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Urban pastor shares vision with Bethel students

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When Cyneatha Millsaps visited Bethel College for the first time recently, she found a whole network of connections had preceded her.

Millsaps, the lead pastor at Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., is on a mission to share her vision – of what the church (both her congregation and the broader Mennonite denomination) can and should be – with young people. And the best place to find them, she says, is on the campuses of the Mennonite Church USA colleges.

She visited Bluffton University last spring, and this fall combined a visit to Hesston College for the annual Anabaptist Vision and Discipleship Series conference Oct. 30-Nov. 1 with three days as pastor-in-residence at Bethel, Nov. 2-5.

“She said she always wondered why folks at Community Mennonite Church thought Bethel was such a special place,” says Dale Schrag, Bethel College campus pastor. “She assumed it was simply because [the late] Larry Voth – a former pastor of Community Mennonite and former director of development here at Bethel for whom Voth Hall was named – loved Bethel College, and Community Mennonite loved Larry Voth.”

But, Schrag says, while that connection is true enough, Millsaps also experienced “something more, something very special” during her time at Bethel.

That may be due in part to another connection Millsaps discovered, to the Mennonite community she credits as the place where her vision for church first began to germinate. Millsaps grew up in south central Elkhart, Ind., only a couple of miles from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. As a child, she knew nothing of AMBS, but was very much aware of a group that had coalesced there and then organized Fellowship of Hope, an intentional Christian community, in her neighborhood.

One of the Fellowship of Hope children was Ruth Harder, with whom Millsaps became reacquainted several years ago when both women were students at AMBS and who is now associate pastor of Bethel College Mennonite Church.

Millsaps grew up in a home where her mother suffered from mental illness, she told the Bethel students, faculty and staff who gathered for the weekly Wednesday chapel service. More than once, Fellowship of Hope members brought groceries or paid rent when Millsaps’ mother was unable to provide.

Perhaps even more important, Millsaps says, Fellowship of Hope gave her an idea of what the church as the body of Christ should be and do in the world. “We saw the best of that community,” she says. “We didn’t see the hard stuff, even though we knew it was there. We saw the beauty of God and the beauty of people, working together.

“I was formed by these Mennonites, even though they didn’t know that’s what they were doing,” she continues. Millsaps completed her undergraduate education at another Bethel College, this one in Mishawaka, Ind., with degrees in psychology and sociology, spent 10 years working for iFiT (individuals & Families in Transition) Inc. and in January 2006 became president and CEO of Family Services of Elkhart County Inc.

“I knew I was already doing ministry, even though I was part of a denomination [Baptist] that would never give me that title,” she says. “I felt I needed to grasp this a little bit more, either by going to seminary or getting a master’s degree in public administration.” So she picked the two institutions closest to home with the programs she wanted, AMBS and Indiana University at South Bend (IUSB), and sent in her applications.

“I said, ‘Whichever I hear from is the one God wants.’ I never heard back from IUSB.”

In a theology class at AMBS, Millsaps first heard about “the priesthood of all believers.” “I suddenly realized this was what I had been talking about for years, but I had never had a word for it,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m not crazy – this is real.’ At AMBS, I came home to what I’d been believing for years [about what the church should be].”

And in 2007, she found herself in a place she had never expected – pastoring a Mennonite church on the south side of Chicago, in a community where most residents are African-American and many live in poverty, and a congregation where the majority of attenders are either over 50 or under 25, about evenly split racially between black and white.

“My vision has two parts,” she says. “One part is what I have for any church community I want to be part of as a leader – an active community of believers engaging the world around us in a positive, non-threatening way, [like] what I saw with Fellowship of Hope.”

The other part, she says, is for Community Mennonite Church specifically. “It speaks directly to the needs of our community: Literacy and education for our children, assistance for the homeless and those barely surviving.”

To accomplish this, she says, will take “people to come and be with us,” so CMC is working on tangible ways to attract young adults, such as providing housing options and helping with job searches.

At Bethel – and earlier at Bluffton – she had discussions with several students who heard a call in Millsaps’ words. “I’ve been struggling with ‘what’s next,’” says Kelsie Miller, a Bethel senior from Goshen, Ind. “Things I thought I might do have been challenged. This opportunity seems to be bringing together all the things I want to do.”

“This sounds good to young people because they’re disillusioned with the church,” Millsaps says, “and when they see [the church] actively working for social justice, they’re intrigued by that. They’ve been brought up in churches that talk about Jesus and the good he did, and that also talk about being thankful for God’s gifts so we write a check. It’s not enough.

“The established church has to understand,” Millsaps continues, “that we’ve talked a really good game and this generation is going to push us to do something. Our colleges have taught them well, and given them the arguments – they can stand toe-to-toe on theology. I think it’s great.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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