Voluntary Service in the nation’s capital: Connecting with Mennonite roots in DC

Jessica Goshow, Blooming Glen

jess.jpgI like new experiences – things that pluck me from my comfort zone and force me to learn and grow. This is one of the reasons I chose to do a term of service with Mennonite Voluntary Service. I decided to assist with policy work around workers rights and workplace justice at an organization called the Employment Justice Center in the District of Columbia. I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Psychology from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU); with no background or knowledge of policy and had never been to D.C. except for the requisite field trips in Middle School and High School. I chose to take up a new discipline and move to a new city because it was time for something new and, after being immersed in the “Mennonite bubble” my entire life, I knew I still had a lot to learn.

I have appreciated meeting people with varying backgrounds and beliefs. It seems that everyday I meet someone new who has a different belief set from mine, which challenges me to think in different ways. An example of this is in my place of work. I have two wonderful co-workers who do not come from a Christian environment. One comes from an atheist background but has found solace in the Quaker church, while the other is Jewish. I enjoy interacting with people who are different from me, and I have always been fascinated with different religions and why people choose to believe what they believe.

This difference in world view was one of the things I enjoyed most about the two cross-cultural experiences that I participated in at EMU (Middle East ‘04, Southeast Asia ‘05). I got to learn first-hand about religious beliefs that were very different from my own. However, I never realized that there was still much that I needed to learn about my own beliefs, values, and background. It was not until I moved to Washington, and distanced myself from the community that held me so closely for my whole life that I began to realize what it truly means to be Mennonite and how lucky I was to grow up in the community that I did.

How amazing it is to live surrounded by people who you can identify with, even in the most trivial ways. Here in D.C., I have to explain what it means to be Mennonite to just about everyone I meet. I understand that as I appreciate learning from them, they want to learn from me as well. But there are only so many times that one can explain the differences between the Amish and Mennonites before it starts to get redundant.

It has been through these experiences that I have begun to appreciate more the relationship with home — more than I did while in college. Harrisonburg, A felt very much like home to me, whereas D.C. is very different; having connections from home has been very comforting. For instance Franconia Conference staff Dave Landis and Steve Kriss came to Washington, D.C. in February to spend some time with me and my fellow VS’ers. In May a group from the Salford congregation visited to do some much needed work on our house. Not to forget the numerous cards, letters, and packages I have received from my home congregation, Blooming Glen.

These extensions of home have meant more to me now than ever before, because I know that these people not only care about me but they understand me. I can talk about things like funny cake and the “Mennonite game” without explaining them first, and they know where I grew up and know my family. Being in D.C. has done many things for me, but the most significant thing that I have gained from my time here has been something I never would have expected: the ability to connect with my roots.