Photo: Grace Tijerina with the VBS on the Road team, (back l to r) Tijerina, Micah Raber, Tanner Daniel, Abraham Mateo, (front l to r) Lilian Trifena and Megan Bartley. The team is sponsored by South Central Conference.
When she dreamed about how she would fill her time after retirement, Grace “Gracie” Tijerina wasn’t planning on pastoral ministry or a move to Hesston, Kan. Although she had often served in church leadership roles—teaching Sunday school, leading singing and planning worship—Tijerina didn’t feel ready to say yes to pastoral ministry. But, as she tells it, during one Tuesday Bible study with members of her church in Los Fresnos, Texas, the group sang the words of a familiar hymn.
“Señor, me has mirado a los ojos, sonriendo has dicho mi nombre; en la arena he dejado mi barca; junto a ti buscaré otro mar.” (O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me, and while smiling have spoken my name; now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me; by your side I will seek other seas.)
In that moment, Tijerina says, “I felt like he [God] was calling me and saying, ‘This is what I want you to do.’”
Tijerina tested this sense of call with family and church members, as well as with Amzie Yoder, a South Central
Conference regional conference minister for South Texas, and Tim Lichti, then the director of Hesston College’s pastoral ministries program.
As she tested the idea, Tijerina says she felt encouragement from every angle. “As soon as I said yes, the road was open. Every obstacle that was there just cleared.”
In 2013, she relocated to Hesston and began study in the Pastoral Ministries Program. However, soon into her time at Hesston, the program went on hiatus, and she became a Bible major. This was Tijerina’s first college experience, and she acknowledges it wasn’t without its ups and downs. Upon arriving at orientation, she had to get used to new norms and ways of doing things. Instead of taking five classes per semester, she took three or four and stretched her program out over three years.
During her time at Hesston, Tijerina found mentors in the Bible faculty, Marion Bontrager and Michele Hershberger, as well as Cheryl Hershberger, a retired pastor who attends Hesston Mennonite Church. Hershberger served as a formal pastoral mentor to walk alongside Tijerina as she tested her own call to ministry. She also found a church home at Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston and a job at the local outdoor retreat, Dyck Arboretum, working in the gift shop.
Tijerina embraced her student experience and participated in a variety of extracurricular activities, including doing makeup for campus theater productions and walking in Hesston’s annual Thanksgiving race, the Howard Hustle.
“Getting to do all these things that I’d never done has been so amazing,” says Tijerina. “The door was open to come and study Bible, but the door was also open to learn other things.”
Now Tijerina jokes that she is the poster woman for Hesston College’s tagline, “Start here, go everywhere.” “I believe God had been calling me for years, but as you can see, I took a long time to answer,” Tijerina says. “I’m 63. I made a joke because I said the calling from God didn’t just start, even though I’m here in Hesston and I’m going everywhere.”
VBS on the road
Although she’s not clear yet what her long-term next step will be, this summer Tijerina is leading a group of students traveling from church to church and leading Vacation Bible School for congregations that are too small to run their own program.
In summer 2015, Tijerina was invited to visit Argentine Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan. The small church was discerning next steps and weighing whether or not to close its doors. Tijerina spent six weeks exploring the community to get a sense of ministry opportunities: visiting the library, interviewing church members, talking with local police and more. The congregation invited her to lead a Vacation Bible School for children in the neighborhood around the church. Tijerina recruited youth from Iglesia Menonita Buenas Nuevas in McAllen, Texas, to stay in Kansas City after attending the Mennonite Church USA convention and help lead the Bible study.
The event was so successful that South Central Mennonite Conference invited Tijerina to consider taking “VBS on the Road” this summer. Tijerina recruited four recent college graduates to serve on the team, and the conference bought a van for them to travel in.
Over the course of the summer, the team will lead VBS programs at seven different congregations in Kansas and
Texas. Their theme is “Cave Quest: Following Jesus, the Light of the World.” At each stop, they’ll be fed and hosted by the local congregation, and they’ll help coordinate a week-long program for children with church volunteers. The group plans to incorporate Bible stories, singing, games, arts and crafts, and more into their program.
For Tijerina, “VBS on the Road” is a way to connect youth and congregations across the conference with one another as well as to help tell the story of Jesus to children. She also believes each of the team members was specially chosen by God and meant to serve in this summer ministry.
All the team members were commissioned during a June 2 prayer and blessing service at Hesston Mennonite Church.
For Megan Bartley, a member of Journey Mennonite Church in South Hutchinson, Kan., this will be her second time visiting congregations in south Texas. “We’ll be visiting places that have limited opportunity to hear the gospel. I’m excited to love the kids and share Jesus with them,” she said.
Abraham Mateo, Hesston freshman and a member of Iglesia Menonita Arca de Salvacion in Fort Myers, Fla., said he was surprised by this opportunity, but sees God at work. “I said yes to this with no experience,” he said. “I know God is working here.” And for Lilian Trifena, a Hesston freshman from Indonesia, this trip also represents a chance to explore new cultures and visit Texas, a state she’s never had a chance to travel to before.
Other team members include Tanner Daniel, a Hesston freshman from El Dorado, Mo., and Micah Raber, a Hesston sophomore from Millersburg, Ohio.
Tijerina hopes that taking VBS on the road will turn into a tradition for the conference and inspire other congregations and conferences to explore similar ideas. She knows that many churches are small and don’t have a lot of financial or people resources to help put on a VBS program.
After “VBS on the Road” ends, Tijerina is not sure what comes next. She is exploring other ideas for pastoring or church planting but isn’t sure where God’s call will take her. “All I know is that Hesston was the best rollercoaster ride you could have,” she says.
You can follow VBS on the Road on Facebook.