NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — As COVID-19 creates waves of crisis, directors of Mennonite Mission Network's Christian Service programs are seeking to calm the waters by making short-term shifts. Directors of Mission Network's five Christian Service programs are making these changes now in hopes of renewing a full roster of opportunities for volunteers in the fall. As of Mar. 27, here are summaries of program shifts as well as reflections from directors and volunteer participants.
DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection)
Director Andrea Sawyer-Kirksey
DOOR Los Angeles 2018 dwellers (L-R): Martha Louise Fulp Eickstaedt, Arthur Penate, Faith Edgar, Olga Dominguez, Mary Moore Driggers, Rachel Eliser, and Dawson Mims. Photo provided.
At least one group serving with the DOOR Discover program has left early, and other groups planning DOOR Discover experiences over spring break have been canceled.
"These are unprecedented times," Sawyer-Kirksey said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone, as we are all affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. We all need each other's prayers, generosity and faith to see us through the days and months to come. We will continue monitoring the progression of COVID-19 closely over the coming months and will provide updates to our registered participants as needed."
MVS (Mennonite Voluntary Service)
Director Marisa Smucker
2019-2020 San Francisco, California, MVS unit (L-R): Kristin Anton, Jacob
Regier, Irena Xhari, and Leah Friesen. Photo by Kristin Anton.
In each MVS unit across the country, measures are being taken in light of lifestyle changes necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. Smucker, director for Mennonite Voluntary Service and a Church Relations representative, shared this update on the program:
"During this time of uncertainty, I am so thankful for our local leaders and the support committees who are caring for MVS participants and following up with organizations," Smucker said. "They are taking necessary steps in careful decision making. MVS participants are still serving in work placements that are continuing to meet the needs of many people in their communities during this pandemic. They are also striving to stay healthy and care for one another in their units/households."
Smucker continues to check in with units, and at the end of this week (Mar. 27-28), she will chair the local leaders' annual meeting that has been moved to a virtual platform.
"Please continue to pray for participants — those already home, those preparing for travel, and those remaining in the units," Smucker said. "Pray also for local leaders and support committees who continue to give leadership and guidance, and for all mentioned, along with supporting faith communities, that they may be instruments of God's peace and love."
2019-2020 Alamosa, Colorado, MVS unit (L-R): Connor Born, Roxy Gehring, Hannah
Thill, and Jonatan Moser. Photo provided.
Connor Born, a participant with the Alamosa, Colorado, unit, reflected:
"Even though the area we live in is remote, the community is treating the situation with the same caution as the rest of the country. Everyone in the unit house is working from home as much as possible, and our placement organizations are reorganizing to continue meaningful work. While it is impossible to not be affected mentally, we've been hearing stories from friends and family in other parts of the country and are grateful for our health and ability to continue working through the pandemic. The toughest thing for me is beginning to see and think about the long-term impacts on society caused by this disruption."
2019-2020 Aibonito, Puerto Rico, MVS unit: Emily Knight and Matthew Peters. Photo provided.
Matt Peters, an MVS participant with the Aibonito, Puerto Rico, unit, explained the changes to his placements with Academia Menonita Betania, and a clinic with Hospital General Menonita de Aibonito.
"We are on our second week of lockdown, only able to leave the house for essential items like food or medication. Yesterday we got pulled over by the police for running on the road in the country — that is how serious they are about lockdown here. … We haven't been teaching or helping at the hospital; just staying at home! Puerto Rico is extremely social so not having events is rough for everyone! But it has been great for our faith. [Our unit] now spends lots more time in God's word individually and we have had more Bible study and worship sessions together. God has a plan for all of this. And we are staying busy. We work out every day, we've been gardening, and we just planted an orange tree. We've been working on our cooking skills, watching movies in Spanish, reading more books, practicing our Spanish with each other, and listening to podcasts. I've been working on my application for medical school while Emily has been applying for nursing jobs for when she returns home. During the quarantine, I've also talked with friends and family with whom I'd been out of touch. … I want everyone to know that I love them."
2019-2020 Manhattan, New York, MVS unit (L-R): Back row: Hannah Brown, Kylee
Schunn. Front row: Anh Nguyen, Laura Ayres.
Hannah Brown, an MVS participant with the Manhattan, New York, unit, reflected on how the unit home has transformed into office and downtime space.
"At the New York MVS unit, there are four MVSers, but usually a total of 13 people live in Menno House. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the world, we are down to seven. The rest have either flown or driven home or have found other temporary living arrangements. It has been very difficult … for all members of MVS units to decide whether they should leave or stay. Since working from home is now the norm, our house is not only a home, but an office, a restaurant, a bakery, a gym — and our favorite, a cinema. Our house manager created an at-home movie theater with a white sheet and a projector in our home office to entertain us in these stressful times. … Even though it has been hard saying goodbye to housemates — some for now, some for a long while — the New York unit members are … leaning on each other. The support we are receiving from family and friends is also keeping our spirits high in this uncertain time."
Director Susan Nisly
Mast and Ruben Fellmann, participants in the Colorado Springs, Colorado, Service
Adventure unit at Garden of the Gods in Colorado. Photo by Lauren Weaver.
Mission Network is closing the Service Adventure program for the remainder of the 2019-2020 term. Nisly shared this update:
"Last week was incredibly tough," Nisly said, "as we had to tell participants and unit leaders that we were closing the units for the rest of this term in light of the spread of COVID-19. While our hearts were heavy in this decision, we knew it was in the best interests of our participants to allow them to return home and be with family.
"Meaningful service assignments and relationships were quickly being wrapped up without time for goodbyes. I've been so impressed with how each unit quickly created activities to end their time together on a high note. They also found creative ways to say goodbye to their local congregations. One unit did a farewell video and posted it on Facebook. Another did a come-and-go farewell, while taking precautions and practicing physical distancing. They have truly made a difficult situation beautiful.
"As we conclude this Service Adventure term, we thank the churches and communities that nurtured our units and welcomed participants into their lives. We fully intend to reopen the Service Adventure units this fall and are currently continuing to accept applications."
Left to right: Dane
Yoder, Marie Irrgang, Claire Yoder, Harleigh Gibson, Marlene Knop, and Heath
Yoder outside Niagara Falls. Photo provided.
Eric and Julie Yoder are leaders with the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, unit. In her reflection, Julie wrote about the final days of unit life and maintaining unit connections across long distances.
"It's only been a week since the German participants got the e-mail that changed the course of our year. [The German government has required all volunteer participants to return to Germany as soon as possible.] Maybe we were naïve, but even as our upcoming plans and service assignments were canceled one by one, we hadn't even considered this mandate. After absorbing the shock, we experienced disbelief and sadness. We realized that our plans for the year were canceled and we wouldn't be sharing life anymore. We quickly planned a day trip to Niagara Falls and Presque Isle State Park. … I wasn't sure it was a wise choice, but felt that the group needed one last adventure together. After that, we only had two more days together before our first participant left. Those days were spent hiking together, spending nights camping in a blanket fort in our living room, and processing this abrupt ending. Seeing a lighthouse on Presque Isle prompted us to listen to the song 'My Lighthouse' by Rend Collective. We continued to listen to the song and sang it repeatedly in the following days as we focused on these lyrics: 'I won't fear what tomorrow brings; with each morning, I'll rise and sing.'
"After two days of a too-empty house, our family is searching for ways to continue some unit life even though we are separated from the participants. Today, we used Skype to continue with a book study we began during one of our last worship times together. Next, I'd like us to do some long-distance learning components. It's not the same, but it's something. During this worldwide shutdown, we need to strive to keep our connections strong in whatever ways possible."
The 2019-2020 Albuquerque, New Mexico, Service Adventure unit (L-R): Helen
Tiefenbach, Michelle Moyer-Litwiller (unit leader), Franziska Oelsner, Rudy
Moyer-Litwiller, and Isabel Prunés. Photo provided.
Michelle and Rudy Moyer-Litwiller are leaders with the Albuquerque, New Mexico, unit. They reflect on bringing closure to their term's abrupt ending and checking off their unit's "bucket list."
Rudy: "This has been a tough transition for us. The end of a term is always difficult, but because it ended so early and so quickly this year, it was particularly difficult to process. Along with processing change we also had to process the frustration and anger of having to leave because of something over which we had no control. We had good one-to-one conversations with the participants. We exhausted ourselves with trying to pack in as much togetherness as possible through early mornings and late nights. At the end of the day, we are sad but also very thankful for all the fun times and learning experiences we shared these last eight months."
Michelle: "Having to close the unit two months early brings sadness and transition for everyone. However, during our eight months together in community, we built relationships, experienced growth, and learned from one another. I feel lucky, privileged and thankful for experiences I shared with Franziska, Isabel, and Helen.
'It was important to each unit member to check off a few more items on the bucket list, eat the things we enjoyed most during the year, and have meaningful closure and conversation. We even took a day trip to White Sands [National Park]. Surrounded by incredible beauty in God's creation, we forgot about COVID-19 for a little while and felt more unified in absorbing nature together. We felt thankful for each other and the time we had. We cannot dwell on the time we lost, but instead the time we had together."
2019-2020 Anchorage, Alaska, Service Adventure unit: Salome Preisendanz, Michael
Oyer (unit leader), and Bethany Masters. Photo provided.
Michael Oyer is the Anchorage, Alaska, unit leader. In a phone interview, he shared about the difficulties of concluding a unit term early as well as the high points of the last eight months.
"It's been a crazy seven days. After many hours working through bookings and cancellations, our German participant caught what may be the last flight out to Germany for some time. We made time for a final fun unit trip and spent the last few days processing the conclusion of our year together. My leader handbook recommended starting yearend conversations a month or two before the end of the term. We've had to run through the entire process in just the last few days. Having to say goodbye this week was so hard because of the relationships that have been built this year. It has been wonderful to see the participants grow closer as a unit, and flourish in the community and at their placements."
SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners)
Director Arloa Bontrager
Alina and Marta Bergstresser help mix batter for date-nut bread in the Koinonia Farm bakery during their SOOP term in Georgia, April 2019. Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser.
Participants have been informed that if their assignment is scheduled between now and June 1, Mission Network recommends that they cancel. Several locations have sent home SOOP participants in current service assignments. Some participants have chosen to alter their travel plans or end their assignment early.
"Though it has been necessary for us to ask people to change their plans for now, I am very pleased that several SOOPers have expressed they are eager to re-engage with us in the fall," Bontrager said. "That indicates both the commitment and the passion that volunteers have for this program."
Director Arloa Bontrager
Venture team to Peru. Front: Mariana Cardenas. Middle (L-R): Lizzy Diaz
(team leader), Francisco Javier Nates, Biz Bomberger, Alesandra Haraguchi, Juan
Esteban Herrera, Allison Shelly. Back (L-R): Jack VonGunten, Juan Pacheco
Lozano (team leader), Jacob Myers. Photo provided.
Youth Venture has canceled two trips planned for summer 2020. Staff members are communicating with applicants and monitoring situations, but have not canceled any of the other planned trips.