May 29, 2018

EMM’s first overseas Board meeting in East Africa a “formative” experience

Written by  Emily Jones
EMM Board members gather at Amani Gardens Inn in Nairobi, Kenya, during EMM’s first overseas Board meeting. Front row, left to right: Kent Hartzler, Akeia Haddox-Rossiter, Brian Martin, EMM President Nelson Okanya, and Laurie Gingrich. Back row, left to right: Janet Weber, Tuyen Nguyen, Kenneth Sensenig, Cedric Roth, Lyn Carlson, and Lawrence Brenneman. Not pictured: Stanley Green and Keith Weaver. Photo by Darlene Sommers. EMM Board members gather at Amani Gardens Inn in Nairobi, Kenya, during EMM’s first overseas Board meeting. Front row, left to right: Kent Hartzler, Akeia Haddox-Rossiter, Brian Martin, EMM President Nelson Okanya, and Laurie Gingrich. Back row, left to right: Janet Weber, Tuyen Nguyen, Kenneth Sensenig, Cedric Roth, Lyn Carlson, and Lawrence Brenneman. Not pictured: Stanley Green and Keith Weaver. Photo by Darlene Sommers.

NAIROBI, Kenya — “For a global organization to effectively do its work, it has to connect with the globe,” says Nelson Okanya, president of Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM). With its first-ever overseas Board meeting in East Africa from April 18–25, 2018, EMM made new strides in engaging the world.

During the week, Board members observed both established and new EMM work in Kenya and Tanzania, connected with mission workers from EMM and other organizations, and became listeners and learners as they caught a glimpse of life and faith in East Africa.

The full EMM Board of Directors was in attendance, including Lawrence Brenneman, Lyn Carlson, Laurie Gingrich, Stanley Green, Akeia Haddox-Rossiter, Kent Hartzler, Brian Martin, Tuyen Nguyen, Cedric Roth, Kenneth Sensenig, Keith Weaver, and Janet Weber. Also present were EMM staff members Okanya, Finance Director Steve Martin, Executive Vice President Gerry Keener, and Executive Assistant to the President Darlene Sommers.

The meeting began with a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where EMM’s past and present work includes international school Rosslyn Academy, a community and interfaith dialogue space called Eastleigh Fellowship Center, and Amani Gardens Inn, formerly known as the Mennonite Guesthouse. EMM worker Aram DiGennaro and Joe Bontrager, a non-resident volunteer EMM worker, met the Board in Nairobi to guide them through EMM’s mission initiatives in Kenya and Tanzania.

Over the weekend, the Board split into three groups to explore Mennonite mission and church life in different settings. One group traveled to Kisumu, Kenya, to participate in a Mennonite World Conference renewal meeting, and then to Migori, Kenya, to visit Okanya’s family.

Another group traveled to Musoma and Shirati, Tanzania — the region where EMM first planted international churches in the 1930s — to connect with Tanzania Mennonite Church members and leadership.

The third group went to a sensitive location of East Africa to observe EMM workers’ interfaith dialogue and healthcare work there.

After returning to Nairobi, the Board took some time to soak in Kenya’s culture and natural beauty at a giraffe center, Nairobi National Park, a tea farm, and more.

The week ended with a meeting in which Board members discussed how their experiences in Kenya and Tanzania would shape their guidance of EMM’s work in the future.

“Immersion in mission never fails to impact and deliver far beyond all theories of mission,” said Board Chair Brian Martin. “My formational moment was witnessing very gifted EMM missionary parents, with young children, serving sacrificially in difficult places with unwavering faith and commitment to Christ.”

“In such moments, I observed the EMM Board being deeply impacted in sharing the East Africa experience together,” Martin continued. “Indeed, as we are formed, our Board work is formed.”

Board member Janet Weber expressed her hope that the Board will meet overseas again in the coming years. “This was formative,” she said. “It takes some time for everything to sink in — what one has seen, heard, and felt within another culture.”

For several years, EMM’s Board has been making an effort to cast a wider net as it connects with partnering congregations, organizations, and individuals. Board meetings, which used to take place once a month at the EMM offices in Salunga, Pa., in 2013 began occurring quarterly in different locations throughout the East Coast. The Board has met in Washington, D.C., the Bronx, Central Pennsylvania, Western Maryland, and a number of other locations, taking time to make face-to-face connections with EMM partners in each place.

Okanya described the Board meeting in East Africa as the next step in connecting with EMM partners and work. “This organization has worked overseas for more than 80 years, yet not one time has the Board met overseas,” he said. “It was time for that to change.”

As the region where EMM first sent mission workers in 1934, East Africa was a meaningful place for the Board to hold its first international meeting. “I felt that it would be very significant for the Board to see the impact of the work EMM has been doing there for decades,” said Okanya.

The location of the Board meeting had special significance for Okanya, who was born and raised in Kenya and attended an EMM church plant in Nairobi as he grew up.

“The Board visited my childhood home, and my family shared a meal with them,” he said. “Words can’t describe how much that meant to me.”

“It was a God-ordained trip,” Okanya continued. “Only time will show its full impact.”