VSers left hearts in NYC — or stayed

New York City Voluntary Service unit closes, but legacy of service lives on

In 2006, Adriana Koehn, Amanda Talstra and Dan Talstra enjoy down time on the steps of Menno House, the Mennonite Voluntary Service unit that operated from 1995 to 2021. — Mennonite Mission Network In 2006, Adriana Koehn, Amanda Talstra and Dan Talstra enjoy down time on the steps of Menno House, the Mennonite Voluntary Service unit that operated from 1995 to 2021. — Mennonite Mission Network

After 25 years of hosting Mennonite Voluntary Service participants, the New York City unit closed this year.

Former MVSers believe the closure will not obscure the new vistas the Mennonite Mission Network program opened for them.

Growing up in Hillsboro, Kan., Jessica Penner dreamed of living in the city. MVS made the dream come true.

One of her most powerful memories is a prayer vigil marking the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“A crowd made up of Muslims, Jews, Christians, agnostics, atheists and people of many races all gathered together,” she said. “I realized just how much power there is in experiencing all that unity in diversity.”

Penner and Tom Smith, her husband and fellow MVS participant, came to the city in 2002 and still call it home. They are two of several dozen MVS participants who served through the unit, which was called Menno House.

MVSers related to Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship. MMF still owns the four-story brownstone and uses it for hospitality ministry and church offices.

During her two-year term, Penner volunteered at Pax Christi Metro New York, a Catholic Peace organization, and at Metro Baptist Church. Now she teaches English and writing at New York City College of Technology and English as a Second Language for a building service workers’ union.

Penner helped MMF discern it was time to retire the MVS program.

Adjusting to the ways people are choosing to serve, MMN has changed MVS to provide more autonomy, flexibility and creativity for local units.

The change meant MMF was not in a position to continue supporting a unit, Penner said, but added, “we don’t believe shutting down a unit means shutting down the longtime service legacy of Mennonites in the city.”

The past 25 years was only one era of this legacy, said Dale Stoltzfus, a conference minister for LMC, the Lancaster, Pa.-based Anabaptist conference.

Stoltzfus was one of many conscientious objectors who needed to do alternative service during the Cold War era. Drafted in 1959, he came to the city with his wife, Doris, to serve at the New York University Medical Center.

New York City changed his life.

“I was working in a grocery store in rural Pennsylvania, near to our farm in Gap, when I got drafted,” Stoltzfus said. “I am grateful that all our kids grew up in the city and gained an intercultural and interracial perspective.”

When the influx of conscientious objectors slowed, Mennonite congregations in the Bronx and the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan began sponsoring youth programs. Stoltzfus recalled many volunteers engaged with those programs while living at a unit house sponsored by Eastern Mennonite Missions.

“Many of us who engaged in the city never really went home again to the farm and small towns,” Stoltzfus said. “Many became pastors and seminary graduates and other leaders.”

Examples of young people who came to the city and stayed for varying lengths of time include Sylvia Shirk and current New York City resident Kylee Schunn. Schunn was one of the last MVS participants in the city.

Shirk, now a resident of Portland, Ore., served as MMF pastor and as MVS local program coordinator in the years spanning 2006 to 2017.

“The long arc of MVS in NYC was really foundational to the church in the city,” she said.

Shirk first experienced the city in a two-week voluntary service opportunity as a high school student in 1967.

“I never imagined that the same bedroom I stayed in as a teenager would later be my office as pastor,” she said.

Schunn, who grew up in Whitewater, Kan., stayed in the city after her term ended and continued living at Menno House during the COVID-19 lockdown. She still lives there and is a social worker at the Center for Urban Community Services.

“It was really difficult to stick out the pandemic in the city last year, but I am grateful I did,” Schunn said. “Choosing to come to NYC and to stay have revealed how important it has been to live out my childhood values in a larger and challenging place.”

Penner said the legacy of MVS continues in the people who left a piece of their hearts in the city and moved on — or stayed.

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