This article was originally published by The Mennonite

“Diversity makes us strong” say French Mennonite youth

Photo: Mennonite youth from Burkina Faso and France take a break from building a school by the newly established Mennonite church in Coma, Burkina Faso. Photographer: Jonathan Hirschler

Mennonite youth from Paris, France, put on their traveling shoes this summer. One group donned walking footwear that took them across the Brooklyn Bridge and down Wall Street in New York City on their way to the Global Youth Summit and Mennonite World Conference in Pennsylvania. Another group pulled on work boots (to protect their feet) or slipped into flip-flops (because of the heat) in Colma, Burkina Faso, where they worked with local Mennonites to construct a school on the site of a newly established congregation of Eglise Evangélique Mennonite du Burkina Faso (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso).

Both groups returned home with a new appreciation for the worldwide scope of their church family.

Mennonites in Paris are used to being a misunderstood minority in a city of nearly 10 million inhabitants where there are three Mennonite churches with a total membership of about 300.

“There are only 33 Mennonite churches in all of France and only 3,000 Mennonites. People think Mennonites are some kind of cult. Because of this, I identify more as Christian than Mennonite,” Délice Ato said.

Ato expressed gratitude for the presence of Brad and Brenna Steury Graber of Mennonite Mission Network who helped develop the youth groups of the Mennonite churches in Paris. Because these congregations are small, there is no full-time paid staff. Since 2013, the Mission Network couple has worked with each of the youth groups at a congregational level, as well as organizing joint events, such as retreats, conferences, and activities that encourage discipleship, fun and fellowship.

Because the French school system is highly competitive, youth do not have much free time. However, Mennonite youth, ages 15-30, commit a large percentage of their leisure time to church activities. Typically, meetings begin at 8 p.m. and finish at midnight. This means that Ato can get home from young adult meetings as late as 1:30 a.m., after a 90-minute train ride.

Sharing gifts at the Global Youth Summit

The three days spent at the Global Youth Summit, addressing the theme, “Called to Share: My Gifts, Our Gifts,” were “spiritually formative and culturally enriching” for Emmanuelle Wack.

“All our gifts are complimentary,” Wack said. “The biggest gift is Jesus. We are called to share our gifts and not use them only for ourselves. However, if we don’t love ourselves, we can’t love others and Jesus. We are not called to great endeavors, but small daily expressions of our faith.”

After the world conference ended, the Steury Grabers led the French Mennonite youth on an extended trip through Mennonite communities in Ohio and Indiana, where they visited and spoke in Mennonite institutions, and became acquainted with some aspects of North American culture.

During a visit to the Mennonite Church USA offices in Elkhart, Indiana, a Mission Network Church

Back row: Braad Steury Graber, Julia Kennel, Agabe Inmi, and Emmanuellla Wack. Front row: Michaelle Meneva, Laurine Boukono, Brenna Steury Graber, Karene Boukono, Manon Vifeffa, Ato Délice and Stanley Green.
Back row: Braad Steury Graber, Julia Kennel, Agabe Inmi, and Emmanuellla Wack. Front row: Michaelle Meneva, Laurine Boukono, Brenna Steury Graber, Karene Boukono, Manon Vifeffa, Ato Délice and Stanley Green.

Relations associate, Karla Minter, asked what message they would give to American youth given their experiences of the past weeks.

After the group playfully responded in unison, “Come to France,” various members emphasized the strength that diversity brings to their youth group, and how Mennonite Church USA should embrace its diversity.

Sharing work and friendship in Burkina Faso

Another group of Mennonite youth landed in Ouagadougou. Burkina’s capital city, Aug. 5, ready for an adventure they called, “Un peu de toi pour le Burkina” (A little of yourself for Burkina). After a night’s rest, they traveled seven hours by bus to Colma, where there is a blossoming congregation. Their assignment included clearing the land of brush, laying sun-dried bricks made by the local community to build a school on the church property, and helping with a Bible camp for children in the area. Work continued despite sandstorms and violent rain.

The French youth enjoyed hours of rhythm-filled worship, hospitality in village homes, and visits to landmarks of natural beauty, like the majestic Sindou peaks.

Siaka Traoré, national president of the Mennonite Church in Burkina Faso, described what he observed as a heart-warming scene of young French men and women working side-by-side with youth from Burkina Faso, encouraging each other through heat and fatigue.

“They rolled up their sleeves and became builders, collaborators and friends,” Traoré said. “Then a week later, they laid aside their shovels and plumb-lines to begin teaching Bible school.

Frédéric Pignard, chairperson of the French Mennonite mission committee, is grateful that the trip to Burkina Faso strengthened relationships between Mennonites in Burkina and France. There is geographic distance, and differences in our social, religious and economic contexts, Pignard said.

“Being friends despite everything being set up to separate us is truly a privilege that we enjoy as brothers and sisters in God’s family,” Pignard said.

Physical labor was only one part of the French youth’s contribution; they also left Mennonites in Burkina with a positive view of Western Christianity, Traoré said, as he enumerated the ways they gave of themselves to spiritual activities such as prayer, meditation, teaching and preaching.

“They didn’t just give a little of themselves to Burkina,” Traoré said. “They gave all of themselves. Someday, it will be our turn to give a little of ourselves for France. We thank God for this communion of working together. It is a sign that God loves all of us, and it gives us a good foundation for future relationships.”

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