ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) – Mennonites from four continents worshiped and worked together in Benin in July. They came through different Mennonite Mission Network programs – some having served for more than 12 years; others participating in a 12-day experience. They joined their gifts and energies to provide personnel for the annual camp at La Casa Grande, a Christian home for children.
God's society built on relationships
Kai Tinsley, a student at Columbia University in New York City, was one of the Youth Venture short-termers.
"Just being in West Africa was very meaningful (especially seeing the parallels and differences with African-American culture). I don't think I've ever been somewhere that felt so much like home, yet so unlike home at the same time," Tinsley said. "It was a good type of discomfort, one that forced me to explore my heritage as well as what being American can mean on a global stage."
Tinsley also appreciated the hospitality the group experienced at La Casa Grande.
"In the hustle and bustle of New York City and Columbia, I've found that relationships can so easily become about how much you can get out of a person rather how much you can give them," Tinsley said. "God used our visit to La Casa Grande to remind me just how central relationships are to the kingdom."
Brian and Noelia Fox and their daughters brought a dozen years of Mission Network ministry in Spain to their time at La Casa Grande. In fact, their congregation in Burgos, Comunidades Unidas Anabautistas, began the La Casa Grande ministry. However, up until this year, the Foxes' focus was on youth ministry, so their time in July was an opportunity to see first-hand how their congregation helps to create a place of belonging for children who have lived through tragic situations. Many of the children have lost their parents and relatives to AIDS.
"Before we left for Benin, we knew this trip was going to have a big impact on our family, but we never imagined that it would have been this great," the Foxes wrote in a prayer letter. "We really enjoyed getting to know the kids. Living at La Casa Grande has given them many opportunities to grow up in a loving environment where they are taught to love God and love others."
Generations of ministries
La Casa Grande could be called a grandchild of Mission Network ministries. It was born in 2000 as a partnership of the Burgos Mennonite Church, the churches in Benin, and Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mission Network.
In 1981, Mennonite Board of Missions called Connie and Dennis Byler and their children from a ministry of walking alongside the Toba-Qom people in the Argentine Chaco to mentor young people in Burgos, who were part of the Catholic renewal movement of the 1970s. The young Spanish Christians were passionate about following Jesus, but they needed discipling to mature in their faith.
By 1997, the church had grown into a vibrant congregation and was ready to send out their own mission workers. During a teaching visit to Institut Biblique du Benin (a Bible school that trains leaders for about 70 denominations), the Burgos delegation felt led to begin a ministry for children who had lost their parents.
In 2000, Annette and Paco Castillo, members of the Burgos congregation, opened La Casa Grande's doors in Benin. After several years, when the Castillos moved to Ivory Coast to create a similar home for former child soldiers, Esther and Paulin Bossou became the house parents and directors at the children's home in Benin.
No orphans in God's family
Paulin Bossou is adamant that La Casa Grande should not be called an "orphanage." The children have a family – they are an integral part of God's family, he says. Bonding between the 32 brothers and sisters who live at La Casa Grande happens daily as they play, worship, and do chores together. The children have the option of studying or learning a trade such as carpentry or sewing.
La Casa Grande also reaches out to children in the surrounding villages through an innovative education program that includes a school, weekly Bible classes, and a weeklong summer camp.
"We do everything on the basis of the love of Christ," said Bossou. "We are trying to make sure the children can grow up in a Christian environment so that one day, they may also reflect the Lord's love to others, because we have the firm conviction that the world can change with the love of God."
Bonds of faith strengthened around a common project
The Mennonites from four continents provided staffing for La Casa Grande's English club with its more than 100 participants. Mornings were dedicated to learning English, led by three professional teachers.
(A few years ago, Brian and Noelia Fox became self-supporting mission workers when they established an English school near Burgos. Diana Cruz and her husband, Felipe Preciado, began a long-term assignment at La Casa Grande in June. Although they are Colombian citizens, Cruz is an English teacher, as well as a Spanish teacher. Preciado is working with the gardens and livestock.)
"The English club was a very enriching space where we played, sang, did crafts, and watched videos while practicing English," Cruz said. "The Youth Venture group was a great blessing. It has been beautiful to see people from several continents and ages co-working and learning together, and also to see how our bonds of faith continue to be strengthened around a common project."
For Youth Venture participant Mallory Bontreger, morning devotions and afternoon activities – planting trees, baking cookies, and doing crafts – were highlights.
"We each took turns leading devotions. This was such a meaningful way to start the day together," Bontreger said. "In addition, I really valued free time because it gave the kids a chance to share their pictures, open up about their dreams, and talk about what is important to them."
"I thought I knew …"
As part of her good-byes, Bontreger wrote a social media post to her friends at La Casa Grande:
I thought I knew joy until I saw you dance.
I thought I knew generosity until I watched you share your home with me.
I thought I knew resourcefulness until I regularly witnessed you create something from nothing.
I thought I knew faith until I listened to you pray.
I thought I knew beauty until you held my hands and sang to me.
And I thought I knew love until you showed me what it means to truly put others before yourselves.
Until we meet again, my friends. You have indeed changed me for good.
Youth Venture team to Benin included *James Krabill, Kai Tinsley, Mallory Bontreger, Johnna Swiers, Zoe Mast, Elizabeth Resto, Adam Krahn, and *Jeanette Krabill. *Team leaders