By Wil LaVeist
(Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church USA)—Church life became too comfortable for Judy and Steve Harder.
Sunday morning after Sunday morning, they enjoyed sitting together in the pews at First Mennonite Church in Mountain Lake, Minn. They would smile and greet fellow worshipers, study the Bible and sing songs of praise. Yet, quietly, they were also thinking, God has more for us to do.
Fast forward five years, and they continue to worship in the same church building, but now they hear greetings such as, “Buenos días, Pastor. ¡Dios te bendiga!” (“Good morning, Pastor. God bless you!”)
The Harders are pastoring Iglesia Evangélica Ágape (Agape Evangelical Church), a church plant that holds afternoon services and weekly Bible studies in the First Mennonite building. Ágape was accepted into Central Plains Mennonite Conference this past July.
“Judy and I had been trying to decide what we wanted to do with our spiritual lives,” Steve says. “Maybe it was uneasiness with the status quo and going to church and sitting in the pews.”
“There are a lot of folks who are unaware of God’s love in their lives, and if that means we have to step out of our comfort zone to fill that gap, then so be it,” Judy says.
The Harders have been active in Mountain Lake for years, volunteering at the local school, serving at the food pantry, writing grants, and serving with the city tree commission.
They had been noticing the growth in the city’s Hispanic population as people sought jobs in the area. Steve, who practices family medicine in a local clinic, decided to attend evening Spanish classes for two years at a nearby university in order to improve communication with his patients.
They recently started a community-supported agricultural farm and market on their acreage in town to promote local, healthy connections to the land. CSA members stop by weekly for their share of the harvest.
Mountain Lake is a rural town with a population of around 2,100, about 135 miles southwest of Minneapolis, in Cottonwood County. The city is off of I-60, which is a main corridor from Denver to Minneapolis. Initially settled by Russian Mennonites between 1873 and 1880, the city now has about 30 percent families of Hispanic and Asian heritage.
Through their daily work in the community, the Harders had connections with many families and observed that there wasn’t a local Hispanic church. A spiritual emptiness was evident in a lot of relationships.
In 2003, the Harders took an extended sabbatical to discern God’s leading. They eventually happened upon an article in which Mauricio Chenlo, the denominational minister for church planting (a shared staff position between Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board), discussed his work. In 2007, the Harders invited Chenlo to meet with them along with community members and leaders from the Mennonite churches.
“He gave his presentation about church planting from an Anabaptist perspective,” Judy says. “There was enthusiasm and support, so we began having Bible studies in our homes. We’d have singing, prayer and Bible study time. At the beginning, it was just one other person, Josephina Mendoza, and Steve and I consistently. Josephina is an inspiration to me.”
Then Pedro Hernandez Soto, a Mennonite from Honduras, happened to be visiting family in the area. He had come to the United States to help Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans along with other ministers. He visited the Mountain Lake church, connected with the Harders, and ended up staying with them for the summer. He helped develop the Bible study group, and it grew.
“He connected us to SEMILLA (Seminario Anabautista Latinoamericano, or Latin American Anabaptist Seminary) in Guatemala, where he purchased Sunday school materials,” Judy says. “He gave us a lot of connections.”
The Bible study group was visited by Martha and Ramiro Hernandez, tutors with Instituto Bíblico Anabautista (IBA), a Mennonite Education Agency Spanish-language biblical training program for new church leaders who do not have seminary training.
Hernandez encouraged the Harders to start a church.
“We were like, ‘Really?’ We’re not pastors and don’t have any training along that line,” Judy says.
They decided to form a church but realized they needed more training. They invited Rafael Barahona and Violeta Ajquejay, IBA directors, to conduct a two-day workshop for themselves and members of the church. The program gave them the tools they needed to develop a strong ministry.
“We sincerely feel this came from God and his working through us,” says Steve. “There is no way we could have done this by ourselves.”
Iglesia Evangélica Ágape now has about 40 members.
“I give thanks to God for allowing us to have our own church,” says Emelia Sanchez, who worships at Ágape.
“We are very happy to be having our second anniversary,” adds MaryLu Luna, another member.
“We often think of reaching others outside our borders and forget those who are within our borders,” Hernandez says. “We need brothers and sisters (like the Harders) who are willing to work within the borders of our country and reach those who need the gospel. The world has come to us, and I believe we are ready to respond to his calling as a Mennonite church.”
“Steve and Judy are doing an important work,” says David Boshart, executive conference minister for Central Plains Conference. “They have busy and full lives, but they heeded a call.”
Note: The Spanish translation of this article is in process.
Judy and Steve Harder (Photo provided)
Rafael Barahona, director of Hispanic Pastoral and Leadership Education, conducts a two-day workshop for leaders and members of Iglesia Evangélica Ágape. (Photo: Hispanic Pastoral and Leadership Education)