‘Blessed by God to be a blessing’

First Mennonite Kitchener celebrates bicentennial

October 9, 2013 | God at work in the Church
By Dave Rogalsky | Eastern Canada Correspondent
Kitchener, Ont.
Rachel Kehl makes her own path to the future at First Mennonite Kitchener’s 200th anniversary fiesta.

A 200th anniversary fiesta broke out on First Mennonite Church’s parking lot on Sept. 28 with a bouncy castle, face painting, and worship in Spanish and English with the invitation “¡Bienvenidos todos y todas!”

Bishop Clayton Derstine, who served the congregation in the early part of the last century, would not have recognized the scene. Known to both pointedly wake up parishioners during his sermons, or emphatically quiet children and youth he deemed to be too noisy, Derstine pastored First Mennonite Church, Kitchener for nearly 40 years, overseeing the addition of around 400 new members in those years as Swiss Mennonites moved from farms and villages into the city.

Tom Yoder Neufeld, a member of the anniversary committee, noted that Derstine was seen as radical in his time, pioneering the city’s House of Friendship and other projects.

Besides the fiesta, planned by the Hispanic part of the congregation, two worship services and a tree-planting service happened on Sept. 29. Janet Plenert of Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Disaster Service spoke at the afternoon service on the anniversary theme, “Blessed by God to be a blessing.”

As current congregational chair Brent Martin put it, beginning to look to the church’s 200th anniversary set the congregation on a renewal journey. There were questions about the building, which was not fitting the needs of the congregation. The successful Logos program, with a hundred children and youth, could really use a gym. And as the style of worship evolved, the sanctuary did not really fit their needs.

But the idea of a multi-million-dollar project and the ensuing mortgage led him and others to the conclusion that they were not really unified around their vision as a congregation. A multi-year renewal journey has resulted in new energy and focus. The end of the journey coincided with a complete turnover of staff last year for a variety of reasons and gave the congregation the freedom to hire Nancy Brubaker as lead pastor, René Baergen as pastor of Hispanic ministries, Christina Edmiston as pastor of worship and music, and David Penny as youth pastor. Penny resigned just before the bicentennial.

One of the major decisions in the renewal was that the congregation is multicultural. It presently has two worship services, one mainly Spanish on Saturday evening and the other mainly English on Sunday morning, but they are both full worship services of the congregation. There is no plan for the Hispanic part of the congregation, made up of refugees and their families from Central and South America, to begin their own congregation as the Hmong did after worshipping at First for many years before starting First Hmong Mennonite Church in their own building

In many ways Kitchener has grown up around First. Now in the downtown core, the church was in the country when it was founded by immigrants from Pennsylvania in 1813. Edmiston noted that there are many opportunities for the congregation by being downtown, including continued interaction with refugees like the Hispanic and Hmong, and now many others.

Sharon Lamont, currently church historian, said the building is a major resource that the congregation is already sharing with the community, but which has many more potential uses in the future. Shalom Healing and Worship Centre, an Eritrean congregation of 90 that is exploring a relationship with Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, meets in the building on Sunday afternoons.

Although attendance is down from Derstine’s heyday, the 170 regular congregants are focused together with energy on their future as a multicultural urban church. The descendants of the Swiss/South German founders are learning with their Hispanic co-members what it means to be Anabaptist Mennonite in a new century.

Rachel Kehl makes her own path to the future at First Mennonite Kitchener’s 200th anniversary fiesta.

Christina Edmiston, worship and music pastor, guides a young participant at First Mennonite Kitchener’s 200th anniversary fiesta on Sept. 28 to hear Ronno, an internationally known children’s performer who makes First Mennonite his home.

Dave Rivera cooks up dinner at First Mennonite Kitchener’s 200th anniversary fiesta.

Brent Martin, chair of the First Mennonite Church Kitchener leadership team, left, and Nancy Brubaker, lead pastor, right, along with many member of the congregation, watch as Noa Baergen helps plant a tree at the church’s 200th-anniversary celebrations on Sept. 29.

The Women’s Missionary and Service Commission (WMSC) held a Pioneer Tea to celebrate the contributions of women like Mary Brubacher, Barbara Bowman Shuh and Mary Ann (Nahrgang) Cressman. A commemorative wall-hanging by Lisa Packull, second from right, and sewn, quilted and appliquéd by members of the WMSC was unveiled. Also pictured, from left to right: Grace Weber, Pat Janowski, Judy Gascho-Jutzi and Elizabeth Rudy.

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