When Gilberto Perez was 12, he hung out with the older guys who came from the Brownsville, Texas, Mennonite Voluntary Service unit to help his parents build a Hispanic Mennonite church in Robstown. At 19, those memories guided his own life.
“I was making a decision about whether to take a break after my first year of music studies at Hesston College,” Perez said. “I decided to try [MVS] for myself.”
Perez volunteered for MVS from 1988 to 1990 in a San Antonio, Texas, health clinic.
“My exposure to people who needed health, food and treatment tapped me into the values of my parents,” he said. “MVS led to my own purpose and calling.”
Perez changed his major from music to social work and served as a social worker before becoming a social work professor at Goshen (Ind.) College, where he is now dean of students.
Perez’s story is one of many infused with similar themes regarding participation in MVS, a Mennonite Mission Network service program.
Celebrating its 75th year, MVS began in 1944. Today, the program invites young adults into communal living, engagement with a local congregation and work in the community.
Lizzy Diaz, MVS program director, said that for the past seven decades MVS has solidified life direction and purpose for many participants, including herself. After graduating in sociology at Goshen College, she worked there for a year as a multicultural admissions counselor. She then pursued MVS, in which she volunteered in the advocacy office of World Vision in New York City in 2014.
“I had always dreamed of working at the United Nations one day, and I got the opportunity, as I had to attend some sessions there for my volunteer role,” she said. After her term, she was a social worker in Harlem for a year before assuming her current role.
Throughout the program’s history, there have been shifts in how MVS operates and in the church’s attitude toward it.
During years of a military draft between 1940 and 1973, MVS participant numbers were high. Another busy period occurred during the Great Recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s, when jobs were hard to find.
Today, high student debt has contributed to a decrease in participation.
“Graduates feel more pressure to pay down their student loans and get good jobs,” she said.
Del Hershberger, MMN director of Christian service, said requests for shorter terms have required MVS to adjust.
“Today, many possible applicants consider a two-year term almost an eternity,” he said. “We are getting more and more requests for six-month or other kinds of flexible arrangements.”
On-the-job training in MVS is a plus in the job market.
“Many of our partners can’t afford to pay someone a competitive entry-level salary,” he said. “But they are willing to take a chance on someone who has aptitude without experience.”
Some MVS participants stay on as employees after their service terms. Ryan Iafigliola stayed on at the Fuller Center for Housing in Americus, Ga., after serving in 2007-08 as an assistant to the late Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center.
Ten years later, Iafigliola directs the Fuller Center’s international programs and attends Americus Mennonite Fellow-ship. He was asked to step into his new role in 2009 when Fuller died.
A former Lutheran who attended the University of Notre Dame, Iafigliola stumbled upon MVS. He participated in a chapter of Habitat for Humanity at Notre Dame and sought to volunteer at the Fuller Center, but he did not know how to make it possible.
“Then one day at a nonprofit career and service fair on campus I ran across MVS and saw a reference to Americus in its brochure,” he said. “I shared my story with the recruiter, who connected me with the application process.”
A way for the future
Perez believes greater openness to recruiting people from diverse racial-ethnic backgrounds is important for MVS.
“The church is changing, . . . and there is an increase of congregations of color,” Perez said. “Is the program predominantly for white, Germanic, Swiss Mennonites, or is it also for third-generation Mexican-Americans and other ethnicities?
“How is MVS creating a strategic direction to tap into all the wonderful resources of young adults in cities such as New York and Miami? How is it saying to all its young people, ‘We love you, and we want you’?”
Diaz believes addressing social issues — immigration, ecology, human trafficking — is a draw for socially minded young adults.
“MVS has always had volunteers with a heart for caring in a broken world, and a lot of our placements throughout the years have involved partners who serve marginalized people,” Diaz said. “We do not want to serve with a savior complex but rather learn from communities in which we are immersed.”