NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Rather than spending time over spring break visiting family or hanging out at home, 14-year-old Alina Bergstresser and her 11-year-old sister, Marta, of Goshen, Indiana, became makers of date-nut bread and students of racial justice at Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.
The sisters, with their parents, Annette and Deron, served Mar. 29-Apr. 5 at Koinonia with SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners), a Mennonite Mission Network program that provides service options for individuals and families of all ages.
Prior to spring break, the family explored various options for a getaway that mixed family play and bonding with service, education, and faith development, Annette Brill Bergstresser said during a recent telephone interview.
The experience at Koinonia hit the hoped-for mix, while also building both family life and new friendships at Koinonia, an intentional Christian community founded in 1942 as "a demonstration plot of the kingdom of God."
"[SOOP] was a way to take a break from the 'outside world,'" Alina Bergstresser said in an interview at home with her mother. "We did a lot more together than we usually do, like playing a lot of volleyball," she said. "Once you get used to the routine, you have a lot of fun and get to know a lot of really nice people."
Amidst relationship-building, a bevy of tasks also kept the sisters happily busy. As their parents helped with cleaning, weeding, working in the garden, and helping to prepare community meals, the daughters worked with other adults in the kitchen and bakery — the hub of Koinonia's mail-order, baked-goods business (including nuts and candy). They also filled backpacks with clothes useful for detainees at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
"It was fun working in the kitchen and bakery," Marta Bergstresser said in that same interview. "I liked getting to know Geneva Brown [bakery coordinator] and feeling successful about the things we did."
Alina Bergstresser echoed her enthusiasm. "There were multiple things to do — making bread, pouring chocolate, packaging granola. … We [also] put clothing into backpacks for men who were going to be deported suddenly and would not have any clothing. It was sad because when we got to the detention center, some of the people had already left."
Spring break helps parents pass baton of faith values
Koinonia SOOP attracted the Bergstressers as a strong way to model the values of their faith and concern about racial justice issues to their children, Brill Bergstresser said. For example, in 2012, she participated in the Sankofa Journey, a cross-racial prayer journey to civil rights movement sites that seeks to move participants toward healing.
"That experience was life-changing and opened my eyes to parts of our country's history that I had not been aware of and that still affect us as a country today," she said. "It became even more important to me as a parent that our children would know and understand this history of systemic racial oppression and discrimination that our country has been built on and continues to struggle with."
Brill Bergstresser was a Mennonite Voluntary Service participant 20 years ago and had a very positive experience that she hoped SOOP would replicate, in a different way, for the family, she said.
Mission Network strives to help the service dreams and choices of individuals as well as families to become reality by partnering in God's healing and hope, said Arloa Bontrager, SOOP director. "When these connections happen, all of us, together, join God's mission in the world by building up, rather than tearing down, the fabric of our communities," she said.
Contemplation and action; being and doing; relating with family and with others
The contemplation at Koinonia was equally as important as the social action, said Deron Bergstresser, co-pastor of Faith Mennonite Church. "The rhythm of the daily prayer and worship — in its simplicity — was a reminder that the work we were doing is grounded in the biblical story and the Koinonia story," he said.
Brill Bergstresser, who works at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, appreciates that SOOP allows families to engage in a service experience in a smaller bite of time that fits into a school schedule.
"Some places don't accept volunteers for less than three months, and we don't have three months at this season in our family's life," she said. "If we did a longer term of service, we would have to re-arrange things with our jobs. This way, we could go for a week, and even though our time was short, it was meaningful just to be part of life there."
By going to a place that was new for all four family members, they learned new stories and got to know new people, she said. "We each enjoyed contributing and seeing tangible results — a clean guesthouse, a weeded area of landscaping, a tasty meal, packages of baked goods prepared for the mail-order business," she said.
"It also gave us a chance to be together — relaxing, playing games, exploring our surroundings — without the distractions of responsibilities at home."