Since I’ve decided to work with both Franconia Mennonite Conference and The Mennonite this summer, the question most people ask is: “How did you become Mennonite?” While I get tired of answering this question, I find value in trying to understand my own journey. How did I become Mennonite? What is my life story and how does it relate to my work this summer with The Mennonite and Franconia Mennonite Conference? How did I get here? I guess it is only appropriate to start at the beginning.
Growing up in Garland, Texas, the church wasn’t unfamiliar to me or my family. Though neither of my parents attended church regularly due to their hectic work schedules, they made sure my younger brother and I went. We grew up with a deep reverence for the church. We went every Sunday. We bowed our heads when it was time to pray. We always made sure we at least put $1 in the offering plate when it was passed around. Though I had this reverence, I hated attending church. I recall pretending to catch severe colds to skip out on church services. Though it was a part of my weekly routine, I didn’t enjoy going. It was just something my parents made me do.
When I was in high school my family moved to a different area of Garland and we couldn’t make it to our same church on Sundays, which was fine with me. During my freshmen year of high school, I joined the basketball team and my coach asked if any of us wanted to go to church with him. I raised my hand, along with two other teammates. To this day I can’t tell you why I raised my hand, but I did.
I remember going with him to this large, predominantly white, Southern Baptist church. While being there I fell in love with the church. I loved the people there and how they cared for and nurtured those within the youth group. It’s where I learned to love God, the Bible and people. This is where I got my call to ministry. I knew that whatever I was going to do with my life it would involve ministry.
Upon graduating high school, I was offered a football and track scholarship at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. I didn’t know anything about Mennonites, but if they were willing to offer me a scholarship, then I was going to take it. I remember arriving in the town of Newton and being in complete shock. It was the smallest town I had ever been in. I was used to being in a much bigger city, but here I was in Newton, Kansas, at a Mennonite college.
While at Bethel I became interested in Mennonite theology through my Bible classes with Professor Patricia Shelly. Every step of the way she challenged my views and gave me alternatives to my evangelical theology. Though I wasn’t yet Mennonite, I no longer thought of it as some weird denomination without purpose. I became more sympathetic as I became more exposed to not only the theology but the people.
As I continued my education at Bethel I interned at Bethel College Mennonite Church. There I got the opportunity to preach my first sermon. This was the moment I fell in love with preaching. Not only did I get the chance to deliver the word of God, but I got the chance to learn about God through the process.
After graduating from Bethel College, and getting married, I started working for Offender Victim Ministries as director of prison ministries in Newton, Kansas. While at OVM, I continued to preach, and I recruited volunteers for our various programs. This gave me practice and cemented in my mind what my call was: I was called to be a pastor.
After spending a little over a year at Offender Victim Ministries, I felt called to attend seminary. After filling out several applications, and being denied a few times, I got accepted into Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Theological Seminary. While at PTS, I interned with Pittsburgh Mennonite Church. There I was nurtured in the faith and shown what it meant to be a Mennonite. While being in this community I made the decision to officially declare myself as a Mennonite.
That brings to where I am now.
My journey up to this point has prepared me for the work I will now be doing with both Franconia Conference and The Mennonite. In my role as associate for leadership cultivation with Franconia Conference, I will be able to learn more about urban ministry within the Mennonite church. I will have the opportunity to preach at local congregations and meet with church leaders. I will get the chance see a side of the Mennonite church I have never seen or heard of. With The Mennonite, I will get to reflect and write about my experiences and the stories that are shared with me.
Stories are important. Now you have heard mine. I hope to hear the stories of the Franconia Conference and beyond: The stories that may have been told millions of times, and the ones no one has heard. I am excited to be here and can’t wait to see what God has for me here.
Jerrell Williams is a Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Theological Seminary and is interning this summer with Franconia Mennonite Conference and The Mennonite.