There is no doubt that Lancaster Mennonite Conference has undergone a significant transformation over the last 100 years in the ethnic composition of its people. From an almost exclusively SwissGerman membership, today it is only about a third. Most surprising is that about one-third of members in Lancaster Mennonite Conference congregations today are people of color (those who do not have a European ancestry). They include people who are recent immigrants from the Global South.

In the last ten years, immigrant people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America define the growing edges of Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Immigrant churches are revitalizing Lancaster Mennonite Conference as they interact with established churches.

PA Lancaster Neffsville Mennonite Church

In the last five years, almost two-thirds of new congregations in Lancaster Mennonite Conference are immigrants from the Global South. There are many reasons why immigrant churches are becoming a growing force in Lancaster Mennonite Conference. One of them has to do with the influx of refugees into this country through government resettlement programs. Of the 58,238 who came to the United States as refugees in 2012, half of them were from Burma and Bhutan.

The “hill dwelling” Karen people have been fleeing Burma since 1948 when they started efforts to become an independent country and were forcibly removed. Many Karen have lived in refugee camps in Thailand for over 20 years. Karen refugees began to arrive in Lancaster County in 2007. Habecker Mennonite Church opened its doors to its first Karen family in 2008. Today, Habecker has doubled its Sunday morning attendance from 40 to over 80.

The Lhotsampa people, originally from Nepal, grew to become a large ethnic group in Bhutan. They were perceived as a threat, so in 1989 the government of Bhutan asked them to leave. They began to arrive in Lancaster County in 2008. West End Mennonite Church created space for the new Bhutanese Nepali Church of Lancaster under the leadership of Pastor Shankar Rai.

Immigrants from the Global South are moving to the United States for many other reasons. Some come for jobs, some to flee political repression, and some to reunite with family members. Some of them join Lancaster Mennonite Conference and plant new churches.

The Vietnamese Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, under the leadership of Bishop Tuyen Nguyen, is reaching out to Chinese, African Americans, Hispanics, and Caucasians and helping to plant churches such as Church for the Needy in Wilmington, Delaware and Upper Darby Mennonite Fellowship in Philadelphia.

Two new congregations are reaching out to immigrants from French-speaking countries like Congo, Angola, Chad, Cameroon, and Haiti. They include Evangelical Center for Revival in Mount Joy, Pa., pastored by Jean Bruno Nzey, and French Speaking for Revival in Elkins Park, Pa., led by Pastor Maurice Baruti.

The Evangelical Garífuna congregation in New York, New York led by Pastor Celso Jaime is guiding new church planting efforts in Manhattan and Brooklyn among ethnic Garífuna immigrants from Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala.

Immigrant churches from the Global South are infusing Lancaster Mennonite Conference with new ways of living out the Anabaptist Christian faith for the twenty-first century. Among these immigrant churches are stories of living courageously as disciples of Jesus in North America which is increasingly becoming secularized. For these new immigrants, the Holy Spirit is present not only in worship but in everyday life, much as it was among members of the early church and the first Anabaptists.

In turn, established congregations of Lancaster Mennonite Conference are providing a home for immigrant churches. Some historic congregations practice relational hospitality by expecting new possibilities for building a home community for refugees invited to become part of the body of Christ.

For example, Habecker Mennonite Church members welcome Karen refugees by providing transportation to worship services, medical appointments, and job interviews. The Karen refugees, who were introduced to Christianity by American Baptist missionaries decades ago in Burma, develop leadership abilities by leading worship in the Karen language once a month, preaching, and telling children’s stories. Pastor Karen Sensenig uses Power Point to translate or illustrate her sermons. Interpreted baptismal classes invite the Karen to join Habecker.

Through Jesus, immigrant and established congregations build God’s kingdom by working together in a spirit of mutuality. Immigrant churches bring a passion for church planting. They are inviting established congregations to join in these exciting new ventures. Established churches are responding by listening, learning, and sharing resources.

When immigrant and established churches grow together, they illustrate the Dwelling in the Word passage of John 15:1-17 for the 2020 Vision initiative of Lancaster Mennonite Conference. They bear fruit as branches of the same vine, Jesus Christ!

Rolando L. Santiago is executive director of Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. He is a member of Neffsville Mennonite Church (Atlantic Coast Conference) in Lancaster, Pa.