Mennonite Health JournalArticles on the intersection of faith and health
Walking Together for Healthy Communities
A Report on Annual Gathering 2015
Paul D. Leichty
from Mennonite Health Journal, Vol. 17, No. 3 – August 2015
Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship’s fourth Annual Gathering will be remembered as unusual, perhaps even historic. Instead of the typical weekend in June in a retreat setting, Annual Gathering 2015 was held on Sunday-Tuesday, July 19-21, 2015, immediately prior to Mennonite World Conference Assembly at the Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey Hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Just as the Mennonite World Conference held its most diverse Assembly ever, the Annual Gathering also reflected that international flavor.
The Annual Gathering’s theme of “Walking Together for Healthy Communities” was amply illustrated by stories of the Spirit at work in many times and places. Stories came from the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry to contemporary stories from Harrisburg and Philadelphia to India, Tanzania, Kenya, Congo, and Ethiopia. More than 160 persons participated in some or all of the event sharing their own personal stories with each other in plenary sessions, workshops, roundtable discussions, and, of course, over mealtimes and breaks.
The ballrooms and conference rooms of the Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey Hotel provided a setting not only for healthcare professionals and their spouses but also for over 20 children of those who came as entire family units. Children also had the opportunity to share their own stories and play together on Monday at the nearby Slate Hill Mennonite Church.
Worship leader Jane Hoober Peiffer and music leader Nan Garber led in worship at the beginning of each of four plenary sessions. Their choice of music, readings, and reflections helped Annual Gathering participants reflect on the topics of the presentations which followed.
Sunday evening’s opening presentation featured a different form of story-telling than the usual Annual Gathering plenary session. In the dramatic presentation “The Jesus Stories…what’s for lunch?” Ted & Company reminded those gathered that healthy communities not only walk together; they also eat together! The comedy duo of Ted Swartz and Jeff Raught wove together action and song in recreating some of the stories and parables of Jesus involving food and table gatherings. They offered a fresh look at these Gospel stories that was both humorous and insightful and challenged the audience to think about who gets to be a part of our communities seeking greater health and wholeness.
Dr. Ann Thyle, a palliative care physician from Delhi, India, shared a more personal story in her Monday morning presentation, “Health Care Delivery to the Poor: A Personal Calling.” Leaving behind a career in academic medicine, Dr. Thyle accepted a calling to serve in first one, then many, small mission hospitals in northern India. Drawing her audience along on her journey through pictures and moving storytelling, she described her career shifts from anesthesiology to obstetrics to her more recent work in pioneering palliative care medicine in northern India.
Monday evening’s presentation by community activist Shane Claiborne brought the pictures and stories of “Walking Together for Healthy Communities” back to the state of Pennsylvania as he shared about the work of his Christian community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He reminded his hearers that Jesus calls his followers to “Another Way of Doing Life” in addressing the issues of injustice, violence, and poverty that are critical to the healing process for folks living in many urban neighborhoods. Particularly powerful were his stories of gun buy-back programs and the surviving relatives of gunshot victims pounding the guns into gardening tools for use in growing vegetables in the community garden.
As compelling as these plenary presentations were, it was often in the follow-up workshops where Annual Gathering attendees experienced the issues at a more personal level. Ted Swartz and Jeff Raught led one group in a further exploration of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in their workshop called “Chasing Goosebumps.” Ann Thyle elaborated on some of themes of her plenary presentation in her workshop setting.
Meanwhile, Fred Kauffman and Curtis Book, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) workers and residents of Philadelphia explored more deeply the issue of “Gun Violence: A Public Health Problem.” Powerful first-hand stories from Harrisburg Brethren in Christ pastor, Woody Dalton, added some sobering details into the presentation.
Additional workshops highlighted the international flavor of the Annual Gathering even more. Dr. Bwire Chirangi, chief medical officer of the Shirati KMT Hospital, affiliated with the Mennonite Church in Tanzania, reported on a research program aimed at “Reducing Maternal Mortality in Rural Tanzania.” The program of providing women with medications to reduce postpartum hemorrhage and sepsis has had a significant impact in preserving the health of mothers giving birth in the rural regions of his country.
Maurice Anyanga, MCC worker working in conjunction with the Mennonite Church in Kenya shared some of the fascinating stories of how the church is carrying out an educational program in “Responding to the Challenges of HIV/AIDS.” Working with both cultural realities and Christian principles, the church is responding to one of the biggest public health issues in today’s world.
Linda Witmer, Associate Professor of Nursing at Eastern Mennonite University’s Lancaster, Pennsylvania campus, shared from her experience in both Central America and the United States in “Engaging Congregations in Health Ministries.”
The topic of Climate Change and its effect on public health worldwide was discussed in several settings. Dr. Catherine Thomasson, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, led a workshop entitled “Climate Change: Solutions to Global Health Threats.” Following up on her explanation of some of the global issues, Stan Godshall and Lyubov Slashcheva led in a Tuesday morning roundtable discussion of steps that can be taken on a personal and professional level to respond to God’s call for creation care amidst this monumental challenge of our time.
A final workshop, entitled “A Little One Shall Lead Them: Reimagining Leadership on the Journey Toward Health” was led by David Gullman, chaplain with persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities at Pleasant View in the Harrisonburg, Virginia area. In challenging workshop participants to imagine following the lead to greater health from persons thought to be most broken, Dave foreshadowed his plenary presentation at the final session on Tuesday morning with the theme, “Discovering Healthy Communities through the Broken Body.” Weaving together stories from his growing up days in Ethiopia to becoming the parent of a daughter with Down Syndrome and then pastoring a flock of persons as part of the “Faith and Light” movement, Dave led the congregation naturally into a time of communion, remembering the broken body of Christ. Worship leader, Jane Hoober Peiffer, led in a commissioning service as each participant was draped with a simple maroon or white ribbon to go out as beloved disciples of Jesus and be the healing presence of Christ in the world.
Throughout the Annual Gathering, the lived stories of “Walking Together for Healthy Communities” became the stories proclaimed to the 160 persons gathered and thus became part of the shared story of Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship (MHF) as an interdisciplinary community of Anabaptist health professionals which seeks to nurture the integration of faith and practice, to provide opportunities for dialogue on health related issues, and to address specific needs through education, advocacy, and service.
Established in 2011 when Mennonite Medical Association (MMA) and Mennonite Nurses Association (MNA) joined to form a new organization open to all Anabaptist healthcare professionals, MHF welcomes the participation of Anabaptist individuals involved in any healthcare discipline from students to active practitioners to retirees. In addition to the Annual Gathering, MHF sponsors Regional Meetings, the quarterly Mennonite Health Journal, scholarship and grants for mission-related activities, and the networking and support of like-minded colleagues. Additional information is available at www.mennohealth.org or by calling 1-888-406-3643.
About the author
Paul D. Leichty, M.Div. was the first Executive Director of Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship (MHF), serving from Sept. 2011 through May 2020. Paul has served as a pastor, church musician, computer support person, disabilities advocate, and administrator/organizer of a number of church-related ministries. In addition to responsibilities at MHF, Paul is Executive Director of Congregational Accessibility Network and was formerly Director of User Services at Mennonite.net. He is a member of Agape Fellowship of the Mennonite Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife, Twila Charles Leichty.