Photo: Mariela Sanchez (right) leads singing at Piedra Vida Mennonite Church, accompanied by Ramón Tapia (center) and Mauricio Chavez (left). Photo by David Fast
Last summer, Naun Cerrato, a participant in Mennonite Mission Network’s Sent Network church-planting training, was primed to launch Iglesia Menonita Piedra Vida (Living Stone Mennonite Church), a new Hispanic peace congregation in Elkhart, Indiana. But where? They had no rental finances.
About the same time, Sunnyside Mennonite Church, established in 1947 in Elkhart by a group of Goshen (Indiana) College students, was seeking deeper engagement within the community. But how? Many members no longer lived in the church’s neighborhood.
Longtime friends Cerrato and Charles Geiser, part of a three-person pastoral team at Sunnyside, wondered, Do we need each other to make our dreams come true?
Geiser took Cerrato’s dream back to his congregation, which led to its inviting Piedra Vida to have a rent-free home. During joint worship Jan. 12, the groups celebrated Piedra’s launch Sunday. For the fledgling congregation, this welcome seemed to reverse the “no room in the inn” nativity drama. The infant church’s presence within the established congregation has reinvigorated Sunnyside.
“They welcomed us, whether we succeeded or not, and extended grace to us right from the beginning,” Cerrato says. “We so deeply value our relationship and want to provide what we can to support their dreams, too. We have no money to give, but we generously give our prayers and friendship.”
The blessings flow both ways, says Peter Graber, Sunnyside’s elder board chair. Piedra Vida’s passion for forging peaceful relationships in Jesus throughout community has revived the congregation’s original purpose—to be an outreach to the neighborhood. Currently, Sunday morning attendance is about 90.
Piedra Vida is providing some of that outreach. About 20 people meet for Spanish worship on Sunday afternoons. The church plant is drawing longtime churched Hispanics, new seekers and even immigrants within Elkhart city and the wider county.
“We felt that our recently renewed vision statement meshed well with Piedra Vida’s passion for becoming a strongly Anabaptist peace witness,” Graber says. “The new church has deep commitment, and good things are going to happen. I feel grateful that we can be a little part of what they are doing.”
To help Cerrato as a bivocational pastor nurture the new church plant, Sent Network has paired him with Sharon Norton, a church planting coach and Mennonite Mission Network’s co-director for Africa and Europe.
“It is a rough road to start a new church,” Norton says. “The beginning of a church plant is a vulnerable time that stretches a leader to trust God during the ups and downs of the journey.”
Even amid its struggles to launch, Piedra Vida is infusing Sunnyside’s journey with new vistas, says Terri Geiser, on Sunnyside’s pastoral team with her husband, Charles, and Amy Kratzer.
“I think it is so easy to get insulated…but that is not what Jesus calls us to,” she says. “Sunnyside is seeking a broader vision of open hands in which we give and receive from each other and reach across divides and barriers to be community. Partnering with Piedra Vida is a concrete way of doing that.”