PEMBROKE TOWNSHIP, Ill. (Mennonite Mission Network) – The blueberry fields were planted and the harvest was at hand this summer for Rehoboth Mennonite Church in Pembroke Township, Ill. Although the area is rich in natural resources, it is not economically developed. To find jobs or shop, residents must take their capital beyond Pembroke’s borders.
Rehoboth hosted several work teams and SOOP participants this summer that helped the congregation prune, maintain and—finally--harvest buckets of blueberries. But more than that, the volunteers helped to connect Rehoboth to communities, congregations and resources throughout the Midwest.
Though currently home to less than 10 members, there is a new energy springing up in the Rehoboth congregation.
“We do lots of mission work, and the Lord keeps blessing us. We feel like we are witnessing a miracle first-hand in some ways,” said Rose Covington, a member who has served as church elder for 12 years.
In 2007, members of the Retreat Center Board wrote a letter to The Mennonite magazine
, asking for support and help in re-vitalizing the congregation’s facilities and ministries. John Powell, then Mission Network’s U.S. Ministries Director, read the letter and began a conversation with church leaders.
In addition to a church building, the congregation owns 20 acres of land, including a two-acre blueberry patch and a former camp area. Over the past two years, Mission Network, the Rehoboth Retreat Center Board and Illinois Mennonite Conference
staff have worked side-by-side with members of the church community on networking and re-visioning projects.
Since then, groups of volunteers coordinated by Mission Network staff, the Rehoboth Retreat board, and community and church members have come to work on a variety of projects.
The congregation is exploring possible ways to invite new people into their midst and to reach out to their community. This year, on the eve of its 60th anniversary, Rehoboth was featured in the SOOP newsletter as a service location for participants.
“Using SOOP volunteers to respond to this congregation’s real needs seemed like a perfect fit,” said Arloa Bontrager, Mission Network director of the SOOP program.
Barbara Longoria of Indianapolis, Ind., saw this opportunity advertised and signed up to help with the harvest. For ten days, Longoria picked blueberries from breakfast until dinner, and filled 53 five-pound buckets. In the evenings, she cleaned and prepared the berries for sale. Longoria also attended a weekly Bible study and Sunday morning worship service at Rehoboth.
“I brought so many blueberries back and they are delicious. My family is certainly enjoying them, and I hope to go back in the spring and help with pruning,” said Longoria.
For Mission Network staff member, Dean Heisey, who has been working with the Rehoboth congregation for two years, this SOOP position sounded like the perfect summer vacation.
“The whole partnership with Rehoboth started out as my job, but it took hold of my heart and now it’s my passion, too,” said Heisey, a member of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart.
Heisey spent two weeks in Rehoboth, and issued invitations to other friends to join in. Over the course of the two weeks, Heisey was joined by four others, including three teenagers from the Elkhart, Ind., and Cody, Wyoming areas. The group picked blueberries and removed trees and brush that had encroached into the patch during years without a caretaker.
Chris Birky, a former pastor at Hopewell Mennonite Church
in Kouts, Ind., volunteered to sell berries at his roadside stand and church, and other local volunteers took turns selling blueberries at area farmer’s markets. Another time, a local tree crew working in the area surprised the volunteers by buying 50 pounds of berries to take home.
Revenue from the blueberries raised over $1,000 for the Rehoboth congregation: money that will be used to continue to re-develop their facilities and to fund new ministries. If kept pruned and fully harvested, the blueberry patch has potential to raise over $35,000 annually for the congregation.
Members of the congregation continue to build relationships in their own community and the broader Mennonite Church. They dream of a day when new members might feel called to Rehoboth to form an intentional church community.
“We have many opportunities to engage our surrounding community,” said Covington. “We are small, but our ministry and church has a great opportunity for learning and to see God at work.”
For more information on SOOP, visit Service.MennoniteMission.net.