Welcomed by childhood adoption into a loving family, Marisa Smucker now invites others into God’s global family.
Her story of adoption began 50 years ago, when a Mennonite family welcomed her, a malnourished 19-month-old Costa Rican orphan. Adoptive parents Dorothy and the late Lynn Smucker, short-term mission workers in Costa Rica, already had two biological sons, Todd and Bruce, and sought to add a daughter.
An adoption agency connected Marisa with the Smuckers, who brought her back to the United States.
That family now includes the spouses and children of her brothers, as well as another adopted Costa Rican sister, Jacqui.
The family belonged to Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., where Marisa was baptized and is still an active member.
She graduated from Goshen College in 1994 with a degree in social work, pursued U.S. urban ministries and overseas engagements and, beginning in 2015, served in leadership at Mennonite Mission Network.
This March, that leadership took a new turn when she was named interim executive director of MMN, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA.
While the milestone resonates with a sense of power, that is not the part of the job Smucker most identifies with.
Rather, the unexpected calling has led to soul-searching about what the role means and requires.
Smucker accepted the challenge after serving with MMN as a church relations representative, Mennonite Voluntary Service director and senior executive. The agency’s board asked her to take on the role after executive director Mike Sherrill resigned.
“This role can be overwhelming when I start comparing myself to others,” Smucker said. “But when I look back, I see how God prepared me, step by step.”
At each pivot on the path, she discovered what it meant to offer her authentic self to God.
“I live in a dual reality,” she said. “Who I really am is not easily identified. I am a person of color, a Hispanic woman from Costa Rica. But I have also been asked if I am Indonesian, Filipino or part Japanese.
“I don’t have the kind of accent someone would expect from those who think I am from overseas. Some people assume I don’t understand the Mennonite culture, and yet I grew up in the middle of it and was deeply formed by it. . . . Pieces of me were taken from so many different places, because I had lived in so many different contexts.”
After college, Smucker participated in PULSE (Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience), followed by continued work in Pittsburgh for 11 years. Her involvements there connected her to new pursuits in Costa Rica, where she spent seven and a half years in various kinds of service, as well as employment as a teacher.
She navigates her current job from a different slant than someone with a Ph.D. in missiology. Mission theory is important, but it’s not what is most helpful in steadying an organization during a time of change, Smucker believes.
For that, she draws on her emotional-intuitive sensibilities and a passion for mission honed in Pittsburgh and Costa Rica. Other keys are pastoral training from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, where she earned a master’s degree in Christian formation; a desire to prioritize safe and freedom-giving relationships; and team building.
“There is so much division across the board, not just in our church but throughout the world,” Smucker said. “Money is always tight, so we must ask what true collaboration looks like. . . . I can’t do my work without you, nor you without me. Each time a new person walks in the door, or a longtime employee walks out, Mission Network changes.”
Mission Network colleagues Joe Sawatzky and Marcella Hershberger said Smucker walks her values’ talk in respectful, attentive ways.
“Marisa has always lent a calming, steady hand on any team she’s been part of,” said Sawatzky, a mission education specialist who previously served with Smucker as a church relations representative. “She values relationships and is always checking in on people to make sure they are being cared for and finding fulfillment in their work.”
Hershberger, employed at MMN for 21 years in a variety of roles, currently as divisional coordinator for Ventures, commended Smucker’s sense of humor, gift of listening, people skills and leadership skills.
“Too often, people in leadership don’t have people skills, or vice versa,” Hershberger said. “But she’s got both and uses them to build trust. She helps staff to feel they have a safe place to express themselves, and she builds bridges both internally and externally.”
During Sherrill’s tenure, the agency forged five core values — Christ-centeredness, collaboration, belonging, innovation and antiracism — which Smucker is dedicated to carrying forward. She holds her position with open hands, before God and with others.
“I am not bringing anything new to this role, nor am I trying to shake things up or prove anything,” she said. “I am striving to be a steward of all that has gone on before, and of all that shall yet be, which we all are shaping together.”
That means equipping a slimmed-down and increasingly diverse staff to gel within a framework of peacebuilding, justice-making and antiracism efforts, sharing the message of God’s reconciliation in Christ through local faith communities.
In the past two years, a staff formerly of about 70 now numbers about 55. A sizable portion are new hires, filling vacancies or new positions brought on by restructuring. As senior executive in Ventures, she was responsible for hiring a long roster of employees. Today, she helps with training new staff.
“When longtime employees left, they took valuable history and memory out the door with them,” Smucker said. “You can’t reconstruct that quickly, and it takes a lot of intentionality and patience to rebuild.”
Some new employees have not been privy to why MMN, careful to avoid a colonial model of mission work, names its overseas personnel “international service workers” rather than “missionaries.” Nor have they been formed by its “Shared Voices” document, which helps staff and partners to respect and appropriately communicate cultural differences.
“Our antiracism priority is a key component along with the other four, and we always have to remember this work is ongoing,” Smucker said. “The board’s choice of a woman of color as an interim was groundbreaking.”
Notably, too, Smucker joins other mission leaders of color who were shaped by the initiatives of MMN and other Anabaptist agencies.
“This is the first time our Executive Leadership team consists of all people of color,” she said. “This doesn’t make us better, but it demonstrates how things have slowly changed.”
Others on the team are Gisselle Guity, executive assistant to the CEO; Wil LaVeist, senior executive of advancement; Martin Gunawan, senior executive of operations; and Ana Alicia Hinojosa, interim senior executive of Ventures.
Smucker views mission as a two-way partnership, global and local. It isn’t only about doing something overseas but also being the mission in one’s daily context.
Context is something Smucker values as she works to integrate the strands of her own life and to serve with others in a reconciling relationship with God and God’s family.
“For me, the bottom line, which had already started to take hold in our agency before I came in 2015, is reminding ourselves to engage with what is already happening in your local community,” Smucker said.
Having shared her story, Smucker invites others to consider theirs.
“What in your story, in your here and now, fleshes out what God is doing in and through you, to bring loving reconciliation to the world?” she asked. “If you knit sweaters for someone in your community, that is an incredible story. That is mission, because that is where God is at and where you have joined God.”
Laurie Oswald Robinson of Newton, Kan., is a longtime writer for Mennonite publications and agencies. She is a freelance writer and founder of Tales of the Times, in which she helps individuals and families write their memoirs.