This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Franconia Conference might stretch coast to coast

Franconia Mennonite Conference may receive three Indonesian congregations from the other side of the country at its assembly this November.

It would be a coast-to-coast relationship. The Indonesian congregations are in the Los Angeles region, and the majority of Franconia’s congregations are in Pennsylvania.

Leaders of Franconia Mennonite Conference eat with pastors from Indonesian Mennonite congregations in Southern California who are seeking membership in Franconia. — Virgo Handojo
Leaders of Franconia Mennonite Conference eat with pastors from Indonesian Mennonite congregations in Southern California who are seeking membership in Franconia. — Virgo Handojo

Now that they’re no longer part of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference, the churches are seeking membership in Franconia in order to remain part of Mennonite Church USA. Franconia, which has three Indonesian congregations in Philadelphia, has had a long-standing relationship with the California Indonesian churches.

Virgo Handojo, pastor of Jemaat Kristen Indonesia Anugerah in Sierra Madre, Calif., said his congregation of about 80 people was part of Pacific Southwest until this past February, when the conference at its annual meeting removed from membership eight congregations that hadn’t submitted recommitment documents.

Handojo was surprised by the letter he received from Pacific Southwest in September asking for various documents as a condition of continued membership in the conference.

“Who has the right to dismiss us as members of Pacific Southwest?” he asked. “I said, ‘Is this Mennonite?’ . . . The letter is like a lawyer letter: ‘If you do not do this, you are out.’ ”

Handojo said the Indonesian congregations had not left the conference but were kicked out. “We are involuntarily homeless,” he said. “We ran to . . . Franconia.”

Conference executive minister Stephen Kriss said the main concern would be how to maintain a relationship across the distance. At the same time, Franconia’s commitment to cross-cultural relationships is ongoing.

“As a conference, we’ve been committed to working across language and cultural barriers,” Kriss said. “It’s an exhibition of the Spirit’s work when we can work within the complications of those differences.”

He said about 10 percent of Franconia Conference is made up of people for whom English isn’t their first language. The conference has been intentional about having people in leadership who can speak both English and one of the other languages — Spanish, Indonesian or Vietnamese — represented.

Handojo said it was important that the three Indonesian congregations in California stay together and remain connected to their Mennonite identity.

The other two congregations are Indonesian Worship Church in San Gabriel/Alhambra and International Christian Community Fellowship in San Bernardino. A fourth Indonesian congregation, Bethany Church in Queens, N.Y., is also seeking membership in Franconia.

“The philosophy of our congregation is that each ethnic group must express our own way of mission,” Handojo said. “At the same time, we want to be strongly connected to the denomination.”

Handojo believes congregations should be allowed to practice mission in ways that work for their cultural contexts, and the conference should not dictate how they do that.

“Do whatever you do, as long as you agree with the mission statement,” he said. “Conference is to facilitate, connect, offer resources. That was the beauty of Pacific Southwest in the past.

“Don’t define how to be a Mennonite, because Mennonite is dynamic, moving, changing. God’s movement is dynamic, changing, moving, developing, flourishing. When you try to define it, people run.”

Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower, conference minister for Pacific Southwest Conference, said the intent of the membership recommitment process was to determine which congregations desired to remain part of the conference.

When Pacific Southwest was formed in 1994 as a merger of pre-existing conferences, the congregations at that time were automatically members.

“For a long time, things were pretty loose,” Ruth-Heffelbower said. “Now we’re trying to tighten up and be like other conferences.”

She hopes the nonrenewing congregations find a home.

“We certainly want to bless them if they are finding a new conference,” she said. “We want to maintain a relationship with them as best we can. They’re our neighbors in our backyard.”

Four Indonesian congregations remain in Pacific Southwest.

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