Hesston College partnerships in Philadelphia bring lessons and renewal to students


by Larry Bartel, originally published by Hesston College

Bryce Blake, Johann Reimer, Keith Showalter, Wideline Charles, Juan Marrero, Emily Miller, Smilla Burklin and Kelbe Edwards at Crossroads Community Center in Fairhill hood. Photo by Larry Bartel, courtesy of Hesston College

“They say it takes a village, but maybe the better word for us is partnership,” says Michele Hershberger, Bible professor at Hesston College. “And this partnership is a foretaste of the kingdom of God.”

Hershberger is the leader of an unusual college experience called Urban Life and Culture and the partnership she’s referring to includes Hesston College, Mennonite Disaster Service, Crossroads Community Center, Everence and Kingdom Builders Network. By sharing resources and working together, these organizations make it possible for Hesston College students to experience urban life and culture first hand.

While some might consider Urban Life and Culture just another course at Hesston College, the physical classroom setting shifts through several neighborhoods in Philadelphia, creating a one-of-a-kind cross-cultural encounter. The classroom sometimes looks like a Puerto Rican row house or a bodega in Hunting Park, while at other times it looks more like a church in South Philly, a food pantry on Broad Street or even an office in Kensington. The classroom often looks like a van as well.

“Sometimes we need to debrief all the things we’ve experienced,” says student Wideline Charles, “and the van is a safe place to ask all the ‘Why?’ questions.”

The classroom van is made possible through a partnership between Hesston College and Mennonite Disaster Service. MDS rents one of its vans to the college for the duration of the three-week class, allowing all students and faculty the opportunity to be together and share openly no matter where their next destination might be. Navigating this classroom on wheels is Johann Reimer, Hesston’s director of the School of Engineering. Reimer represents a second partnership.

“Johann volunteered to help with this class, knowing that we needed another faculty member on this trip and a person who loves the challenge of urban driving,” says Hershberger. “It may seem like engineering is a far cry from cultural studies, but not for Johann. He provides invaluable help.”

The next partnerships are highlighted through the education the Hesston College class received from three indigenous church leaders representing three different cultures. During the first week, Bishop Juan Marrero of Crossroads Community Center taught on Puerto Rican culture and systemic racism. Pastor Aldo Siahaan of Philadelphia Praise Center taught the second week on Indonesian-American culture and the issue of immigration. Leonard Dow, vice president of community and church development for Everence, tied it all together in the final week with his teaching on the African-American story of economic justice and the Great Migration to Philadelphia and other urban centers—a fascinating and frustrating study of how racism and poverty feed each other.

All three leaders connect their work to an Anabaptist context and show how the church is making a difference in Philadelphia. Student Keith Showalter was excited to learn about the financial products and services to which Dow and Everence financial wellness manager Kevin Gil were contributing.

“I saw a Christian organization in a place many people write off,” Showalter explains. “We witnessed a passion that Kevin [Gil] and Leonard [Dow] have for their community in regard to finance. I loved their ability to come up with creative ways to teach financial responsibility to those who were never taught another way. They are breaking generations of financial illiteracy. They are making a huge difference.”

Hershberger and the other leaders also worked to help students see the people of Philadelphia differently. Student Anita Castle was amazed by the revelations she received during this cross-cultural immersion.

“The stories Pastor Aldo [Siahaan] shared with us made me aware of the struggles and complexities that I never knew!” Castle shared. “They also made me ache for people who—just like me—want to work, provide for their families, get their education so they can pursue their dreams! They are just like me!”

Another student, Emily Miller, agreed.

“While Pastor Juan [Marrero] was talking about the racism his people have faced, I knew this is something that means a lot to him,” Miller explained. “I ached for him and his people because as a white woman, I have never had to experience something like that, and I have never had to go through the things that the people of this neighborhood have.”

The partnerships don’t stop with these individuals teaching Hesston College students, it overflows into the organizations they represent. Crossroads Community Center, where Marrero serves as director, is another key partnership as they provide lodging for the Hesston College class during the three weeks they’re in Philadelphia. This ministry is located in the Fairhill neighborhood, a hood that has been coined the “Badlands” by TV personality Ted Koppel on “Dateline.” Crossroads and Marrero are working to change this perception.

“There are reasons why there’s gun violence here—yes,” says Marrero. “It’s because people are frustrated. The jobs are gone. But we’re working to make this community healthier.”

Marrero promotes boxing as a way to keep kids off the streets and teach them conflict transformation—he even gave Hesston College students a chance to enter the ring and learn some boxing basics. Marrero’s staff also runs a summer children’s program, as well as a year-round food pantry of which students were on call during their stay.

Kingdom Builders Network is another partner. This organization consists of Anabaptist-affiliated congregations and ministries who commit to working together to further God’s kingdom in the city. Up to 25 congregational leaders meet monthly, praying for the city and working to bring systemic change. They come from widely different theological stances on some issues, but that doesn’t stop them from working together, in their own partnership, to nurture the health of many communities.

While KBN doesn’t do a lot of direct interaction with Hesston students, it does host a Pentecost service during the three weeks of the class. Eight different languages and cultures were represented this year, and Hesston College students were able to participate in a joyous potluck with foods from several cultures, hand-clapping and singing, powerful preaching and a communion service.

“Seeing so many people from different ethnic backgrounds being so respectful of each other made me very happy and gave me hope for the future,” said student Smilla Burklin.

Siahaan agreed, “All of us together, different cultures and languages but together, worshiping and following Jesus. This is what the kingdom is about.”

Everence, a faith-based stewardship agency of Mennonite Church USA and other Anabaptist denominations, also provides a key partnership. Hershberger was granted a JustPax grant from Everence that helped fund the class. Students also spent time learning how Everence is working to change the economic narrative of Kensington through its credit union office location. Known as the opioid capital of the world, the Kensington neighborhood struggles with drug addictions and poverty. Like Siahaan and Marrero, Dow refuses to only see hopelessness.

“The people of this neighborhood are resilient and strong. They have many assets to give,” Dow explains. “If we at Everence can come alongside and provide education and accessibility to checking and saving accounts, loan products and services for individuals and small businesses along with financial planning, we will nurture this resilience, and this neighborhood will continue to be restored and filled with hope.”

“There is a lot of hope here,” says Hershberger, “and that hope is nourished by the church working together. People of different cultures, different theological views—we have lots of differences, but we love God and we love this city, and that’s really good news.”

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