Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five columns written by Ron Byler, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. executive director, to mark 100 […]
Photo: Seth, Theresa and Eliana Crissman. Photo by The Pinwheel Collective LLC.
In an effort to highlight the many Anabaptists engaged in important work and ministry across the country and around the world, we’re starting a new series. Each Thursday, we’ll publish a seven question interview with a different Mennonite talking about their life, work, spiritual disciplines and influences. You can view past interviews here.
Name: Seth Thomas Crissman
Hometown: Harrisonburg, Va.
Home congregation: Eastside Church
Hannah Heinzekehr: Tell me about the ministry that your family is currently engaged in. How did it begin?
My wife Theresa and I walk with congregations as they share and receive God’s love while living in relationship with their neighbors. We call it “Kids Club.” We also help churches work together. It’s so good when churches can work together.
Theresa and I were working with music and worship at Eastside Church [in Harrisonburg, Va.]. We felt the Holy Spirit calling us to a different work. We were both teachers (Theresa still is) and we recognized a lot of the needs that existed in our city. Some friends recognized that a lot of kids didn’t have a place to go after school and were hanging around the church. We approached [Eastside pastors] Peter Eberly and Matt Schwartz and said, “Hey, we think God is saying something, and we need to follow.” We talked about what we thought God was doing, and how we might fit into it. They let us stop working with music, asked good questions and prayed with us. Then they asked what we needed.
I think I said, “Snacks,” because the Good News is for the whole body. So many kids are food insecure, so food was a good idea. And we ended up needing a lot of other things as well. Eventually, we struck up a partnership between Eastside and another local church, Ridgeway Mennonite Church, to begin building relationships with our neighbors through a Kids Club that met one day a week after school. It was incredible. After two years in that partnership, we were approached by folks at Immanuel Mennonite Church and Early Church in Harrisonburg. They told us they also had kids in their neighborhood that needed a place to be. There were lots of kids around the churches but not necessarily from them. Again, we started listening to our neighbors in the community. We listened to God. After lots of listening, we launched another congregational partnership between those two churches.
As I finished seminary, some friends and church leaders told us, “Hey Seth and Theresa, we think God might be calling you to do this after you finish seminary.” We had talked about bi-vocational ministry, but we were a bit caught off-guard [by this idea]. After much prayer, we connected with the folks at Virginia Mennonite Missions. They’ve been extremely helpful.
So VMMissions launched us as a long-term missionary team in the US, which is something they haven’t done for a long time. Missiologists talk about the axis of missions shifting, and I think they’re right. We work with Skip Tobin, VMMissions’ director of US Ministries, to provide coaching for churches. We’re helping churches listen to God and each other and see what God is saying to them. We walk with them as they seek to be communities through which God encounters the world with healing and hope. We help churches listen to their community and their neighbors to learn more about their uniqueness, gifts and needs. Then we start a Kids Club in the neighborhood.
We currently partner with several churches in the Shenandoah Valley. They’ve all been incredible to partner with so far. It’s so clear that Holy Spirit is at work. One example of what’s happening is with the Kids Club at Waynesboro (Va.) Mennonite Church. It’s been beautiful to see how only a few relationships with children in the neighborhood have blossomed into 40 kids coming every week. It’s a safe space. It’s a place where they can share God’s love and give God’s love. It’s a place where they can be kids. Waynesboro Mennonite isn’t a large congregation, but they are “on board,” and God is moving. It’s really beautiful.
HH: You’ve sort of addressed this already, but where do you see God moving in your day-to-day work?
I get to see kids learn to love the people around them in the way of Jesus. I get to see racial reconciliation in one of our neighborhoods. I get to see churches supporting families that are in vulnerable places. I get to see God’s hands and feet, reaching out in love, creating safe spaces for children.
Churches co-laboring outside of their own congregations are also quite a sight. I see God at work as team members from all the churches we partner with pray and plan together. Theresa meets with them as they work to articulate the Gospel in contextualized ways. We listen to churches say, “This is God’s work and it’s not about us.”
I also see God at work through our daughter, Eliana, who is 10 months old. I watch her while Theresa teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) in Harrisonburg. Jesus really esteems children in the Gospels. I’m learning a lot about who God is as Eliana and I walk through the neighborhood and pray for our neighbors. God is really teaching me through her.
HH: That’s a good segueway into the next question. How does parenting shape your work with other children?
Theresa and I have always loved working with children: at churches, camps and through the public school system as teachers. But being parents is really different.
Children have “little voices.” That is to say they are a very vulnerable population that is incredibly reliant on others, mostly adults. Unfortunately, since they are “small” they often are included very peripherally in our church budgets and government’s spending. Children are vulnerable and too often we do not prioritize them in the way Jesus taught us to do. It seems like our scripture, theology and practice are sometimes disconnected when it comes to children.
Being a parent pulls my eyes to the “little” parables more often. Jesus so often describes the Kingdom of God as being like something little: a mustard seed, a lost coin, a little bit of yeast. And becoming like children is the only way into God’s Kingdom. Jesus says to welcome such a child is to welcome him.
There are many folks who are vulnerable in our congregations and neighborhoods. I think being a parent has clued me into a deeper understanding of how vulnerable children really are. I’ve experienced more acutely the call to create safe places where these voices can be heard as they give and receive God’s love.
HH: You are also a part of another ministry, The Walking Roots Band. Tell me a little bit about the genesis of that group.
Some of us started playing together when we were students at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
Others went to other schools. In 2011-2012, after a few years of playing sporadically, the mist coalesced into something more solid. We started writing a lot of music together and performing regularly. We always loved it. We loved the way music connects us with so many different people, both inside and outside of the church. Our writing and performing suddenly exploded. We went from doing a dozen shows a year to 60-70 per year. It really took off.
It’s like an extended family. We cook together, we play together and we also play music together. It’s family.
HH: Who or what were your key musical influences?
For me, my brother (Dr.) Jonathan Crissman has shaped me so much as a musician. He’s a professor of classical guitarist out of Phoenix, Ariz. He invested a lot in me musically and introduced me to folk music. He was very supportive and also really increased my competency as a musician. That’s one of my biggest influences.
As a writer: Greg Yoder [of the Walking Roots]. He writes [music] like he breathes. He’s an incredibly gifted writer. He’s taught me so much over the last six years, and has helped my find my voice as a songwriter. He’s been a huge influence.
As a band, there are a lot of people who shape us as musicians, as well as our perspective on what we’re doing. We write about all different subject matter: with sacred texts and texts that most people would say weren’t sacred (but we would argue with them!). We are blessed to have amazing communities surrounding us that help us think about who we are and what we are doing as followers of Jesus who create music together.
HH: How do you think music opens up doors for ministry or connection?
Music is such a big part of our world. We get to share music with people from a lot of different places and experiences, both inside and outside of the church. We write music about all of life: our families, love, loss, where we’re from, farming and faith. I think Greg [Yoder] says it best: we’re as equally comfortable at a music festival or a bar on Saturday night as we are at a worship service on Sunday morning, because we believe that God is in both places and we want to be there, too.
We get to hear so many stories of how folks have connected with a song. Sometimes it’s the Michigan farming songs that caught them. Other times it’s the lament from our last album, Light, or a song of hope in the midst of difficulty.
Hearing people’s stories has been humbling and affirming. God uses music to create spaces where people can be encountered by God, whether they’re expecting it or not. Ultimately, we share music because we have experienced good news in Jesus. We stand with so many who have come before us as the church.
So we’ve made four albums. Two of them (Shelter and Light) are part of our Hymn Reclamation Project where we’ve written new folk tunes to old sacred texts. One is an album of original folk music about love, the seasons, the land and family. And our latest project, Prayers for the Church, was a project sponsored by Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Each project works together to connect with different people where they are at, which is pretty cool.
HH: Are there people you would identify as key mentors for you? What was so important about those connections?
Mama Joy, Joy Cotchen. She’s invested a lot in both Theresa and me. She’s the conference youth minister for Allegheny Mennonite Conference. Joy hired us both at Laurelville as staffers. Theresa was on youth cabinet with her as well. Joy and Peter [Eberly] married us together. Joy and Peter and Natalie Eberly have been huge blessings and mentors in our lives.
Joy is always someone I can talk to and who always is willing to pray with us and just be with us. She’s someone who I really respect for just the way that she is always very welcoming and walks with people into faith.
Every church community I’ve been a part of has created spaces for me to be poured into and walked with. I think about folks like Ben and Sarah Bixler and so many others who have helped me consider the theological implications of the songs that we sing and who we are to be as the church.
Within my family I feel like my parents really invested a lot in me and in helping me to understand the posture of a Christian: one that recognizes that children are important. They taught me the story of God’s love and God’s Mission (Missio Dei) in the world.
My seminary professors at Eastern Mennonite Seminary have been treasured mentors, particularly my Hebrew professors. They are all incredible [Dr. Saner, Dr. Solanki, and Dr. Engle]. Dr. Jim Engle helped me open up Scripture differently and see the complexity and beauty of it. He told me once that sometimes the messages the prophets brought were so old they sounded new. That didn’t make them any less relevant (care for the poor and the sojourner among you). This wisdom has helped frame our work now: it doesn’t need to be new for it to be Spirit-filled. Loving your neighbor as yourself isn’t new. Our work, Kids Club, isn’t a new idea. It’s the same “Good News.”
Listen to The Walking Roots:
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