MANHEIM, Pa. — From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, about 525 people from 49 nations celebrated Christmas and cross-cultural friendship Dec. 3 at Mount Joy Mennonite Church’s third annual international Christmas feast.
Inside The Junction Center, Christian radio station WJTL’s event hall, there was warmth and laughter as guests posed at a photo booth, marked their countries of origin on a world map and shared a halal and mostly vegan meal catered by Upohar Ethnic Cuisines, a local business involved in refugee employment.
“We are very glad that you have joined us in Lancaster County,” said Karl Landis, Mount Joy lead pastor and a co-host for the event. “If you needed to leave your homeland because of danger, war, famine or religious persecution, we are glad that you are safe here. We believe you will enrich our communities.”
Mustafa Nuur, a Somalian refugee who resettled in Lancaster in 2014, returned to the feast this year. The winner of Lancaster’s 2017 Great Social Enterprise Pitch with Bridge, a startup that connects people with the cultural talents of refugees, Nuur believes in fostering a connected and caring community.
“This party is one of the times in the year I see a community truly come together across cultural and religious affiliation. It reassures me that despite what’s going on in the world, people can find understanding and share a happy time,” he said. “I keep returning every year to get more inspired to see how the party is growing.”
Each table was hosted by an individual or couple from Mount Joy who provided an appetizer and engaged with guests throughout the evening to ensure all were welcomed.
‘Peace to you’
Mount Joy members Marshall and Cindy Meador had limited communication with those at their table because of the language barrier. But when guests were asked to greet each other by saying “peace to you” in their first languages before watching an excerpt from the Jesus film of the story of Jesus’ birth, Cindy Meador was able to say “peace to you” to each of her Arabic-speaking guests in the few words she knew of their language. She said her guests’ eyes lit up with recognition, and she felt a moment of real connection as each guest gave the Arabic response to her greeting.
“The times in which we live cause fear, mistrust, hopelessness, despair,” said Jonathan Bornman, a Mount Joy member who served as a consultant and co-host for the feast. “When given an opportunity to do something positive — to say with our actions, with the position of our bodies, with our food, with our words, that we love all people and desire to live at peace with all people — everyone jumped at the chance.”
Giving Christmas away
In 2015, the international Christmas feast was a leap of faith. Bornman said it all began when the church’s ministry team sensed God asking, “What would it look like to give Christmas away?”
Church leaders began to feel they should devote the time and energy normally used for their candlelight Christmas Eve service to something that would connect more strongly with the local community or those in need. This vision coincided with the global refugee crisis, which was bringing hundreds of refugees to Lancaster.
The outcome was a cross-cultural Christmas feast called “Great Joy.” At 325 people, attendance was beyond expectations. About 100 guests were refugees or immigrants representing more than 30 countries.
Mount Joy’s 2016 feast had even better attendance, with 450 guests from 37 countries.
“It’s a whole-church effort,” said Nita Landis, who co-chaired the event-planning committee of eight with associate pastor Ryan McQuitty. She said even third- and fourth-graders in the Pioneer Clubs got involved by assembling 150 activity bags for children attending the feast.
Party guest Andrew Mashas, who attends Sunnyside Mennonite Church, saw the event as a whole-church effort in a broader sense. He said it served as a place for members of Mennonite churches across Lancaster County to unite over a passion for extending hospitality.
“There are so many people from Lancaster County’s Mennonite churches involved in befriending refugees and immigrants, and many of them were there,” he said.
As the night ended with a rendition of “Joy to the World,” and guests went home with packets from Lancaster Sweet Shoppe, a corporation that hires refugees, Landis felt that she had seen a glimpse of peace on Earth.
“Unfortunately, our foreign-born friends receive plenty of unwelcoming messages as they move through their daily lives in this country,” she said. “I believe that all human hearts respond with joy when someone is glad to be with them, and I love extending this joy, especially to refugees who have endured great loss and trauma.
“Our Christmas joy flows from God’s desire and gladness to be with us.”