Mariela Sanchez (right) leads singing at Piedra Vida Mennonite Church, accompanied by Ramón Tapia (center) and Mauricio Chavez (left). Photo by David Fast.

By Laurie Oswald Robinson
Thursday, April 9, 2020

NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Last summer, Naun Cerrato, a participant in Mennonite Mission Network's Sent Network church-planting training, was primed to launch Iglesia Menonita Piedra Vida (Living Stone Mennonite Church), a new Hispanic peace congregation in Elkhart, Indiana. But where, since they had no rental finances?  

About the same time, Sunnyside Mennonite Church, established in 1947 in Elkhart by a group of Goshen (Indiana) College students, was seeking deeper engagement within the community. But how, when so many members no longer lived in the church's neighborhood?  

The Holy Spirit was orchestrating answers that unfolded when longtime friends Cerrato and Charles Geiser, part of a three-person pastoral team at Sunnyside, shared their dreams. After a few conversations, they began to wonder: Do we need each other to make our dreams come true?

Geiser took Cerrato's dream back to his congregation, which led to its inviting Piedra Vida to have a rent-free home. During joint worship Jan. 12, the groups celebrated Piedra's launch Sunday. For the fledging congregation, this welcome seemed to reverse the "no room in the inn" nativity drama. And, the infant church's presence within the established congregation has re-invigorated Sunnyside.

"They welcomed us, whether we succeeded or not, and extended grace to us right from the beginning," Cerrato said. "We so deeply value our relationship and want to provide what we can to support their dreams, too. We have no money to give, but we generously give our prayers and friendship."

"Because they have been generous with us, Piedra Vida can better shine Christ's light and peace in a world full of conflict and struggle. We can spread the message in this community that we should talk over, not fight about, our differences."

The blessings flow both ways, said Peter Graber, Sunnyside's elder board chair. Piedra Vida's passion for forging peaceful relationships in Jesus throughout community has revived the congregation's original purpose — to be an outreach to the neighborhood. Currently, Sunday morning attendance is about 90.

Piedra Vida is providing some of that outreach. About 20 people meet for Spanish worship at 1:30 on Sunday afternoons. The church plant is drawing a variety of people: longtime churched Hispanics, new seekers, and even immigrants within Elkhart city and the wider county.

"We felt that our recently renewed vision statement meshed well with Piedra Vida's passion for becoming a strongly Anabaptist peace witness," Graber said. "The new church has deep commitment, and good things are going to happen. I feel grateful that we can be a little part of what they are doing."

Sent Network helping Piedra Vida's dreams to materialize

To help Cerrato as a bivocational pastor to nurture the new church plant, Sent Network has paired him with Sharon Norton, a church planting coach and Mennonite Mission Network's co-director for Africa and Europe.

"It is a rough road to start a new church," Norton said. "The beginning of a church plant is a vulnerable time, which stretches a leader to trust God during the ups and downs of the journey."

Even amidst its struggles to launch, Piedra Vida is infusing Sunnyside's journey with new vistas, said Terri Geiser, on Sunnyside's pastoral team with her husband, Charles, and Amy Kratzer.

"I think it is so easy to get insulated … but that is not what Jesus calls us to," she said. "Sunnyside is seeking a broader vision of open hands in which we give and receive from each other and reach across divides and barriers to be community. Partnering with Piedra Vida is a concrete way of doing that."

 

 

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​Laurie Oswald Robinson is editor for Mennonite Mission Network. 

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