Kingdom Builders Network, Mennonite Mission Network, and Hesston College—three organizations who five years ago had very little in common—have been on a journey of discovery toward mutual partnership. That partnership paved the way for a Hesston College course taught by Kingdom Builders Network leaders in Philadelphia.
Kingdom Builders Network counts almost 50 diverse Philadelphia Anabaptist churches and nonprofit organizations in its network, who gather monthly to read the Bible and pray together, and occasionally sponsor events like the annual Pentecost service (and it is very much like Pentecost). It is an amazing collection of cultures, languages and perspectives woven together.
"We are an ethnically diverse group of urban and inner city churches that is Christ-centered and Anabaptist," says Pastor Juan Marrero, co-chair of the organization.
Co-chair Amy Yoder McGloughlin added, "What makes Kingdom Builders Network so incredible is that our congregations are learning to see each other as resources and share what we have."
Enter Mennonite Mission Network.
Del Hershberger, director of Christian Service, was commissioned by Mission Network to listen and learn from immigrant churches and churches of color in cities across America to see how they could partner with parts of the church that were often not served well.
As he began to visit urban churches around the United States , he often made his way to Kingdom Builders meetings in Philadelphia.
"It's been exhilarating for Mission Network to work with such a dynamic group," Hershberger said. "There's a synergy here. We share our gifts, learn from each other, and everyone benefits."
Building trusting relationships takes time, but after Hershberger's regular participation in the monthly meetings, and testing some ideas for collaboration, the Kingdom Builders Executive Committee identified three areas that the broader church might offer to strengthen the churches of Philadelphia – Anabaptist theological education, resources for conflict transformation, and job skills training/job creation.
It was obvious that Kingdom Builders also had a lot to offer the broader church for mutual benefit.
Enter Hesston College.
Mennonite Mission Network encouraged Kingdom Builders to ask Hesston College to consider teaching their introductory Bible course, Biblical Literature, or Bib Lit, to Anabaptist Christians in Philly. In turn, indigenous leaders from Kingdom Builders would teach Hesston College students, given their expertise in missional church leadership and cultural competency. And undergirding all their dreams? The vision of mutual partnership.
Working with Bible professor Michele Hershberger, the Bib Lit dream began to take shape.
"Juan Marrero and I have team-taught Bib Lit three times now in Philadelphia, and each time I've gained so much," says Hershberger.
"I typically begin the history of a certain part of the biblical story and then Juan contextualizes it for urban and hood life. And the story just comes alive for me. And the participants receive as well. They get the gift of seeing the Bible as one big, connected story. They hear the biblical foundation for their Anabaptist-Mennonite beliefs and values."
"The partnership with Michele through Hesston College is a mutual blessing because the Bib Lit class brings the narrative of Scripture to life in a way that all of the ethnic groups present can relate to and apply to their own cultural settings," says Marrero.
The second dream of Kingdom Builders leaders resourcing the wider church began when Hesston students came to the city this past May for a three-week intensive class that focused on cultural competency and empathy.
Says Hesston College student Mariana Martinez Hernandez, "I learned that all our stories matter – and that is so powerful. We witnessed firsthand this unconditional love that transcends cultural barriers and generational gaps."
Freeman Miller, former pastor of Diamond Street Mennonite Church and professor in Urban Studies at Messiah College, coordinated the educational efforts and led the class in discussions about urban life and the Bible.
"I think most people don't realize how God has been joining cultures to create a People of God out of all people groups," Miller said. "This makes cross-cultural relations and reconciliation top priorities for the church today, and it's the reason why classes like this are so important."
The students concentrated on a different culture each week. The first week they worked with Juan Marrero, pastor of Christ-Centered Church and Crossroads Community Center in the Fairhill neighborhood. The students learned about this Puerto Rican and African-American community and how the church has responded to the Holy Spirit guiding them toward the gifts and the needs of the neighborhood.
Aldo Siahaan, pastor of an Indonesian Mennonite church called Philadelphia Praise Center, led the group during the second week. The class interacted with several Asian-American congregations and heard beautiful and challenging stories about immigrants and the struggles they go through.
The third week was led by Leonard Dow, former pastor of Oxford Circle Mennonite Church and Stewardship and Development specialist for Everence. He helped the students interact with the African-American Philly culture and grapple with the continuing effects of slavery and racism. Like the previous weeks, Dow helped the students see hope and strength in this indigenous community.
And all parties hope the partnership continues.
"There really are no words," said Michele Hershberger. "My life has been changed as I experienced stories of pain and victory, saw the complexities and beauty of urban life – as I found God in the city."
Marrero reflects, "The Urban Life and Culture class was a mutual blessing with cultural understanding taking place from both sides. God is present in the city and in Hesston College, and we all share this big God."
Michele Hershberger teaches Biblical Literature at Solidarity and Harmony, a Mennonite church pastored by Bernard Sejour.
Philadelphia Praise Center.