Begin Anywhere

[Ellie Kiger, 2015-16 participant] As the first year of community members at The Shalom Project, our lives have been a rush of recent beginnings. New city, new job, new church, new friends–and these are just the flashier changes. Now we’re painting the living room, collecting house plants, trying not to kill our fish, checking in with the neighbors, figuring out the city’s shortcuts*. Fall deepens, and our house looks more like a home, and we find that all these small, daily beginnings are the makings of a full, comfortable life together.

But we also encounter areas of urban life that feel like dead ends, and they are downright uncomfortable. We are learning that there is deep economic disparity; there are grossly overgrown, ineffective systems of criminal justice; there are gaps between good services and those in need. Erin, Lenore and I have talked about our hesitancy to engage these issues and struggled with a heavy sense of Overwhelm. Begin anywhere? Really though…where?

Physical life is strangely miraculous at its smallest scales, from the infinitesimal complexities of cellular life to the delicate veining of a fall leaf. Maybe a life of grace mirrors this reality, and maybe the smallest, hope-filled action can be strangely miraculous. No, I don’t have a life’s worth of dedication to give each worthy cause or the time to understand each person’s story. But I can trace a day’s worth of my own happiness to one surprising moment when I overhead a stranger belly laughing. Sometimes I sing (loudly) while riding my bicycle, sometimes I laugh; who knows who hears me?

So, big issues are big issues. They are and will remain uncomfortable. There are dedicated people working in Lancaster to create thriving discussions that lead to real change. At The Shalom Project, we will continue to listen and learn. And we we will seek out joy and act in hope, especially on the smallest of scales.

Begin anywhere.

*After careful analysis, Erin and I have determined that Lemon St. is a nearly hill-free way to travel from east to west in downtown Lancaster, while Orange St. is the hilliest. Hopefully, our research will save a few of you some strenuous pedaling.

The Work of Shalom


[Nathan Grieser, director] Lancaster city, PA, is a small urban setting that has been attracting quite a few young adults in recent years. It also has its fair share of needs and challenges. In 2011, several Mennonite pastors in the city began meeting regularly to dream about ways we might connect the gifts and energy of young people with the needs of this place.

We asked a lot of questions in those early conversations: What is God up to in Lancaster? How might we join in? What does it mean to extend shalom – the wholeness and peace God desires for all people – in this place?

The Shalom Project represents our best effort at answering these questions. It is a product of several years of hard work, prayer, and paying attention to God’s activity in Lancaster.

As director of The Shalom Project, I have learned much about the work of shalom in the short time since our launch. Here are several key learnings…

Shalom is both internal and external. Even in a small city like Lancaster, the number of opportunities to do the good work of shalom can be overwhelming. We are called to this work, sharing ourselves in pursuit of wholeness and peace on behalf of other people. But sometimes our call is to set aside our Mennonite work ethic and simply bask in God’s shalom. Jesus invites us to actively pursue shalom for others (the external) and experience God’s shalom ourselves (the internal). This is a balance we are seeking in The Shalom Project, because I think it allows us to flourish as people of faith.

Shalom is about relationship. To pursue shalom authentically, we must do the hard work of building relationships, especially with people who are different from us.

One of our Shalom Project participants is working with refugees in Lancaster. As part of her job, she helped set up an apartment for a family that had not yet arrived, arranging furniture and stocking the apartment with things the family would need. Several weeks later our participant found herself again in this apartment, sitting in the living room with the family. She looked around and noticed all the ways that the family had made this space their own. In that moment, she said, she thought about the immense challenges this family had overcome in their journey to Lancaster, and now they were, in some small way, making their mark on this place. She was grateful to have been part of that process. It was through relationship with this family that our participant discovered her role in sharing God’s wholeness and peace.

Shalom is often about the ordinary and mundane. Generally, the stories we choose to tell about God’s activity are those which are most extraordinary, those which defy expectation and understanding. These stories are important, but I wonder if they skew our vision of God’s shalom. Most often, God’s wholeness and peace comes to us, and is shared through us, in very ordinary ways. If we look only for the extraordinary, we may miss these smaller gifts.

Erin, one of our Shalom Project participants, is working in a thrift store. One day a deaf man came into the store, so she showed him around; they did their best to communicate without words. This man needed a mixing bowl, which happened to be on sale. Erin walked to the sale chart with him, pointed to the green tag on the sign and then to the same tag on the bowl. The man understood, and they celebrated this little victory together. I believe this simple interaction was a picture of the shalom that God desires for all people. In giving her time and attention to this man, Erin was an agent of shalom, and she received a measure of it herself.