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Virginia Mennonite Missions celebrates 100 years

11.25. 2019 Written By: Carol Tobin, Virginia Mennonite Missions 273 Times read

Photo: Current and former workers, board and staff of Virginia Mennonite Missions share food and conversation. Photo by Jon Trotter.

Hundreds gathered to celebrate the centennial year of Virginia Mennonite Missions in Harrisonburg, Virginia, including leaders from the Italian Mennonite Church, Jamaica Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church of Trinidad and Tobago, in recognition of the key role VMMissions has played in their own histories.

Those leaders were featured at events held Nov. 2-3 that included a reunion brunch for present and former workers, staff and board members, a banquet to honor financial and prayer partners, an evening worship service and a Sunday afternoon music concert.

Francesco Picone, with his wife, Martha, shares the story of how he came to faith through the influence of Mennonite missionaries in Italy. Photo by Jon Trotter.

VMMissions President Aaron Kauffman framed the entire celebration with the image of a sailboat. “The church in mission is like a boat,” Kauffman said, “built upon the good news of Jesus, powered by the wind of the Spirit, seeking the far horizon of God’s new creation.”

In his opening remarks, Kauffman referenced John S. Coffman as a Virginia Mennonite leader whose “sails” were up to catch the wind of God’s Spirit in the Shenandoah Valley after the Civil War. Coffman and other itinerant preachers made grueling forays over the mountains into West Virginia to hold evangelistic meetings in schoolhouses, resulting in the emergence of over a dozen Mennonite churches.

Following one such trip in 1880, Coffman wrote, “What we need is home mission work. A mission board should be created and evangelists should be sent out under the care of the board.” It took nearly four decades, but Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities — now known as VMMissions — came into being in the fall of 1919.

After 30 years of outreach throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, VMMissions went to Italy and Jamaica in the 1950s. Relationships in these locations eventually led to expansion into Guyana, Trinidad and Belize in the Caribbean, as well as Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro in the Mediterranean.

Fifty years later, VMMissions again expanded its reach by sending long-term workers, often in partnership with other mission agencies, to locations in Asia, Europe and Africa. Most recently, through its short-term program, E3Collective, VMMissions has sent teams to Jordan, Greece, Kenya and Thailand as a way of engaging the worldwide refugee crisis.

Francesco Picone, president of the Italian Mennonite Church, cited connections in his childhood with these early missionaries as the source of his own his lifelong commitment to Jesus Christ and the church. He presented a recently published copy of Menno Simons’ works in Italian as a gift to commemorate VMMissions’ centennial.

Likewise, William George Broughton, president of the Jamaica Mennonite Church, spoke with deep gratitude for the witness he encountered among Mennonites, enabling him to be born again. “I was brought from religion into new life in Jesus Christ,” Broughton said. He expressed appreciation for the ongoing support from VMMissions after Jamaicans like himself assumed leadership of the work.

Deolal Ramdial, president of the Mennonite Church of Trinidad and Tobago, recalled Dr. Richard Keeler, whose ministry among leprosy patients resulted in some of those patients coming to faith in Jesus. It was one of those former patients who shared the gospel with a Hindu boy who lived across the street—Ramdial himself. “May our partnership with VMMissions continue to the end,” Ramdial said, “until the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Both the brunch and the worship service were full of testimonies, some humorous, others heart-wrenching. Casey DeYoung, recently returned from her second short-term trip to Lesvos, Greece, held in her hands a woman’s scarf she had retrieved from the piled debris of life jackets and rubber boats on the shores of the island. It was a reminder of the people of Syria who have risked and lost their lives in their search for safety.

Yugo Prasetyo, a long-term worker in a slum in Southeast Asia, asked, “How will we be agents of reconciliation among the one in seven persons in our world who live in slums? If we call ourselves followers, we will follow Jesus into the slums? What entitlements do we need to surrender?”

Rachel Yoder, current worker among college students and young adults in Harrisonburg, Virginia, expressed enthusiasm for what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do, with a closing comment that brought applause: “Let’s do another 100 years.”

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