Daniel and Lucy: Daniel Penner said that Mennonite Voluntary Service and Journey International gave him an appreciation for social justice, service and introduced him to Lucy Shirley. They are engaged. Photo provided by Daniel Penner. Click image for high resolution version.

By Wil LaVeist
Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Daniel Penner has a job he loves and is preparing for the love of his life.

Both came as a result of stints with Mennonite Mission Network service programs. Penner, 26, was born into a family that served. But it wasn't until he was overseas as an adult that the true value of service was birthed within him.

Penner was born in Bolivia to Faith and Tim Penner, mission workers with Mennonite Central Committee. The family would return to the South American nation to serve and visit with friends connected to Sinai Mennonite Church and Príncipe de Paz (Prince of Peace Evangelical Mennonite Church) in Santa Cruz. For Penner it was more like an adventurous trip or even a vacation to visit extended family. While his parents worked on projects, he would visit and play like a typical kid.  

"We went back often and maintained those relationships with different people from the church," Penner said. "It was just a natural thing."

After graduating high school, Penner, who is from Harper, Kansas attended Hesston College, where he majored in business administration. A Mission Network recruiter visited and discussed service opportunities, including in South America.

"The opportunity to travel and live in a Latin American community sounded like something that was exciting," said Penner of his initial reaction to the recruiter's pitch about Journey International (then known as Radical Journey).

His Spanish was not that strong, so after graduating from Hesston College, Penner participated in the Central America Study and Service (CASAS) program in Guatemala for a few months. He then headed to his Journey International assignment in Paraguay in 2009. 

"It was good that I did the CASAS study," he said. "Turned out, that I knew most of the Spanish in our group."

The service seed had begun to germinate.

In Paraguay, Penner stayed with a German Mennonite family that served at the local Latino Mennonite church, Casa de la Amistad. The family spoke German at home, and Spanish in the community.

"I think just being with another family and seeing how they interacted influenced me," he said. "Also the warm hospitality I saw throughout the Latin American community. I really remember all of the friendships I made with the youth group. Just how warm and welcoming everybody was and they were willing to take time to get to know us as a group."

Penner said that he worked with Mennonite Economic Development Associates while in Paraguay. One memorable activity was when Penner and fellow volunteer Jono Cullar spent a week fixing a house as a test project.  

"We fixed the houses during the day and rode around on horses there," he said.

After serving with Journey International, Penner returned to the United States and attended Goshen College, majoring in history. He was also thinking more and more about service. After graduation he joined Mennonite Voluntary Service and moved to Seattle in 2012. MVSers live together in a house and serve at agencies that are focused on community services and activism.

"There were seven people there at the house," Penner said.  "I really valued my time there making meals together and sharing our struggles and learning how to live simply." 

Penner interned at Grist, an environmental news organization. While at Hesston College, Penner dabbled with creating videos as a hobby. This helped at Grist, where he wrote website ads and transcribed news stories. After the MVS assignment concluded, Penner went to Ghana for a six-month service internship with Mennonite Economic Development Associates. Then he got a call from Grist about becoming an associate video producer. He took the job.

"Even though Daniel may have never expected to work as a video producer, it is not surprising that Grist offered him a job," said Neil Richer, program director of Mennonite Voluntary Service. "After a year or two of serving, many MVS participants are offered a job by their placement agency."

 "Particularly the Journey International experience taught me to work at understanding people I was not familiar with," Penner said. "It made me very aware of a lot of the privilege I had been given. It made me more sympathetic to a lot of the different causes. It's also difficult to be in the position when you are the 'other.'"

He also apparently learned something about Christian courtship. Penner said he would often walk from the MVS house to the Grist offices nearby with Lucy Shirley, 25, who served at another agency across the street. They would talk about life. They got to know each other.

"The rumors are true," Penner said laughing. "I recently got engaged to a fine young lady who was in the MVS house at the time. Our placements were across the street from each other. Each morning we would kind of walk to work and get to know each other."

Penner said that Mennonite Voluntary Service and Journey International gave him a sense of the importance of social justice and service and getting outside of your comfort zone.

 "I think serving really gives you a chance to step back and think about what's most important to you and what's most important in the grand scheme of things," he said. "It's easy to jump in and think, 'Oh I need to go to college or get this job or that job.' Service causes you to really wrestle with some of the tougher questions and emphasizes things like community and social justice. It's made me a more thoughtful person and someone who is more conscious of the example that Jesus set."






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