As they cleaned and priced shoes at Adelante Thrift, participants from three youth groups during a Servant Project on July 5 chatted as if they had known each other all their lives.
It was befriending strangers that made the afternoon memorable, a couple of teenagers said. At MennoCon19, the norm is to stream down giant hallways with one's tight-knit home group while remaining anonymous to hundreds of other teenagers going in the opposite direction.
Not so this afternoon, once they left the Kansas City Convention Center for Adelante.
At the thrift store, youth group members from Eicher Emmanuel Mennonite Church (Wayland, Iowa), Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Mennonite Church, and Zion Mennonite Church (Archbold, Ohio) co-mingled. While hanging clothes, pricing housewares, and sorting toys, volunteers discovered that new friendships can't be given a price tag.
"You meet a lot of other people you didn't know before …," said Daniel Eash-Scott of Milwaukee Mennonite. "You talk about things you have in common – like cross-country, high school experiences, first-year college coming up. … This is a good part of being Mennonite – building relationships while you do God's work for the community."
Doing God's work in the community is the driving force behind Servant Projects that began at the Mennonite convention held at St. Louis in 1999, said Arloa Bontrager, Servant Project coordinator and Mennonite Mission Network's director of SOOP and Youth Venture.
"Serving others is at the heart of all we say we want to do and be across Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Mission Network," Bontrager. "That same spirit needs to be at the heart of our churchwide conventions. Servant Projects are a conduit for practically living out who we say we are among our fellow neighbors in the host cities."
According to Lori Blair, Mission Network assistant for Christian Service, a total of 1,301 participants – including 110 church groups and 48 other adults – served 25 agencies in Greater Kansas City from July 2-5 at MennoCon19. Fourteen convention volunteers led the groups. They guided participants onto school buses that transported workers to various sites ranging from parks to thrift stores to food programs.
The labor of love was given in high heat and humidity as well as in pouring rain. Some volunteers, including Brady Woods, of the Berlin (Ohio) Mennonite Church youth group, were assigned work inside air-conditioned spaces, including NourishKC.
The nonprofit is building a food-secure region in the Greater Kansas City area. It provides noon meals – often rich in locally-grown fruits and vegetables – to local residents and workers. It hopes to empower people to move beyond the barriers of poverty with dignity, i.e., the "fine dining" experience of choosing from a menu and being served by a waiter.
Woods, a waiter, said he was hoping the July 2 experience would take him out of his comfort zone," he said. "Sometimes it is so easy to get stuck in patterns, and I want to keep changing," Woods said. "I don't want to get complacent."
Complacent is probably the last thing Woods could be as the doors opened. That's when people from all walks of life poured in. Woods took orders for the day's menu: sesame chicken or pulled pork along with salad and fruit. Other of his peers washed dishes, greeted patrons, got drinks, and bussed tables.
The patrons received a hot meal and a warm welcome from the Berlin youth. Linda Aguilar, coordinator for NourishKC, helped to orient the group.
"Don't assume everyone who comes in those doors is in the same category, because they're not," Aguilar said. "Not everyone who comes here is homeless, though they may be. Sometimes, you have police officers and even medical personnel who come in from the heat from the mobile unit they run outside. … We don't distinguish between who is who. We simply treat them all like kings and queens."
Children were the "king and queen" beneficiaries of work done July 3 at Rainbow Mennonite Church by Servant Project volunteers from Mennonite Community Church, Fresno, California, and Emmanuel Mennonite Church, St. Paul, Minnesota. They helped to beautify Whitmore Playground, a green space shared by the congregation and the surrounding Rosedale community.
Unlike Woods serving in air-conditioned cool, recent high school graduate Kent Enomoto of Fresno dug holes in sweltering prairie heat. But even his profuse sweating did not dampen the positivity he felt while watching children play around their work.
"This project is having a direct impact on the children of this community and that makes me feel good," Enomoto said.
Whether Servant Project volunteers served inside cool spaces or outdoors in high temps and pouring rain, many of them kept care for community at the heart of their service, including Lori Schmidt of Salina (Kansas) Mennonite Church.
"I have been to Kansas City many times, and I have often visited my aunt, but she lives in a totally different area," Schmidt said. "I wanted to serve Christ in some way as well as see another part of KC I had not seen before … where another part of the heart and the soul of the city lives."