Last year, men from Trinity Mennonite Church in Hillsboro, Kan., were strategically placed at tables with children, some with no fathers in the home, during the congregation’s Summer Food for Kids program.
Ministry to children will continue even as the church ends. Trinity held its last service on Easter Sunday, April 9.
Some of the men at the summer lunch tables were from families that launched Trinity in 1966. The congregation was born from a merger of the Brudertal and Johannestal churches — founded in 1874 and 1882, respectively — and situated four miles apart in rural Marion County.
The congregations merged after Brudertal sold its property to the U.S. government, which needed the land to create Marion Reservoir. Johannestal joined in building a new church on the west edge of town.
Among those who experienced Trinity’s entire 57-year history are Lloyd Funk, 88, and his son, Larry, who was 5 when his parents became charter members.
On Easter morning, they reflected on their griefs and hopes as the church closes.
“I was born in 1935 and baptized at Brudertal,” said Lloyd Funk, who moved his family and dairy farm to land south of Hillsboro when the reservoir displaced them. Now he is being displaced in a different way.
“It is just a really sad day for me,” he said. “But at least our building has a bright future. It is not going away.”
Members gifted the church building to the Hillsboro Community Foundation, which is developing the Hillsboro Community Childcare Center.
Larry Funk, who now runs the family farm, looks back on the church’s founding as a time of many changes.
“All at the same time, they were moving school buildings, the church, the farm,” he said. “There was just a lot of shifting ground beneath my feet.”
Johannestal was the boyhood church of Stuart Penner, a Trinity charter member and worship leader on Easter Sunday.
“Many things in life are hard, and today is a very hard day,” he said. “But also in life, some things are inevitable, such as the closing of our church. Our attendance was dropping, and the median age of our congregation is 76. We have no children or youth here anymore, and it was becoming harder and harder to do things.”
From 326 members at its founding, the church dwindled to 30 due to agricultural changes and migration of young people to higher education and jobs in urban areas. This was coupled with members transferring membership to new churches in Hillsboro and to the home churches of their spouses.
When Norma Duerksen came on board as pastor nine years ago, she helped to breathe new life into the congregation by launching the summer food program. Penner, the Funks and many others helped start the ministry.
Along with providing a hot meal five days a week for about 75 children, they built a playground and gifted the children with free swim passes for the pool down the street.
“When I first got here, I interviewed the police, the mayor and the school superintendent, who said they had many children in the community growing up without fathers and male companionship,” Duerksen said. “I asked them what they knew about Trinity, and one said he had heard that it was a dying church.”
When Duerksen relayed those conversations to her new church family, they decided they wanted to engage more positively with the community. They started the summer food program and playground and pool ministry.
The passing of the deed and keys to the Hillsboro Community Foundation and Hillsboro Community Childcare Center on April 14 was a passing of the baton of the church’s legacy. Heeding Christ’s invitation to let the children come, Trinity is helping the community experience God’s faithfulness in yet another time of shifting demographics.
“When we began to assess childcare in Marion County, we discovered that the services the county currently had only covered about 32% of the need,” said Tristen Cope, chair of the Hillsboro Community Foundation. “That left about 500 children in need of services.”
When all the donations and grants are funneled into repurposing the church building, the foundation hopes to open its doors in 2024-25 to 99 children.
“For years, we have dreamed of opening a new childcare center to serve all the unmet needs,” said Carla Harmen, Hillsboro Community Childcare Center treasurer. “Today, this has become reality. Just when we were beginning to think our goals were too high, God led us to this place through the generosity of TMC.”
Emphasizing this legacy of hope, resurrection was the theme of Trinity’s last service on Easter Sunday. About 150 people filled the pews.
Among them was Kathy Neufeld Dunn, associate conference minister for Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA, who grew up in First Mennonite Church across town. Members of her childhood congregation joined with youth groups in the Trinity sanctuary for her baptism in 1981.
“Being a part of that helped to shape the faith of so many of us young people, and now this transition will help to shape the lives of so many more young people [through the childcare center],” she said.
“In the past 57 years, think of how many lives were touched to go on and share their faith with others. Those tiny seeds you planted here in your ministry have grown into a huge harvest of others now ministering in Christ’s name.”
Preaching on Matthew 28:1-10, Duerksen encouraged trust in God despite fears that come with change.
“When stressed by uncertainty, we cannot keep the commandment to ‘Fear not!’ ” she said. “On Easter morning, the two women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy. Yes, they still felt some fear, but it was beginning to be mixed with joy.”
Part of saying goodbye included dismantling the pews, carting off hymnbooks and auctioning two pulpits and a communion table at the Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale in Hutchinson on April 15.
But the pulpits brought no bids. Trinity members Phil Duerksen and Larry Funk chatted about what to do next. Funk removed the new $250 microphones he had installed on the pulpits to entice bidders.
Harmon Bliss of Jetmore, Kan., approached the two men, pulled out a $5 and two $1 bills and handed them to Duerksen.
“I am not sure what I will do with them,” Bliss said of the pulpits. “I may even throw them away. But I’ve got a truck outside, and I can haul them away.”
Duerksen replied, “Don’t be afraid to pull them apart and repurpose them.”
Josh Adrian, of Manhattan, Kan., got the communion table for a $10 bid.
“I didn’t expect to go home with a communion table, but this is very heavy and sturdy,” he said. “This will make a real nice work bench for my woodworking shop.”
Since Jesus was a carpenter, perhaps this repurposing symbolizes how Trinity’s legacy will carry forward in new ways, such as the childcare center, and others yet unknown.