director of DOOR (Discovering, Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), moved to the big city. Since exploring the unfamiliar helped them break down their own stereotypes, they now work to build communities that value everyone’s perspective.
The Yoder farm had no electricity, running water or indoor toilet. He was put to work right away feeding the animals and driving the tractor to haul oats.
Ventura believes cross-cultural experiences, like Fresh Air provided, offer a vital education. Looking back, Ventura can see how visiting rural life every summer changed the way he interacts with people and his knowledge of different cultures.
The perspective involved with working on the farm and having a change in scenery and daily schedule taught him to work with and recognize the difference in people, he said. His farm father taught him life lessons through his interactions with his children.
Every meal, Ventura said, farm father Daniel Yoder would hold and feed his son who had severe polio. One day, Ventura asked his farm father why he would do that. Yoder replied, “Because I love him.”
It was a simple answer that helped Ventura understand more deeply the meaning of love that can come from a father.
In Chicago, Ventura's circles were fairly homogenous. He lived around relatives who were all Catholic. There were different races and ethnicities all around his neighborhood, but they were separated.
When he went to the farm, Ventura was the only one at the Yoders’ church that was a Fresh Air kid. His hair was black, not blond, and his skin would get darker in the sun.
Ventura said noticing the differences in the country and learning to respect them helped him understand the differences in the city. He could respect others and that carried over because they were respectful of him, too.
Where Krista Dutt grew up in Waldo, Ohio, most of her neighbors were relatives. During her cross-cultural experience in Chicago through Bluffton College in 1998, she discovered city living for the first time.
The diversity Dutt experienced came from the variety of people she interacts with compared to her small hometown.
As people began getting to know Dutt, they kept telling her she should speak out on behalf of underprivileged neighborhoods. Because Dutt is white and middle class, they thought others would listen to her before they heard the typical victims of injustice – minorities and the poor.
Dutt agreed. “I really had found a passion for economic injustice. And beyond that, I felt inspired to look at how racism affected my life.”
She took an all-woman class at Loyola College; there was one African-American woman in the class. When the woman would speak, the others would disagree with her. When Dutt said the same things, the class would agree. When Dutt talked to this woman later the woman said it was unfortunate, but she was used to it.
“No one should be used to injustice,” said Dutt.
At DOOR, Dutt works to provide educational opportunities for people of privilege in Chicago neighborhoods that may or may not have poverty issues. Dutt said one way to combat racial and economic injustice is to expose people to what is different and show them that different is not wrong.
Dutt said, “My work bridging between cultures is hard, but by the biblical examples of cross cultural work and by personal experience of God in the inner city, I realize that God stands with me in this work. While I make mistakes and I am not pretending to be perfect, knowing that God can work through me is a reassurance that I can only have if I have faith.”
Issues of racism and economic injustice are present in rural and urban communities alike, but Dutt believes it sometimes takes a new environment for people to notice these problems.
Traveling outside of their hometowns gave Ventura and Dutt a new perspective on how to view and to respect people who are different then themselves. While they may have come out with different life lessons and passions for their lives, both believe that they gained a world of knowledge through these cross-cultural experiences.
Dutt’s home church in Waldo, Ohio is Peace Community Church of Christ. She is now a member of First Church of Brethren in Chicago, Ill. Dutt has most recently been in Colorado's San Luis Valley working through Mennonite Voluntary Service as a Family Advocate and Pastor of Family Connections. She graduated from Bluffton University and completed her master's of divinity degree at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in May 2002.
Ventura’s home churches include Iglesia Evangelica Menonita, Second Mennonite Church and the Lawndale Mennonite Church, all in Chicago. Ventura graduated from Bethany Christian High School and Southern Illinois University with a degree in Social Welfare. He is on the Board of Directors of the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, Youth Network Council, Latino Youth Inc., Assets Chicago (MEDA), John Howard Association, Alliance of Latinos and Jews. He worked 10 years for the Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street) as Midwest Administrator of Community Education Services. Ventura worked before that as the Regional Director of the Illinois Migrant Council.