Bethany Keener
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Congregation pursues vision to connect with neighborhood

ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) — Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) plans to open a new unit in Elkhart, Ind., this fall.

Scott Siemens, director of MVS, said the initiative for opening the Elkhart unit came from Prairie Street Mennonite Church. Volunteers will be an extension of the congregation’s existing ministries through such positions as immigration counseling with Catholic Charities, coordinating for the economic development program ASSETS, and neighborhood planning with the Elkhart Housing Partnership.

“Our own young people really challenged us,” said Eleanor Kreider, Prairie Street member. She said conversation about starting a unit was sparked two summers ago when young adults lived as an intentional community in the house the congregation owns.

The house has been a central point in the church’s ministries over the years, hosting a day-care, childbirth and nutrition classes and massage therapy. Kreider said these ministries have evolved into the new vision for an MVS unit. The house was recently renamed “Jubilee House,” which Kreider said reflects a biblical image of shalom and wholeness they want to see in their community.

This congregation didn’t end up in the city by accident. The vision for intentional involvement in urban areas dates back 135 years. “If God had wanted us to live in the country, we’d all be jackrabbits,” founding member John F. Funk is remembered for saying.

In the past, the congregation’s vision for outreach helped start predecessor agencies to the Mission Network, Goshen College, Mennonite Publishing Network, Mennonite Central Committee and Elkhart Child Care Center.

Members of Prairie Street continue to embrace their community, Kreider said. Though at first glance Elkhart appears to be just another normal Midwestern town, it also faces the issues larger cities encounter: increasing immigration, poverty and homelessness, drugs, and in more recent years, some teenage gang activity.

Volunteers from the church participate in a mentoring program at Roosevelt Elementary School and are closely connected to the Elkhart Housing Partnership. They also connect with the community through choir camps, hosting Alcoholics Anonymous and English-language classes and planning an annual neighborhood party.

Prairie Street member Art Stoltzfus said, “Our church has long history in this community and starting the MVS unit is part of Prairie Street’s current story of being part of the this neighborhood.”

He said local nonprofits have shown a positive response to the idea of increasing the volunteer base the congregation can support. Now, they’re just waiting to find out who God has called to serve in Elkhart.

Siemens admits that Elkhart may not seem as exciting as the east- and west-coast cities where volunteers are also placed. Yet, he said, “There are members of congregations in Elkhart County that have a passion to stay to serve, connect with and change their communities for the sake of Christ.”

Stoltzfus said congregation’s gifts include nurturing leadership through their young people and strong ties to Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, also located in Elkhart.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, director of admissions and financial aid at the seminary and a member at Prairie Street, said the MVS unit could be a good option for international students and their spouses. Typically, spouses of students who come on a student visa cannot legally work for pay. Those interested would have the option of participating in service while the other is in school.

“The AMBS community isn’t an entity in itself. We’re connected to the wider church … and having a role to play in the community is very important to us,” Shands Stoltzfus said.

MVS provides opportunities for adults, age 20 and older, to serve as an extension of a local congregation for one- or two-year terms. The last domestic MVS unit opened two years ago in Baltimore. This fall, the program will launch international units in England and Northern Ireland, bringing the total number of MVS units to 24.

Adults interested in serving through MVS in Elkhart or other locations may contact Mennonite Mission Network by e-mail: JeremyKempf@MennoniteMission.net; toll-free: 1-866-866-2872; or online: Service.MennoniteMission.net.

 

 

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