New church in Alamosa has MVS roots

Anabaptist Fellowship of Alamosa (Colo.) is the result of cooperation across Mennonite Church USA.

[en español]

By Andrew Clouse

From left: Nicole Bontrager, a former MVS participant, Sue Miller and Sarah Hiebert, both current MVS participants, provide special music for a Sunday evening worship service. (Photo by Gordon Miller)

(Mennonite Mission Network/Mennonite Church USA)—Anabaptist Fellowship of Alamosa (Colo.) is an example of what can happen when partners unite around a common goal.

The fellowship, which joined Mountain States Mennonite Conference in  August 2011, is the result of years of presence by Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) in the San Luis Valley, financial support by Mountain States Conference and Mennonite Mission Network, and a leap of faith by a group of Mennonites who have lived in the valley for years.

The 15-member church has been meeting for nearly two years. One goal, according to MVS coordinator Alice Price, is to be a place of spiritual grounding for the MVS unit that recently moved to Alamosa from its longtime home in neighboring La Jara. The connection is so close, in fact, that for the first year the church met in the MVS house.

“Part of the vision was to provide a spiritual home not only for Mennonite volunteers who are passing through for a year or two,” said Price, who has coordinated the MVS unit for 20 years, “but also for other young adults who were coming into the community for similar purposes and might not have a natural church base.”

Becoming a place of spiritual nourishment

MVS has a long history in the San Luis Valley, an expansive alpine desert valley and agricultural region and one of the poorest parts of Colorado. The unit was formed in 1983 to staff the Conejos County Hospital in La Jara, which, like many of the rural hospitals in Colorado, was under Mennonite administration at that time.

When the hospital was turned over to local leadership in the early 1990s and had less need for medical volunteers, unit administrators and Mennonite Mission Network personnel decided to maintain the MVS unit in La Jara to continue its growing involvements with other community needs.

“Most of our placements now are not healthcare related; we’ve been working for many years with other needs, including domestic violence services, immigration services, homeless prevention programs,  and restorative justice,” Price said.

These positions are primarily based in Alamosa, the county seat and a hub for many of the area’s nonprofit agencies. The volunteers were spending significant time and money driving 15 miles to and from work. It made sense to explore moving the unit to Alamosa as well.

The unit’s first need was an affordable home. While Mennonite Mission Network normally does not purchase MVS unit houses, instead leaving housing logistics to the host community, the organization had long owned the house where volunteers lived in La Jara. Mission Network agreed to make all of the funds from the sale of the house available for the purchase of a new house, but there were still challenges to overcome. The housing market, which had never been strong in the valley, had recently bottomed out, and putting the house on the market was risky. Without the proceeds from the sale of the house, the unit could not afford to move to Alamosa.

Alice Price, a longtime local MVS coordinator in Alamosa, Colo., and her husband, Andy Zaugg, provided a bridge loan to purchase a new home (shown here) for the MVS unit when it moved from La Jara to Alamosa. (Photo by Mikaila Holt)

“Alice took a great step of faith herself,” said Del Hershberger, director of Mission Network’s Christian Service programs. “She and her husband, Andy Zaugg, actually purchased a property in Alamosa even before they worked out the details of whether they could sell the house in La Jara and transfer the money. They essentially provided a bridge loan on that property.”

The house did sell, and Mission Network made the net funds available toward the purchase of the property in Alamosa.

The unit’s second need was a spiritual home. A small, aging Presbyterian church in La Jara had welcomed the young adults for the first two decades of Mennonite presence. Later, some MVS members began attending a Methodist church in Alamosa that shared the MVS values of ministering to the needs of the community.

But those who had lived in the valley for many years longed for an Anabaptist community. So initially, a small group of worshipers met at the Alamosa MVS house on Thursday evenings for a year, beginning with worship and ending with a fellowship meal. When they outgrew the house, they moved to a Presbyterian church building in September 2011. They changed the worship time to Sunday evenings, and still eat together after every service.

In an effort to include friends and neighbors, the members of the fellowship have experimented with different outreach strategies. One month they showed and discussed a film at a fellowship member’s home. The next month, on Palm Sunday, they traveled to the outdoor Stations of the Cross created by a local sculptor in the town of San Luis.

“We’re thinking that once a month we’ll do something that has broader interest and might be a little bit easier to invite a friend to come to,” Price said.

Importance of MVS’s long-term presence in the valley

The church plant exemplifies cooperation. MVS’s long-term presence in the valley led to the need for a church. Congregants at the grass-roots level provided the vision. Mission Network contributed proceeds from the sale of the La Jara house, and Mountain States Conference’s SEED Project—a conference initiative that provides startup money for mission efforts—has contributed money to help with transition costs for Katie and Luke Yoder, who moved from Denver to give leadership to the fledgling church.

Luke Yoder served a two-year MVS term in La Jara in the mid-2000s and is now executive director at the agency he worked for—the Center for Restorative Programs. Another former MVS participant, Nicole Bontrager, has also stayed on in Alamosa with her former agency and become part of the leadership team for this church plant.

Del Hershberger said the partnership was a chance for Mission Network to support the creation of a new faith community.

“Although MMN could have used the proceeds from the La Jara house sale for other ministry, it feels particularly meaningful to be able to invest in local ministry with long-time partners that are doing something new,” Hershberger said. “We felt like it was such an important opportunity to be in partnership with the conference and this new church plant.”

Herm Weaver, the Mountain States conference minister, agrees.

“So many times the only way most of us can view things is from our own little fiefdoms and what’s good for us,” Weaver said. “This would be one of the small examples of people getting beyond their fiefdoms and saying, ‘Hey, this makes sense for the good of the whole, and we’ll contribute our little piece.’”

MVS’s work over three decades was a significant reason the church came about at all.

“It’s very clear that there would be no church plant if there was no MVS because MVS is what brings people there and people stay on,” Weaver said.

Price added that the MVS volunteers are important for sustaining social outreach efforts in the valley.

“In rural areas, funds are tight and these are small agencies,” Price said. “Our MVSers have been able to make that difference in providing sustainable high-quality services that wouldn’t have been affordable for these small nonprofits.”

For Weaver, the new church plant has personal significance. His daughter, Chloe Weaver, was killed in 2010 while riding her bicycle near Alamosa after having just begun an MVS term. The memories are raw, he said, but the new fellowship fills him with gratitude.

“I’m extremely grateful to Mission Network for their willingness to participate in this project,” he said. “My daughter was a part of that unit. And I’m grateful that the conference supports these things. But it’s the people on the ground that make this happen. Luke, Katie, Alice, Andy and Nicole – it’s really the people on the ground that deserve most of the kudos.”

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Images available:

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/Alamosa_VS_unit_07323.JPG
Alice Price, a longtime local MVS coordinator in Alamosa, Colo., and her husband, Andy Zaugg, provided a bridge loan to purchase a new home (shown here) for the MVS unit when it moved from La Jara to Alamosa. (Photo by Mikaila Holt)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/Alamosa_VS_NicoleBontrager_SueMiller_SarahHiebert_04726.JPG
From left: Nicole Bontrager, a former MVS participant, Sue Miller and Sarah Hiebert, both current MVS participants, provide special music for a Sunday evening worship service. (Photo by Gordon Miller)