Stories of hope from the Global Church.
Speaker: Norma Teles (Albania), Peter Sensenig and Christy Harrison (Chad), Erwin Mirabel (Venezuela).
This morning instead of a sermon, I’m going to share 3 stories of Anabaptist Christians sharing the hope of Christ in different parts of the world. I’ll begin each profile with a scripture in a language spoken by someone in our congregation:
Our first story comes from the country of Albania, and a ministry which focuses on children, so we’ll hear a scripture about Jesus welcoming the children read in Chinese.
Luke 18:15-17 Read by Johnny Hsu or Fei Hung Hsu
Slide of Albania
The country of Albania is located in the Balkan area of Eastern Europe, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea.
Photo of Norma in classroom
Norma Teles has served in Albania for over 20 years, and is sponsored by Virginia Mennonite Missions and the Evangelical Mennonite Alliance of Brazil, which is where she came from. Our congregation provides financial support for Norma’s ministry as well.
Norma Teles is director of the Joshua Center, a preschool in Lezhë, Albania.
(Just as an aside, a while back, VMM helped start a Christian school is Lezhe called Lezhe Academy. Some of the graduates from Lezhe Academy have come to the US for college, and have gone to several of the Mennonite colleges—we had a few Albanians from Lezhe Academy at Bluffton that we got to know.)
Joshua Center activity slide
Now back to Norma–Norma Teles works in a place called, The Joshua Center, which is a preschool focused on preparing children for grade school. Norma currently works with three local Albanian staff workers to care for the 20+ children who attend.
Most of the children at The Joshua Center are from the Roma ethnic group. Who are Roma or Romani? The Romani people migrated to Europe from India beginning in the 10th century, over 1000 years ago.
Roma family slide
The Roma are sometimes called “Gypsies”, but that word is considered derogatory. There are about 10-12 million Romas and most of them live in central and Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkan region which includes Albania.
Most Romani live below the poverty line, and less than 25% of the children finish school. Many adults cannot read or write. In many cities they live on the margins of society and are often discriminated against by people who are native to the area.
Slide of Norma with young friend
The Joshua Center has gained a positive reputation for providing life skills to children so they will be successful in school and in life. The Joshua Center also offers an after-school program for Roma children who are in grade school.
Norma has also expanded her ministry by engaging the mothers of the preschoolers in bi-monthly meetings to discuss issues that pertain to the family and health. She is also teaching some of the mothers to read, and also shares stories from the Bible with them.
I want to show a Video of Norma working at the Joshua Center preschool:
Video- Norma Teles
(Song: Cantai ao Senhor #113 English and Portuguese)
Slide of Chad
Next we travel to the country of Chad in Subsaharan Africa, right in the heart of the continent. We’ll meet the Harrison/Sensenig family in a minute, but first let’s hear a scripture passage from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which speaks of Christ breaking down barriers between people.
Ephesians 2:17-22 read by Emmanuel Mbualungu in Lingala
Slide of the Sensenig/Harrison family
This is Peter Sensenig and Christy Harrison, and their children: Moses, Celeste, and Felix. They live in the country of Chad and also travel to nearby countries in central Africa.
Peter and Christy are jointly appointed with Mennonite Mission Network and Eastern Mennonite Missions. Peter and Christy previously served in East Africa with their children for five years.
slide of Christy and midwives
Christy works in a hospital as a nurse/midwife.
Here she’s leading a training on a pregnancy-related illness called pre-eclampsia for the midwives at the hospital where she works. She also helps other nurses learn how to deliver a breeched-birth baby and other complications that might arise during pregnancy and childbirth.
Peter is on the faculty of Shalom Seminary in Chad, teaching a variety of classes.
slide of seminary students
In Peter and Christy’s newsletter in December, they reported that due to heavy rains, the seminary got flooded and has been under water for several months.
slide of boat in flood
“Undeterred by this crisis, the school continued with its academic year as planned. We shifted the various programs to church buildings that were not flooded and started classes (albeit without a library, offices, or electricity).”
slide of seminary classroom
Peter also talked about a discussion that took place one day in his class on ecclesiology, which looks at what it means to be the church. He said,
“Some good-spirited sparring took place every day. The students were from a variety of denominations, and when the conversation turned to church structures, discipline, and leadership issues, the disagreements were enthusiastic. There was debate about whether we should call the practices of the church sacraments (which the Lutherans in the room preferred) or ordinances (which the Ana/Baptist-oriented preferred).
We discussed the idea that these practices are both for the church as a community and also as a witness to the broader society of what God intends for all of us. Baptism reminds us that God has created a new community that is deeper than our ethnic divisions. The Lord’s Supper has not only the spiritual meaning of participating in Christ’s body, but also that we share our food with one another so that no one goes hungry.
A heaviness fell on the room when students described the ethnic divisions within the country, divisions that play out also in the church. Just weeks before we met, Chad had also experienced political violence, with no just solution in sight. Where was the hope?”
slide of rick sacks
“At that moment, a delivery of rice sacks arrived. The students helped stack them up in the back corner of the simple church sanctuary. I asked them, “What are these sacks of rice for?”
They replied that the church had arranged, out of its limited resources, to provide food for the members of the community who had been displaced by the flooding. Muslims, Christians, and others would receive urgent help because the Chadian church remembers the broken body of Jesus.
The sacks of rice were a powerful image for all of us that bearing witness to Jesus happens in the context of following him together, keeping the practices that he gave us as a gift of grace.”
slide of Bible and Quran
Peter also works in the office of an interfaith relations organization, which works at building relationships between different Christian denominations as well as building bridges of understanding and dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
They have formed a Christian-Muslim Relations Team to help encourage meaningful relationships between Christians and Muslims. One way he does this is through a video series called Allies for Peace.
One last thing I want to share about Christy and Peter’s ministry in Africa is a picture in their newsletter of a baptism service they attended of a partner church that took place in nearby Cameroon.
Slide of Baptism in Cameroon
(I just love this picture!) 97 people were baptized in the river. Peter says “The high-energy celebration in a majority-Muslim neighborhood drew hundreds of friends and family (in addition to hundreds of neighborhood kids who appreciated the entertainment)”.
(Hymn – Ososo #391)
Slide of Venezuela
We’re going to end our global journey in the country of Venezuela in South America, but first we’ll hear a scripture passage on hope from the book of Romans.
Romans 5:1-5 Read in Spanish by Ledys Navas
Slide of Erwin Mirabel teaching
This is Erwin Mirabel, a longtime leader in the Mennonite church in Venezuela.
Mirabal, a businessman and church leader, together with his wife, Haydee, have devoted much time and effort to ministry in Venezuela.
Mirabal was first introduced to Anabaptist theology as a young man in the 1980s when he attended a class taught by John Driver, a former Mennonite Mission Network worker and author.
(John Driver was a longtime mission worker in several Spanish-speaking countries, and through his teaching at seminaries and churches, helped countless people understand the Anabaptist vision of the Bible and the Church, like Mirabel.)
Driver spent 6 months in Bolivia when we lived there and I sat in on a class that he taught to Bolivian Mennonite church leaders, and it was great!)
Mirabel teamed up with an ecumenical group of leaders on Isla Margarita, the Venezuelan island where Mirabal and his family used to live. These leaders have offered educational workshops and seminary classes to others with help from the Mennonite Biblical Seminary in nearby Colombia.
Here’s what Erwin Mirabel said about what he’s learned:
As Mennonites, we feel a deep commitment to our country. The Anabaptist vision has helped us to understand the message of the Lord Jesus Christ more clearly, and to commit ourselves to this immense task. We announce the good news of peace and reconciliation. We cultivate nonviolence and the love of enemies in our own lives. We gather around a shared table and trust in God, our Provider, who frees us from the tyranny of goods, to follow Jesus in his dedication to give abundant life.
Slide of people praying
The Isla Margarita group looks for practical ways to extend the peace of Christ to families in the community. They have organized workshops about “Confronting Family Violence” and “Extending a Hand to Your Neighbors.”
Slide of cooperative games
They also implemented a campaign against war toys, and taught collaborative games. Plans are underway for a program serving children on school break, called “A Hug for Peace.”
Several years ago, Mirabel and other church leaders had a vision to expand to the mainland, specifically the capital city of Caracas. A partnership developed with Mennonite churches in Colombia as well as the Central Plains conference in the United States in order to expand their ministry into Caracas.
Slide of people around a table
Here’s a picture of people from the various partners having a meal together. Mennonite Church in Venezuela was able to purchase some land as well as some buildings where they could hold seminary classes, church services, and various ministries. Mirabel and his family moved to the mainland to help with this new venture in 2015.
Unfortunately, Erwin Mirabel died of COVID a couple of years ago, but the seeds that he planted continue to grow and produce fruit for the Kingdom of God.
Slide of Erwin Mirabel with leaders
I’ll close with this quote from Mirabel:
“In the Venezuelan context of polarization and violence, where every group tries to manipulate us with their slogans of ‘Revolution and Justice’ on one hand and ‘Democracy and Liberty’ on the other, the message of the cross, of reconciliation with enemies and following Jesus, should be proclaimed with all of our strength,”
#732 Open My Eyes (Abre mis ojos)