NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Teenagers are in the spotlight when they share life-changing experiences while serving in Mennonite Mission Network's Youth Venture program. Before the trip begins, however, it is their parents — and other shoulder-tappers such as youth sponsors, teachers and friends — who are backstage, giving the youth a last loving push into the three-week summer adventure. The Holy Spirit uses families and communities to help teens risk a cross-cultural immersion. In return, youth often enrich the wider church through their engagement with it. These three vignettes demonstrate what happens when adults and youth together enter the drama of God's global work.
"It was really cool to meet Mennonites from all over the world, and not just those who live in Goshen, Indiana." — Jack VonGunten
In the summer after his freshman year at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, Indiana, Jack VonGunten traveled outside of the United States for the first time. That's when he participated in a Youth Venture trip to Peru where he served at a summer camp for kids.
According to VonGunten, it was both his mom, Jolene VonGunten, and his friend, Biz Bomberger, who convinced him to go. He and Bomberger had known each other all their lives, and he was glad to be going to another continent with a buddy, where he discovered a big, wide world.
"It was really cool to meet Mennonites from all over the world, and not just those who live in Goshen, Indiana," said VonGunten, currently a senior at Bethany. "This trip took me beyond my little sheltered life and gave me a broader world view."
Jack VonGunten, a senior at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, Indiana, participated in a Youth Venture trip to Peru several years ago. Photo by Jaci Forshtay.
His mother says she witnessed how Jack grew in his self-confidence as well as his understanding of the wider church. His growth was worth all the energy she put into his discernment process.
"We were a little pushy about the Peru possibility with Jack initially, but he wouldn't have gone along with it without his friend by his side — that was the deal-maker," Jolene VonGunten said.
She also said Jack experienced many firsts on this trip, and with the help of his leaders and team, was able to navigate them and adapt.
"He traveled internationally without his family for the first time, built relationships with people from different parts of the world, and experienced a new language and culture," she said. "He grew and matured in ways we're still seeing years later."
"The Youth Venture experience introduced me to the wider Mennonite Church, and it helped me to understand why my parents' hearts have been so into church during my growing-up years. Now that I've had this experience, I, too, want to engage with the church more in my own life." — Biz Bomberger
Today, Biz Bomberger is a freshman at Manchester University in North Manchester, Indiana, where he is majoring in biochemistry. Several years ago, he was a much younger version of himself who had not explored much of the world beyond Goshen. It's where he loved playing soccer at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen and hanging out with his friends, including Jack VonGunten.
It wasn't until his mother, Arloa Bontrager, convinced him to join the Peru Youth Venture trip by inviting VonGunten to go, too, that he risked moving out of his comfort zone.
"The Youth Venture experience introduced me to the wider Mennonite Church, and it helped me to understand why my parents' hearts have been so into church during my growing-up years," Bomberger said. "Now that I've had this experience, I, too, want to engage with the church more in my own life."
His mother knew all along what her son is discovering for himself — being part of the church means having a foundation of support and goodwill.
"I think all the layers of support in helping him decide to go were very important," Bontrager said. "Although Biz was excited from the beginning, he was also a bit nervous. Knowing we were solidly supporting him gave him confidence to keep pushing forward. Our church and MYF youth group also supported him financially, which again felt like he was not in this alone. … It just felt like there was a whole community behind him."
"Going to Ireland where I helped with peacebuilding between Catholic and Protestant youth really showed me that conflict resolution is the kind of work I want to be doing going forward in my life." — Elizabeth Eby
All the way home from the Chicago airport back to Goshen, Indiana, Elizabeth Eby says she could not stop sharing about her Youth Venture experience in Ireland the summer after her junior year in high school.
Though she had always felt free to talk with her parents, Rachel Nussbaum Eby and Rick Eby, Elizabeth Eby said her Youth Venture experiences — the summer before, she had also served in Los Angeles — were special. These engagements solidified her own relationship to the wider church apart from her family of origin. They also helped her identify what to pursue at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she is currently completing her sophomore year in a double major: peacebuilding and development, and Bible, religion and theology.
Elizabeth Eby, second from the right in the yellow shirt, participated in a Youth Venture service trip to Belfast in Northern Ireland several years ago. Photo by John Murray.
"Going to Ireland where I helped with peacebuilding between Catholic and Protestant youth really showed me that conflict resolution is the kind of work I want to be doing going forward in my life," Elizabeth Eby said.
Programs like Youth Venture give our youth the opportunity to try out their own wings and to see if the faith they've heard about from their parents and church community is something they can live for themselves, Rachel Nussbaum Eby said.
"If we don't provide these connections for them while they are growing up, they aren't going to automatically pick up an interest in service and the church when they are older," she said. "Programs like Youth Venture are building the people who will then build the church."