Ministries range from transitional homes to a retirement community to programs supporting youth
By Hilary J. Scarsella
ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Church USA)—Mennonites preparing to gather July 1–6 in Phoenix for the biennial convention of Mennonite Church USA may wonder what kind of presence Mennonites have offered in this city of nearly 1.5 million residents—the sixth most populous city in the U.S.
Steve Good, pastor of Sunnyslope Mennonite Church in downtown Phoenix, says that the Mennonite presence in Phoenix began in the 1940s.
“Doctors sent people here from all over the country in hopes that a dryer climate would bring relief from allergies, arthritis, asthma and all sorts of other ailments,” he says. “We began as a gathering of the sick.”
Peter Wiebe, former pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church, adds that Phoenix experienced another influx of Mennonites in the 1960s when many young adults came to the city as voluntary service workers and students.
“They worked mostly with people in poverty, with migrants, and with those who were ill in hospitals,” he says.
Today, Mennonites in Phoenix number around 1,000 and belong to at least ten churches. There are six Mennonite Church USA congregations, three Conservative Mennonite Conference congregations and one Church of God in Christ Mennonite (also known as Holdeman Mennonite) congregation.
“We consider ourselves an ecumenical community,” Wiebe explains. “Since there aren’t many of us Anabaptists around here, we have to stick together!”
Wiebe notes that Mennonite leaders in the Valley [of the Sun] have enjoyed gathering for conversation when opportunities have arisen to connect with guests from the wider Mennonite Church. “We are far from the Mennonite heartlands, and every ‘outside’ resource here is special,” he says.
Many Mennonite initiatives in Phoenix are supported by congregations within and outside of Mennonite Church USA.
For example, Glencroft Retirement Community was started by Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers and the Apostolic Church, according to Wiebe. This member organization of Mennonite Health Services Alliance provides housing for 900 residents on a continuum of care.
“Mennonites are quite involved in Glencroft, but the services provided by Glencroft definitely reach the wider Phoenix community,” Wiebe says.
House of Refuge and House of Hope are transitional homes that provide long-term assistance to men and women, respectively, who make a commitment to develop the skills necessary to recover from poverty and homelessness. While 25 to 30 congregations support these ministries, Sunnyslope Mennonite Church has been the primary support for House of Refuge for more than 25 years. House of Hope was started two years ago.
“This is a way for people who can’t support themselves to get back on their feet,” says Good. “We are a city church, and there is a lot of need.”
First Mennonite Church of Phoenix reaches out to the city through a weekly Wednesday after-school program for more than 40 at-risk youth. Pastor Al Whaley says they pick up youth from the neighborhood in two vehicles—one seating 30 and the other 15—and bring them to the church for planned activities.
“All of the teachers are beyond retirement age, and the youth are in grades 1 to 12,” he says. “We have the oldsters teaching the youngsters, and it works! They accept us, and this ministry is God’s gift to us.”
Another example of broader Mennonite cooperation is Aim Right, a ministry of Conservative Mennonite Conference congregations that receives support from Mennonite Church USA congregations. Aim Right’s goal is to provide youth with positive direction for their lives.
Goldensun, a faith-based organization and residential community that serves adults with special needs, is another Phoenix ministry initiated by Mennonites. The Goldensun community also includes the Phoenix Menno Guest House, which is located near Trinity Mennonite Church and is designed to provide Christian hospitality to visitors and short-term volunteers. The seven-room guest house has a full-time host and hostess and is available as a bed and breakfast and for weekend conferences, small group getaways and other meetings. In the past year, many Executive Board staff members and Convention Planning volunteers have stayed at the guesthouse when traveling to Phoenix for meetings.
“We believe the guest house supports the Mennonite presence in Phoenix in a good way, helping us connect to the wider Mennonite Church and to provide an Anabaptist witness to others,” says Wiebe.
Participants in Mennonite Mission Network’s Service Opportunities for Older People (SOOP) program are regularly hosted by Phoenix Mennonites. Other Mennonites run a house repair program that assists those who can no longer care for their own homes. Still others build homes in Mexico for those in need. And, everyone, says Wiebe, cares for their neighbors.
What kind of impact does Arizona SB1070, a law that makes it a crime to assist people who are undocumented, have on one’s ability to care for one’s neighbor in Phoenix?
Pastor Good says, “I have people in my congregation who listen to Rush Limbaugh and others who listen to NPR [National Public Radio]. But I tell you, if anyone in my church has a neighbor who is hungry, they’ll feed them.”
Phoenix congregations that belong to Mennonite Church USA through Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference are Christ Life Chapel, First Mennonite Church of Phoenix, Koinonia Mennonite Church (Chandler), Life House Community (Surprise), Sunnyslope Mennonite Church and Trinity Mennonite Church (Glendale).