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Two churches, one vision


An eight person delegation representing Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church (Altona, Man.) visited Mennonites in Colombia on a Mennonite Church Canada Learning Tour from Feb. 9-19. Last Row (l-r): Dan Kehler, Ron Voth; Middle row: Menno Friesen, Ricardo (tour guide), Carlos Diez (coffee farmer), Irene Suderman (volunteer MC Canada Learning Tour Leader), Sharon Friesen, Wendy Friesen, Crystal Kehler; Front Row: Ed and Erna Doell.

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March 16, 2007
by Dan Kehler

Altona, Man. — Recently, I was blessed by the opportunity to visit Colombia by participating in a visiting delegation from my congregation, Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church.

As part of a Mennonite Church Canada Learning Tour, one purpose of this trip was to visit our sister congregation in Madrid. There are many differences between our congregations, but there are similarities that draw us together in a bond so strong it overcomes the many social, economic, cultural and contextual barriers that challenge our relationship. We share a desire to be a part of the Kingdom of God and a struggle to be a faithful witness in the communities where we are located. We believe that we are called to bring the light of the world, the bread of life and the love of Jesus to a hurting world. But that is where the similarities end.

It is ironic that both churches have undertaken a major renovation of the building they occupy. When we arrived at the Madrid site, I was surprised that they were still in the middle of a building project.

They had previously shared with us that they were in the process of adding a room for their Sunday School, but our idea of “in the process” was quite different. For us, “in the process” involved hiring a contractor, making a loan and standing aside as the work was done by hired workers. Only a few people from our congregation got their hands dirty.

For the Madrid congregation, “in the process” meant buying materials as money became available. It included the hard work of church members once they had accumulated enough material to begin. When we arrived, “in the process” meant that that there was rubble and trash heaped up in two sections of the church. It was pushed aside to make room for people to walk from the sanctuary to the new Sunday School room. “In the process” meant that some of the new walls still revealed un-faced brick where the plaster had run out.

Our German roots showed when we suggested that we could roll up our sleeves, put on our work gloves, and help take out the trash. With the language barrier, it took some time but we eventually found out why the trash was still in the building. No one in the congregation had a truck and the fees at the landfill site were high. Currently, there was no money to rent a truck and pay the dumping fees.

In our congregation there are an abundance of trucks. But these trucks are not used to haul rubbish. It may scratch the paint or damage the box liner. Instead, we hire a company that provides a dumpster for the rubble and discreetly hauls it away. Then we complain that the sidewalk was damaged as the heavy truck hauled away the trash. But we both struggle to be faithful with the economic resources with which we have been blessed.

When we arrived at the Madrid church, we were expecting to be billeted in the homes of members. But they couldn’t find enough places for our group of two couples and four singles. Instead, we were offered the generous hospitality of the upper room over the new Sunday School.

They had collected beds and sheets from members in the congregation and brought them to the church and set up a makeshift co-ed dormitory for eight people. I was scared to ask how they got all the beds to the church if no one in the congregation had a truck.

The space was small – smaller than most of our living rooms. But it was offered in love, and decorated with fresh flowers. Our hosts provided a large basket of fresh fruit and an assortment of Colombian treats and snacks.

Instead of being immediately grateful, I was uncomfortable with the tight quarters, a single bathroom with only a curtain for privacy. But as I thought about the situation, I was overwhelmed with the display. Somewhere in Madrid, eight people were sleeping on the floor that night so that we could sleep in beds. Our congregation has enough extra rooms and beds to host a group of people twice the size of the Madrid congregation.

As it turned out, that night in tight quarters was my most memorable night in Colombia. The conversation that evening after we had all turned in for the night was delightfully poignant. In the darkness of the room and under the safety of blankets, our guards came down.

I was blessed as a pastor that evening. I learned more about my travel companions that evening than in eight years of congregational ministry. What are we missing in our congregation by insisting on our privacy and existing in large homes with much space to be individuals? Both congregations struggle to be a community of God’s people.

Our fist meal together also proved to be a struggle. In their desire to host us well, our Madrid brothers and sisters served individual plates for lunch containing a hearty meal. Each plate included a large portion of beef, a healthy scoop of beans and a delicious salad. For many of us it was more food than we could eat. Not wanting to be wasteful, and knowing that they had sacrificed much to provide such a feast, I ate my entire serving as well as the portion that my spouse found to be too much. There was some tension after lunch when the plates were cleaned up and there was more than one full plate of food left.

That afternoon, I tried to do some damage control and ask that smaller portions be served for supper with the possibility of a little left in the kitchen for seconds for those that needed more. As I though about this request I was painfully aware that my motive came from knowing that they had sacrificed much to feed us. Even as I struggled to communicate this through the interpreter, I knew how much food was in our fridge back home and how much would eventually find its way to the garbage bin. We are surrounded by food and have so much that we think little of throwing food out when we have no need of it. We both struggle to be responsible with the provision of God through the goodness of the earth.

May God help us as we learn from each other and struggle together.

Dan Kehler is the Associate Pastor at Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church in Altona, Man.. Dan, his wife Crystal, and 6 other members participated in a Mennonite Church Canada Learning Tour to Colombia from Feb 9 - 19, 2007.