Not long after Nena Bennett began a prayer group on the lawn of her Brownsville, Texas, home in 2018, the prayer group became a church.
Not long after the church began meeting in her home, she moved almost all her possessions into storage to make room for the crowd of more than 70 adults and children who packed the house every Sunday.
Iglesia Menonita Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn Mennonite Church) suspended worship and Bible study activities during the pandemic because of physical proximity’s dangers and an inability to livestream worship online. But Bennett never stopped pastoring. Members never lost touch. And Nuevo Amanecer is experiencing its own new dawn as fellowship and worship activities begin returning.
Bennett, who grew up in the Brownsville Mennonite community, said adults and children began coming to gatherings in August 2018 in her yard, and the group moved indoors to sit on couches when winter arrived.
“More people were coming. I prayed about it, and I took all my furniture out except for my bed, fridge and stove,” she said. “So we have three classrooms for children in the bedrooms, and then we have the living room. That’s our chapel. . . . Because of the faith of the church, it’s in a house, but I really feel like you’re in a beautiful temple when we’re all praising.”
The congregation has a council, weekly prayer group, women’s committee and both Wednesday night and Sunday morning services. With windows and doors open, the sound would carry, and neighbors would sit outside to listen.
“We use most of the parking spaces in the neighborhood, and my neighbors have been so nice about it,” Bennett said. “The only thing that we feel right now is we are a little too crowded.”
Nuevo Amanecer is a part of Mennonite Church USA’s South Central Mennonite Conference and also of the conference’s South Texas cluster, Unidad Cristiana de Iglesias Menonitas (Christian Union of Mennonite Churches).
UCIM moderator Rod Schmucker said Nuevo Amanecer was likely the group’s fastest growing congregation before the pandemic.
“There are folding chairs in her living room, her sanctuary. The dining room is the stage,” he said. “People actually sit in her kitchen, which means they can’t physically see the speaker. Then COVID came and they decided not to meet in person, but they also haven’t met online.
“What she’s doing we don’t see very often, certainly not farther north, and she’s doing it through sheer willpower.”
To keep the body connected, Bennett sent Scripture by text message to members’ phones daily. She called people on a weekly basis. If a family was facing difficulties, she would send a message to the entire congregation.
“I’m not saying I kept it going. We were all in communication,” she said. “I was born in Mexico. I only went to sixth grade. I have a hard head to learn with technology, and I did not have a computer.
“My children gave me one on Valentine’s Day, and it was so hard to learn. I felt so bad I couldn’t do my preaching through computer, but God showed me how to send pictures and Scripture and do that daily. If I don’t do it one day, they will contact me and ask what’s wrong.”
The congregation has surprised Bennett with regular tithing throughout the pandemic.
“They come and bring their tithe even though we aren’t having services. I’m amazed by that. God is working in us,” she said. “Brothers and sisters bring me clothes, they bring me shoes, they give me food to give out. I’ve seen how the church kept on caring and sharing with each other.”
As Nuevo Amanecer has responded to needs throughout the pandemic, friends and neighbors beyond the church have noticed, asking if they can join when the church is ready to resume in-person activities. Those opportunities are now returning.
The prayer group reunited outdoors in Bennett’s yard on April 5. She hopes Sunday worship can return in May, because she wants the neighbors to see the church is alive again and that its members are alive in Jesus.
“I’m starting to meet with the ladies in the morning once a week,” Bennett said. “I’m trying to make sure and encourage everybody to get the [vaccination] shot. I think we’re ready.”
When the people come back, they will also return to a conversation that was just getting started when the pandemic arrived. The house had already become too small, even before social distancing became a concern. Now those joyful discussions will resume.
“I’m excited and looking like never before for God’s guidance,” Bennett said. “Because this is an opportunity after what we lived through in the last year. This is a new opportunity for working through God’s kingdom.”