On a Sunday afternoon in February, youth from three USMB churches in South Dakota gathered for the first time to share in worship and fellowship. More than 50 youth and their sponsors from Bethesda Church in Huron and Bethel MB Church in Yale together traveled the 125 miles from Huron to Sioux Falls, where the congregation of New Jerusalem Temple meets for Sunday services.
The idea for the gathering was largely conceived and planned by Helene Wedel, Sunday school coordinator at Bethesda Church. Wedel is the secretary for the Central District Conference and says she has been inspired by hearing the conference’s district minister, Rick Eshbaugh, speak often about the immigrant churches that have joined the conference.
“God has given (Eshbaugh) a deep passion for immigrants and ethnic groups, and he sees the hand of God in bringing these people to the United States,” Wedel says. “He told us of his hope that our churches that have been around a while would create friendships with newer churches, whether that’s church plants or ethnic churches. It’s his dream that we would just be one and we would have a friendship and a care for each other.”
When Wedel recently took on the role of Sunday school coordinator for children and youth at Bethesda, she was looking for ways to bring new life and energy to the church’s Sunday morning classes.
“I could think of all these cool ideas for little kids, but what do you do that’s fun and unique for junior high and high school that they’re not already doing in their youth group?” says Wedel.
Her desire to give the youth a chance to experience something new and exciting outside of Huron collided with her desire to connect with immigrant churches, and she landed on the idea of taking the youth to visit one of the CDC’s ethnic churches in Sioux Falls.
Wedel shared her idea with Anthony Lind, Bethesda’s youth pastor, who said he had had the same idea a couple years ago before Covid derailed his plans. “We have a really good group of high school kids right now; they’re pretty engaged and serious about their faith,” Lind says.
One denominational family
Eshbaugh suggested they visit New Jerusalem Temple, a church started in 2015 by Claude Tambatamba, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The NJT congregation joined the Central District Conference in 2017, and currently holds services in the facilities of Christ Community Church, another CDC congregation.
Wedel and Lind decided to invite youth from nearby Bethel MB Church to join them for the visit.
Lud Hohm and his wife, Julie, teach the seventh and eighth grade Sunday school class at Bethel, and were familiar with New Jerusalem Temple and some of the people there. Hohm, who is chair of the Bethel Church elder board, serves on the CDC’s church plant committee and the USMB Leadership Board.
“Being a teacher, and knowing the church well and having visited a few times, it worked out really well,” says Hohm. “I was really excited for our kids to experience something different in our own conference, to get to know them better and to experience fellowship.”
On the morning of their trip, the youth and sponsors met at Bethesda for a short orientation to their fellow CDC church. They ate lunch in Sioux Falls before joining the congregation at NJT for their afternoon worship service.
“They are very generous in how they welcome you and make you feel like an honored guest,” Lind says.
The Bethel and Bethesda youth were invited on stage at one point to join in with the music, a highlight for many of them. An interpreter translated the teaching into English, and following the service, everyone enjoyed a traditional Congolese meal.
Wedel hoped the visit would give students an appreciation for being part of the MB family and also show the value of celebrating the diversity of background, life experience and even worship style within that family.
“I thought this would be a super way to expand their understanding of the church,” Wedel says. “We’re all part of the kingdom of God. We are one in Jesus Christ, but we’re even closer than that because we’re in the same denominational family.”
Tambatamba says that after spending time in prayer years ago about partnering with that CDC family, he felt the conviction to join.
“I felt a kind of special connection, and that was the beginning of working together,” Tambatamba says. “The Mennonite Brethren family is praying for us, giving good advice, showing us the love of God.”
Wedel says, “They need us, but we need them. It’s such a beneficial relationship.”
Brothers and sisters
The feedback from the youth of all three churches involved is overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic.
“I had hoped that it would be well received, but I was blown away,” says Wedel.
After putting in hours of planning, Wedel was unable to go herself due to developing COVID-19 symptoms.
“On their way home, I had several kids from different carloads call me because they knew how sad I was that I had to stay home,” Wedel says. “They told me what they had learned and how excited they were.”
Abby Kate Hamilton is a high school senior who attends Bethel with her family and is part of the church’s Wednesday night youth group, and she also attends youth group at Bethesda on Sunday nights. She had heard of New Jerusalem Temple from Hohm in Sunday school and immediately expressed interested in going to visit.
“I have always really loved learning about different cultures,” Hamilton says. “I have also wanted to be a missionary or serve in Africa in some way for a while now, so I was very excited to be able to experience a little bit of their culture and to see the passion that they have for worshipping Jesus.”
She says she especially enjoyed talking with students from NJT after the service.
“I think that my favorite part was either the passionate worship or just meeting and talking to the people afterward,” Hamilton says. “It was really fun to get to know them and just hear a little bit about their stories.”
She still communicates occasionally via texting with a couple of the girls she met and says she would love to have another opportunity to visit the church.
A senior from Bethesda Church, Josalyn Wipf also enjoyed the music at NJT, but hesitates to refer to only the songs as the worship time “because at this place, it all felt like worship.”
Wipf says, “The singing was in a different language that I could not understand, yet it still made me cry because Jesus is real and raw and present across all barriers.”
When it came time for the visiting group of students and leaders to leave, several of the youth expressed reluctance to end their time together.
“It was even very difficult to separate them when it was time to leave,” Tambatamba says. “It was not easy; they were really like brothers and sisters.”
The leaders and students from all three churches hope to continue finding opportunities to gather and strengthen their new friendships. Tambatamba specifically emphasizes the importance of these youth getting to know one another and working together to spread the gospel.
“We learn from each other; there is what we have to learn from the American churches, and there is what Americans have to learn from migrant churches,” Tambatamba says. “This contact opens the door for the future and for other generations. All of them together can help each other to achieve great things to preach the gospel of God.”
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Blue Springs, Missouri. She and her husband, Joel, are both graduates of Tabor College. The couple has two children.