“Honestly, I laughed at the thought of going into missions,” said Becky Gant to a crowd of other YES alumni. “Me? I’m not good enough. I did everything in my power not to go into YES. Well, I lost, and I applied.”
At “35 years of saying YES,” EMM’s farewell event for its YES program, former participants like Gant in the mission and discipleship training program for youth reminisced and reconnected over the experience of YES. The event, which took place on May 21, 2016, at Lancaster Mennonite School, included those who were part of the program at its conception in 1980, those who completed YES assignments in recent years, and everyone in between.
Though the structure varied from team to team, the YES program usually included several months of discipleship training at a “discipleship center” with other youth, and a longer period of time serving in an outreach location. Over 35 years, 446 YES teams served in 56 countries and 19 U.S. locations.
“35 years of saying YES” began with a service to commemorate the program. Eight YES alumni, representing a variety of experiences, shared their YES stories, all themed around the Lord’s Prayer. Gant, who served on the 2004 Central Asia YES team, themed her story on the beginning of the prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
“I met God there in a way I never had before. My new life began then,” said Gant of her YES experience. “My time in Central Asia was monumental. It was the first time when I had no doubt in my mind that I was exactly where God wanted me to be.”
The service also included space to lament negative experiences with YES. “We bring to mind all the people who have been hurt while going through YES in these past 35 years. We stand in representation of those who hold pain, and for those who may have caused it,” said 1981 YES alumna Yvonne Garber, who read a lament along with 1985 alumnus Dean Sauder. EMM Short-term Placement Coach Sherrie Ober then responded with a written apology. “Our desire at EMM is to restore relationships with those who are estranged from our imperfect community,” she said. “We are sorry, and we ask forgiveness.”
Troy Landis, EMM discipleship coach, and Angie Earl, EMM discipleship trainer, shared about EMM’s new approach to mission and discipleship training as it transitions out of YES. “God is calling us out of the program and into life,” said Landis. “We desire to meet people right where they are, in the flow of their lives.” EMM’s recent language reflects this shift from programs to everyday life; the tagline for its revamped mission internship program is “Launch into life on mission.”
Earl said that going forward, EMM plans to work more collaboratively, engaging in cross-cultural missions locally by partnering with organizations that work with refugees, international students, and the broader Lancaster community. Examples of current partnerships include Church World Service, the Lancaster County Refugee Coalition, and Immerse International. EMM also plans to hold local discipleship training events and programs for youth and adults, and provide cross-cultural mission internships in and out of the U.S. These internships will be flexible, with a focus on how individual gifts can be used in missions.
After the service, which included worship led by longtime YES worship leader Gareth Goossen, alumni reconnected and remembered YES over appetizers and desserts. Jeff Urich of Westerlo, N.Y., remembered coming home after his 1993 YES assignment in Russia. “I almost kissed the ground. I never wanted to leave the country again!” he said. However, Urich said he would never have considered going into full-time missions without his YES experience. Urich served as a missionary to remote Alaska for eight years. Later this year, he will finally leave the U.S. again to serve as a church planter in Ireland.
Keith Blank of Lancaster, Pa., who worked with EMM’s short-term programs for 15 years and served as YES director from 1993–1996, remembered the program as a special place for youth to take the initiative to serve. Blank was just 25 when he began organizing short-term programs for EMM, and 31 when he became YES director. “It was a place where young people had freedom,” he said.
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