Mennonite Church USA released a “statement on racial injustice” June 1 in response to events surrounding the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The […]
Photo: Sandy Miller (middle-left) and Ann Jacobs (middle-right) are co-leaders of the Work In Progress Ensemble, along with Lefuarn Harvey (not pictured). Photo provided.
When the Work in Progress ensemble sings at churches, congregations report being blessed by God’s healing message of harmony through racial/ethnic diversity.
During their appearance Oct. 2-3 at the annual New York Council of Mennonite Churches in Brooklyn, ensemble members said they received in return a surprise version of the blessing.
The New York Council’s 18 congregations are Black, White, Hispanic and Garifuna. Garifunas are a dark-skinned people of Central America, who are mixed with West/Central African, Arawak, and Carib heritage. Their language is also part French, English and Spanish. They embody diversity. Work in Progress embraced the Garifuna-styled songs and worship repertoire, which made for a wonderful way to experience God, ensemble members said.
“Lefuarn Harvey and I never met Garifuna brothers and sisters,” said Ann Jacobs, church relations associate for Mennonite Mission Network, who is one of the ensemble’s leaders with Harvey and Sandy Miller. Jacobs and Harvey are African-American. “When we saw people who resembled African Americans—people who looked like us—and did not speak our language, we were amazed.”
Miller, who is White and of European heritage, said that she had experienced the Garifuna language and worship music at a different church gathering, and was inspired again.
“It was unique for me to be one of the minority,” said Miller, who is director of church relations for Mission Network. “I felt totally at home and comfortable.”
Work in Progress visits congregations across the country to worship and inform them of the full scope of Mission Network’s offerings. They share stories of God’s work around the world and invite people to join and serve. Along with leading worship services, ensemble members lead workshops. About 250 people attended the New York event, where members from across New York’s five boroughs gathered to worship, fellowship, learn from each other and unite, said Pastor Benjamin Stevens, chair of the Council. Stevens and his wife, Hyacinth, co-pastor King of Glory Tabernacle in the Bronx.
The gathering was revived in 2014 after a few years on hiatus, Stevens said. This year’s theme was “Moving Forward United in Christ,” from Philippians 3:14.
Many of the ethnic/racial congregations were the result of inner city mission worker efforts dating back to the 1950s, Stevens said. The congregations grew over the years and moved to different locations.
Stevens said that coming together goes back to what all congregations are called to do.
“We’re called to spread the good news of God. What does that mean?” Stevens asked rhetorically. “It means that as churches we want to be healthy, vibrant and alive.”
Hyacinth Stevens, who met Jacobs at the 2014 “Black Mennonite Women Rock” retreat at Camp Friedenswald, suggested bringing the ensemble to New York. Jacobs, Miller and Harvey led workshops and Jacobs was a guest speaker. She preached about stepping up and being about God’s work.
“We wanted to have a woman speak to do something different and step out of the box a bit,” Stevens said. “The message Ann brought was powerful; it was timely. It was as if she had been with us for months and was one of our members.”
“The diverse combination of who we are becomes interesting to all people across the denomination,” Jacobs said. “This time became about people who wanted to connect with Work in Progress being present and offering music that the audiences recognized, and if they didn’t know the language, they recognized the tune and were happy to sing along in their language.”
It is often said that Sunday mornings are the most segregated time of the week, said Miller.
“I would guess this is true, but when you consider who the worship is for, our loving God, we are combined in spirit, creating one body of Christ,” Miller said. “The NYC churches worshiped together and then went to their own churches on Sunday. It is awesome to see the church in all its beauty.”
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