Michele Hershberger addresses the youth during worship on Wednesday night. Photo by Vada Snider.
Michele Hershberger, who teaches Bible at Hesston (Kan.) College, took the stage at the youth worship Wednesday evening for a Jimmy Fallon-style Tonight Show parody: The Menno-Night Show.
Kicking off her talk show with Thank You Notes, Hershberger thanked the green conference lanyards for making Mennonites feel awkward on the streets of Kansas City and hipsters for making her Amish cousins look like they dress in cutting-edge fashion.
Hershberger’s banter took a serious turn when she asked, “Where is Jesus when tragedy strikes?” She then interviewed three individuals, inviting two to sit on a couch on stage and talking with a third via Skype. Each shared stories of tragedy and pain.
- In the Skype interview, Alyssa Rodriguez, a health clinic worker in Iowa, shared the story of her rape while on a two-year service term in Quito, Ecuador. She became pregnant from the assault. When Hershberger asked where Jesus was during this time, Rodriguez admitted she did not want to tie Jesus to this ugly, awful thing and did not know where he was at the time.
- Kim Litwiller, pastor and convention worship leader from East Peoria (Ill.) Mennonite Church, talked about her longing for heaven from the age of two after she learned of her father’s death. She shared the loneliness, confusion and anger, which swelled until middle school, when her mother began going to church. After two years of trying to remain invisible in Sunday school, Litwiller found acceptance in her peers. Her anger returned when her best friend was killed in a car crash at age 16. She stood at the site of the accident wondering why this had happened and asking where was Jesus.
- Hershberger’s final guest, Ted Swartz, shared the pain of losing his best friend and comedy partner to suicide. He spoke of the paradox of working in comedy, sharing Bible stories full of messages of love and hope, and struggling with depression. Swartz talked of experiencing his own depression following the death of his friend and said “grief does odd things to you. When you’re in shock, you’re not the same person. And yet you are.”
Hershberger said the stories told by Rodriguez, Litwiller and Swartz were sacred stories and assured them that their stories touched the listeners. She acknowledged that life is often difficult and messy and sometimes Jesus is nowhere to be seen.
Hershberger asked that everyone give themselves permission to feel the way they feel, to continue believing in Jesus “even when he can’t be seen or heard. Reject despair.
In the middle of easy answers and despair, just stay in the middle,” she said.
Steve Nelson, youth pastor at Lower Deer Creek Mennonite in Kalona, Iowa, said he hoped the youth came away from the evening knowing that God is always there “even when we don’t know it. Just like the story on the road to Emmaus,” he said, “Jesus was right in front of the disciples, even though they didn’t see him.”
Lena Yeakey, a youth from North Goshen (Ind.) Mennonite Church, said she appreciated Hershberger not having neat responses to her guests.
She said “it’s not the place of the church to say it was God’s plan that these bad things happen. That’s not helpful for healing.”