By Kate Lichti
(Mennonite Church USA) — When you ask Duane and Elaine Maust, co-pastors at Jubilee Mennonite Church in Meridian, Mississippi, about outreach at their church, they don’t quite know where to begin. It’s easy to tick off a list of programs: two food pantries, a mentoring program, a “free store,” a moms’ group, and leadership at a youth summer camp, for starters. Located in a downtown neighborhood that bears the burdens of poverty, addiction and crime, Jubilee serves as a crucial support network.
But to speak of “outreach” doesn’t quite capture Jubilee. “Outreach” could imply reaching out from the church to the local community, from an “us” to a “them.” Jubilee has been building relationships in the neighborhood for more than 25 years and, according to the Mausts, the congregation relies as much on the participation of local people as on people who drive to church from outside the city. “Outreach” could also be a separate committee, an accessory to the core identity of a church. At Jubilee, service simply is what the church does.
Building mutual relationships
“Our church is situated in a neighborhood that other churches are moving away from,” says Duane. Elaine adds, “It’s not unusual to have the windows broken or for someone who is drunk to be sleeping on the church steps.” But more importantly, she notes, “It’s also not unusual for someone to work toward recovery and become an active, thriving member.”
Transformations and long-term friendships keep this Gulf States Mennonite Conference congregation planted and growing. The Mausts remember a time near the church’s founding in 1980 when having 17 people at worship was a record Sunday. Now the church averages about 100 at worship.
A crucial part of Jubilee’s identity, the Mausts say, is the depth of church’s commitment to the neighborhood. As the congregation provides services like food pantries, English classes and a prayer ministry, members spread the message, We are your church. We are part of your neighborhood.
Regina Altman has grown up at Jubilee and appreciates that her church community has always included people of many backgrounds — Latino/a, African American, Choctaw, White — so that diversity was a normal part of her childhood. Although her parents spoke very little English when they first began attending, Regina’s family quickly formed relationships at the church. The depth of those relationships has kept Regina coming back for 25 years, she says.
“No matter what the problem is you’re going through, people don’t ask questions; they just show their love,” she reflects. As a song leader, Regina feels this love permeating Sunday mornings. “I think even visitors here can feel the love we have for each other and the Spirit moving.”
The Mausts marvel at the way that the community has shown love to them. They describe themselves as ordinary people who have fumbled through God’s call, and they rely heavily on the help and guidance of their sisters and brothers in Christ at Jubilee.
“I grew up in rural Michigan, but I’ve been very much accepted here. These are my people, too,” says Duane.
“Just the act of us gathering Sunday is a statement about love,” says Elaine. “It doesn’t matter if you were born south of the Mexican border or if you are White or if you grew up Mennonite or if you have spent time in a mental hospital — you are part of this church.”
Sometimes folks who find the church through its outreach services keep coming back to participate in congregational life. Michael Sheffield lives two blocks down, and he stopped by two years ago on a Tuesday, when the church shares snacks and water bottles. When church members invited him to worship, he knew the invitation was sincere.
“Everybody here shakes your hand and smiles,” he says. “You can see a fake smile and you can see a real smile. These are real smiles.”
Regina believes that Jubilee Church is located “right where it needs to be,” both because it can provide support to those who need it and because of the lessons she has learned from local elders in the faith. She cites her relationship with Ida, a woman who lives a few houses down from the church: “Every time I ask how she’s doing, she says, ‘I woke up today, and that’s the best thing that can happen to anybody.’ She has been such a blessing to me.”
For the past 10 years, Regina remembers, Jubilee Church has marked each new year by holding a prayer walk around the neighborhood and church, praying for everyone who will pass through. When they stop at Ida’s house, she joins them in prayer.
The church joins the neighborhood in celebration, but also in lament. Elaine and Duane recount that in the last three years, three people have been shot within a few blocks of the church. Two of those shootings were fatal. In each case, Jubilee members led a public service of remembrance at the shooting site, praying for an end to violence.
Finding joy together
Sustaining service for the long haul requires thoughtful discernment. Part of Jubilee’s process is to create a culture of service at a young age and draw from the gifts of young leaders like Regina in preaching and worship, the Mausts say.
“Everywhere you turn in this congregation, there’s a young adult leading something,” says Elaine.
A culture of service means finding joy in one’s work. “I believe in a Jesus who said, ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’” says Elaine, “but we also have a saying here at Jubilee, ‘If it ain’t fun, don’t do it.’”
Duane adds, “One thing I don’t want people here at Jubilee to feel is stuck and burnt out. If we can’t find a coordinator for a project, then we’ll take it off our list, and we’re not going to feel bad about it.”
The pastors have found that following the Holy Spirit’s lead in letting go of some projects in order to focus on others keeps the joy flowing. Michael adds, “You’re not going to leave someplace where there is joy — people want to be around that. You don’t see people leave this church. That tells me something.”
Following God’s call to love one another into their best selves has blessed the people of Jubilee Mennonite Church with a rich spiritual home. Elaine puts it simply: “Being part of Jubilee gives one the great benefit of seeing that this God stuff is real.”
Read more about Jubilee Mennonite Church in Elaine Maust’s article for Thirdway.com, “Door to Freedom.” http://thirdway.com/mennonites/living-the-faith/
Jubilee Mennonite Church provides leadership at Pine Lake Fellowship Camp in Meridian, Mississippi. Pastors Duane and Elaine Maust look on as Noah Chisolm prepares for baptism with his mentor, Matt Graybill. (Photo provided by Laurie Oswald Robinson)
Regina Altman and her husband, Antwan, after church. (Photo provided)
Michael Sheffield at the church office. (Photo provided)
(l. to r.) Lakeshia Ratcliff, Tyeshianna Earl, Jenna Abel, Zion Roberts and Amya Moffite share “God’s Groceries” on distribution day at Jubilee Mennonite Church in Meridian, Mississippi. Amya and Jenna are two of the 2017 Class of Hope Scholars, who through Jubilee’s Community of Hope serve 100 volunteer hours in exchange for mentoring and a college scholarship. (Photo provided by Laurie Oswald Robinson)