NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Gerald Freyenberger, 81, and Risa Fukaya, 21, represent distinct generations and ethnic backgrounds. Yet they found commonality during a Mennonite Mission Network-sponsored alumni and friends service-learning tour to Mississippi this past March.
During the civil rights movement-inspired tour, Freyenberger, an alum of PAX, an alternative service program for conscientious objectors, met Fukaya, a participant from Japan in the Jackson, Mississippi, Service Adventure unit. The tour group visited the unit and its host congregation, Open Door Mennonite Church, where tour participants did a service project.
In this varied mix of generations and backgrounds, Anabaptists discovered a common love of service, community, and peace and justice work. During the unit visit, tour participants engaged with Fukaya and young adult German participants Paula Klätte and Estella Sandweg, as well as unit leaders Cynthia and Roger Neufeld Smith, who are in their mid-60s.
Freyenberger, in a telephone interview from his farm in Wayland, Iowa, said he joined the tour to revisit churches he helped rebuild. They had been burned down during civil rights unrest in the mid-1960s. A trip bonus for him was connecting with unit participants. They gave him hope that younger people — just as those in his era — strive to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a troubled, materialistic world.
"I want to affirm the current generation in their desire to serve," he said. "I think the experience is valuable, in that you learn many things that you don't in the working world. It is easy for all of us to get into our cocoons, where we can forget what other people are going through. Service opens our eyes."
Fukaya agrees with Freyenberger that service is eye-opening and world expanding, she said in a Zoom interview with the Neufeld Smiths. Fukaya graduated from Hesston (Kansas) College in spring 2019 and was baptized on Easter Sunday before graduation.
"I used to have my own goals and dreams, but now I focus my future on what God has in mind for me," Fukaya said. "That is why I decided to take a gap year of service between Hesston and finishing my last two years at college."
Service Adventure participant Risa Fukaya talks with learning tour participant Merlin Grieser at the Jackson, Mississippi, unit house. Photo by Travis Duerksen.
Desire for service transcends generations
Fukaya's Service Adventure assignment included working at a clothing closet, a daycare center for children, and a soup kitchen.
"My jobs were all about meeting people, serving people, and helping people, and that fit me well, because I most significantly meet God through people," she said. "Also, this experience is helping me to do things in a Jesus way."
More than a half century ago, 21-year-old Freyenberger, who faced the draft, wanted to do things in a Jesus way, too, and so engaged with PAX. He did construction projects in Vienna, Austria, and in northern Greece from 1959 through 1961.
"At the time, I was working on our family farm where I had been born as the oldest of nine children," said Freyenberger. "My father [Edwin] died in a farm accident when I was 17, and I was a great help to my mother [Freida] and a father figure to my siblings. Yet my mother still encouraged me to go into PAX."
In 1964, he served with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to restore churches burned during the civil rights unrest. During the March tour of historic sites, he said he thought he saw ⸺ though not 100 percent certain ⸺ a section of brick he installed at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
In the decades following, Freyenberger engaged with Mennonite Disaster Service many times to help restore communities ravaged by storms, fires and floods. A retired farmer and a member of Sugar Creek Mennonite Church, Freyenberger today volunteers with a local community garden and volunteers at the Crowded Closet in Iowa City, Iowa, with his wife, Mary Jo.
Alumni trips foster continuation of longtime service tradition
The Neufeld Smiths said they felt encouraged by the tour group visit; it affirmed them personally and affirmed the Mennonite Church's long legacy of service.
"The tour members were so interested in our participants and what they are doing," Cynthia Neufeld Smith said. "I think that was because everyone shared a sense of commonality. We are doing something here today they had done in the past."
Roger Neufeld Smith said he is grateful that for the past 100 years, the Mennonite Church has made service a priority and gives people avenues, such as Service Adventure, in which to serve.
"Since 1973, the wider Anabaptist church, in some form, has provided service opportunities right here in Jackson," he said. "The church is carrying on that legacy of service for new generations."
To date, Mission Network has sponsored two alumni-service trips to Mississippi and one to Arizona. Trip co-planners and leaders are Susan Nisly, Mission Network's director of Service Adventure, and Arloa Bontrager, Mission Network's director of Youth Venture and SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners).
While listening to tour participants' stories of their former service, Bontrager said she senses those experiences shifted their understanding of the world, and, in some cases, shaped the course of their life.
"Gerald [Freyenberger] had only served for a week in Mississippi; yet it was clear that week had a deep impact on him, and participating in this trip helped him to reflect again on that earlier service experience," she said.