Note: Jonathan Bornman, an EMM worker on the Christian-Muslim Relations Team, was involved in this beautiful cross-cultural event put on by Mount Joy Mennonite Church (MJMC). EMM is inspired by this story of how one church in Lancaster County, Pa., is moving in mission!
MANHEIM, Pa. — From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, about 525 people from 49 nations celebrated Christmas and cross-cultural friendship at Mount Joy Mennonite Church’s (MJMC’s) third annual international Christmas feast on December 3, 2017.
Inside The Junction Center, Christian radio station WJTL’s event hall, there was warmth and laughter as guests posed together at a photo booth, marked their countries of origin on a large world map, and shared a halal and mostly vegan meal catered by Upohar Ethnic Cuisines, a local social impact business involved in refugee employment.
“We are very glad that you have joined us in Lancaster County,” Karl Landis, lead pastor at MJMC and a co-host for the event, said to those assembled. “If you needed to leave your homeland because of danger, war, famine, or religious persecution, we are glad that you are safe here. We believe that you will enrich our communities. We look forward to learning to know you and to being neighbors with you.”
Mustafa Nuur, a Somalian refugee who resettled in Lancaster in 2014, has been coming to the feast since last year. The winner of Lancaster’s 2017 Great Social Enterprise Pitch with Bridge, a startup that connects people with the cultural talents of refugees, Nuur believes in fostering a connected and caring community.
“This party is the one of the times in the year I see a community truly come together across cultural and religious affiliation. It reassures me that despite what’s going on in the world, people can find understanding and share a happy time,” he said. “I keep returning every year to get more inspired to see how the party is growing.”
“The party truly creates conversation,” Nuur continued. “The environment is safe and friendly, and if you didn’t know, you would think all these people that came from many walks of life are real friends. It’s a welcome beyond what words can describe.”
Each table was hosted by an individual or couple from MJMC, who personally provided an appetizer and engaged with the guests at their table throughout the evening to ensure that all were welcomed warmly.
Marshall and Cindy Meador, MJMC members who hosted a table, had limited communication with those at their table because of the language barrier. But when guests were asked to greet each other by saying “Peace to you” in their first languages before watching the story of Jesus’ birth in “The Jesus Film,” Cindy was able to say “Peace to you” to each of her Arabic-speaking guests in the few words she knew of their language. Cindy said her guests’ eyes lit up with recognition, and she felt a moment of real connection as each guest gave the Arabic response to her greeting.
“The times in which we live cause fear, mistrust, hopelessness, despair,” said Jonathan Bornman, a MJMC member who served as a consultant and co-host for the feast. “When given an opportunity to do something positive — to say with our actions, with the position of our bodies, with our food, with our words, that we love all people and desire to live at peace with all people — everyone jumped at the chance.”
At the beginning, the international Christmas feast was a leap of faith for MJMC. Bornman said it all began in 2015 when the church’s ministry team sensed God asking, "What would it look like to give Christmas away?"
Church leaders began to feel that they should devote the time and energy normally used for their candlelight Christmas Eve service to something that would connect more strongly with the local community or those in need. This vision coincided with the global refugee crisis, which was bringing hundreds of refugees to Lancaster, Pa.
The outcome was a cross-cultural Christmas feast called “Great Joy.” At 325 people, attendance was beyond the church’s expectations. About 100 of the guests were refugees or immigrants representing over 30 countries. The event was met with such enthusiasm that the congregation immediately began thinking ahead to the next Christmas.
Mount Joy Mennonite Church’s 2016 international Christmas feast had even better attendance, with 450 guests from 37 countries.
Jonathan Bornman believes that the Christmas feast’s continued success comes from “a touch from the Holy Spirit on all involved ... MJMC people, special guests, refugees, immigrants, and friends.”
“It’s a whole-church effort,” said Nita Landis, who co-chaired the event-planning committee of eight along with associate pastor Ryan McQuitty. She said that even third- and fourth-graders in the church’s Pioneer Clubs program got involved by assembling 150 activity bags for children attending the feast.
Party guest Andrew Mashas, who attends Sunnyside Mennonite Church, saw the event as a “whole-church effort” in a broader sense: he said it served as a place for members of Mennonite churches across Lancaster County to unite over a common passion for extending hospitality to those from other countries.
“There are so many people from Lancaster County’s Mennonite churches who are involved in befriending local refugees and immigrants, and many of them were there,” he said.
As the night ended with a rendition of “Joy to the World” and guests went home with packets of sweets from the Lancaster Sweet Shoppe, a benefit corporation that hires refugees, Nita Landis felt that she had seen a glimpse of peace on earth.
“Unfortunately, our foreign-born friends receive plenty of unwelcoming messages as they move through their daily lives in this country,” she said. “I believe that all human hearts respond with joy when someone is glad to be with them, and I love extending this joy, especially to refugees who have endured great loss and trauma.”
“Our Christmas joy flows from God's desire and gladness to be with us, demonstrated in his trip to earth and birth as a baby among us,” Landis continued. “We get to share that joy at the feast.”
“As I sat in the balcony looking out over all those people from so many places, I felt like I was watching a preview of heaven, where every tongue, tribe and nation will be present,” said MJMC member Rebecca Rome. “It was one of the best nights of my life."