From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Congregation finds energy in commitment

Date 07 Feb 2001 13:16:02

February 7, 2001
Beth Hawn
Communications Coordinator
Mennonite Board of Missions
phone (219) 294-7523
fax (219) 294-8669

February 7, 2001

Congregation finds energy in commitment to sponsor unit

Grant Rissler is serving through Mennonite Voluntary Service as a
writer and photographer.  After spending a year as intern at the
Mennonite Central Committee United Nations office in Manhattan,
he is traveling for five months by bus to 20 other MVS and
Short-Term Mission sites, gathering the stories and experiences
of other volunteers and communities.  A weekly column by Grant
can be found on the web at

RICHMOND, Va. (CHM/MBM) – Asking tough questions about a church’s
ministry may not be the easiest thing in the world to do, but it
can yield results that make it all worthwhile.

That was what First Mennonite Church of Richmond, Va., discovered
when, in September 1999, the congregation began asking hard
questions about the viability of the Mennonite Voluntary Service
unit it had sponsored since 1977.

The questions were prompted by a shift in financial
administration when MVS, in preparation for integration, became
jointly administered by the Commission on Home Ministries of the
General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Board of
Missions of the Mennonite Church, said John Donelson, chair of
the local MVS support committee.

“Under the new system, there was less outside support from the
denomination for local program coordinators (LPCs), and we
couldn’t make it financially anymore [with a full-time LPC],”
Donelson said.  After running for several months without an LPC,
they realized that the support committee did not have the time,
as volunteers, to support the unit and develop new placements as

“There was also a building program under consideration and use of
the unit house (which sits behind the church) for Sunday-school
classes was proposed,” Donelson said.  “We thought, ‘Why don’t we
just look at the whole program?’”
Out of the six-month reassessment came a new commitment to
supporting the MVS unit; a decision to hire Crystal Horning, a
member of the congregation, as a part-time LPC; and on Jan. 30,
the arrival of a volunteer for a new position that brings
together the church, the local community, and the MVS unit in a
new way.

“It was a refresher.  It gave us a new vision.  We were always
hospitable, but [the re-visioning] was a sanctioning by the
congregation that we wanted this to be a way that we at First
Mennonite spread God’s love,” Donelson said.

The re-visioning also allowed the support committee to focus the
unit around the congregation’s ongoing mission to form
connections with the multicultural, violence-plagued, low-income
housing complex where the church and MVS house are located.

“I think the hard thing for the congregation is that we don’t
live in the community,” Horning said.  “Most of us live 20
minutes away.  And we’re mostly Caucasian.  Why would I, if I’m
from another culture, want to come to this congregation?”

The church identified certain agencies that appeared to fit what
the congregation was trying to do in the area, Donelson said:
providing housing, doing ministry in this neighborhood, and
crossing the racial boundaries that exist there.

At the same time, the church was entering a partnership with the
Tuckahoe Family YMCA to begin a teen center in the activity room
that adjoins the MVS unit house.

For many years, the congregation provided a summer program for
neighborhood youth, ages 6-13, as an alternative to walking the
streets when school was out of session.  “The program went well,”
Donelson said.  “But as the children got older, we didn’t have
the skills to deal with them.”

During the summer of 1999, several incidents of disruption by
neighborhood teens, including a broken window in the unit house,
caused the summer program to be shut down.   The church also
began looking for ways to minister to the teens.

“They really want to do something to be involved with the
neighborhood, not just to come here each Sunday,” said MVSer
Matthias “Matza” Bachmann, who, along with unit mate Joachim
Treptow, serves the housing needs of the Richmond community as an
assistant construction coordinator for Richmond Habitat for

That desire led to a partnership with the YMCA to form a teen
center in the church’s activity room.

“As far as I know, this is the first time the YMCA in Richmond
and a church have partnered to do a program like this,” said
Dorenzo Moody, the site coordinator for the teen center.
The teen center provides a growing group of 25 teens with a pool
table and ping-pong table, a TV and two hours a week of mentoring
by volunteers, many of whom come from First Mennonite.

“We’ve given teens in the area a place to come and use time
constructively,” Moody said. “We’re actually focusing on teens
and they feel it when they come here.   It’s affected attitudes
dramatically.  Profanity (among the teens) has gone down.  We’ve
attracted some of the street ringleaders here.  There are four
different guys that were leaders out there.  But now they’re in

“The church members have been great, very visible,” he said,
describing the volunteers and the monthly group meal that the
church holds for the teens.   The relationships have also broken
down some of the stereotypes between the church and the teens.
“They’ve established a rapport.  We had two teens who spoke in
the church and I think that eased some [of the uncertainties].”

The teen center is a new approach to solving the problem of how
the church could connect with the community.  “[For the YMCA, the
teen center] is the hottest topic right now,” Moody said.  “It
was a big risk, but it’s the top project; it’s on the Y’s front
page because it’s seen as a pilot project.”

For the church, a final piece of the partnership fell into place
when Iwan (pronounced Evon) Kunisch, a German MVSer, arrived Jan.
31 to begin working in the teen center.

“I think it will tie the two programs (the teen center and MVS)
together, using the same space,” Donelson said.

For Horning, the partnership “feels like a miracle in place.  It
couldn’t be at a better time.  Having a new volunteer in a new
placement.  I think it’s just the Lord.”

The teen center placement, in addition to two other current
MVSers who work for Richmond Habitat for Humanity, puts the unit
back on a sure financial footing, and broadens the involvement of
the unit into more areas that the congregation set as goals.

“The invitation to be an MVSer here in the city is the
opportunity to experience the racial diversity, the multicultural
setting, and to try and figure it out,” Horning said.

The success of the teen center and the strengthening partnership
has also given hope for other new positions – one with the local
Society for the Protection of Animals, an environmental position
with the James River Park System, and a position with Ten
Thousand Villages – and an eventual trusted place in the local

“To be able to have the once-a-month meals, to do the tutoring
[at the teen center] … who knows?” Horning said.  “In many ways,
our lives will probably be more affected than the community’s.
Maybe it’s another 10 years, but eventually we can say ‘Hi’ to
each other on the street and believe it’s real, feel it, trust

* * *

Grant E. Rissler       PHOTO AVAILABLE

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