This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s MennoCon21 #BringThePeace series.
Arloa Bontrager has been the director of SOOP and Youth Venture at Mennonite Mission Network for almost 20 years. In these roles, she loves connecting people to places of ministry across the church. Prior to her work at Mission Network, she was a social worker in home care and hospice, and in a child abuse prevention program. She lives in Goshen, Indiana, with her husband, Rohrer Bomberger, and they attend Walnut Hill Mennonite Church. She enjoys her three adult children and her lively grandson. When Arloa needs to clear the cobwebs from her head she takes a walk along the Millrace Path, loses herself in a good mystery or peruses her garden and flower beds to see what has emerged since her last visit.
Generally, at this time of the year I’m frantically putting together the last-minute details that will ensure everything flows smoothly for the 1000+ convention attendees who will be participating in convention servant projects. I’m making sure I have placements for everyone, that bus routes are in place, and that communication with local hosting agencies has been clear, so I know what they need/want and am responding correctly to their requests.
As is the case with just about everyone, the pandemic has changed my previously predictable schedules, giving me a chance to reflect on my eighteen years as servant project coordinator for Mennonite Church USA conventions. I never thought for a minute, when I was asked to be servant project coordinator for Atlanta 2003, that I’d still be knee-deep in servant projects 18 years later!
Just out of curiosity, I crunched some numbers and was amazed to see that, since the Atlanta convention, 23,533 of you have fanned out into the cities where we’ve gathered to worship and play, to take an afternoon to give back to those communities. We’ve been hosted by 420 local agencies during that time, as well. Wow!
I keep doing this work, because I believe deeply in the importance of this part of convention. Starting the work of relationship-building in each convention city has been an exciting treasure hunt! Who are the people in this place, what work are they doing, how would they like us to join in for the short time we are in the city? You never know where these questions will lead and what stereotypes will be shattered or shifted — for example, Kansas City is about so much more than baseball and BBQ, and Orlando is not just about Disney World!).
But we have the opportunity to shatter stereotypes as well. I’m fortunate, because I get to hear from agencies after servant projects are over. I frequently hear, “The youth you sent us worked beyond our expectations; they thanked us for letting them come! Please send them back anytime!” A bus driver even commented on how respectful the youth that she transported to their service site were, which made a big impact on her. Servant projects are truly a time to get outside the walls of the convention center and hotels and encounter people in the cities where we’ve shown up to worship.
This opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus is a truly unique part of convention — a time to move outside our own interests, a time to see where God is present outside the convention walls, and a time to allow local communities to be the hands and feet of Jesus to us, too.
This year, COVID-19 restrictions gave us the opportunity to think of new ways to inspire acts of service, which led to Service in a Box. We know churches are already engaged in service in their own communities, but this is an opportunity to think about service collectively, as a church, and even engage in a little friendly competition! We’re excited to see the pictures you’ll send us, and based on your creativity, you may even win a pizza party for your group! Carry on, friends; go out and see where God is already at work in your community and join in that work!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.