Miracle of grace

Peacebuilding in buggies and around the kitchen table

"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." — Ephesians 2:8-10

It’s a crisp fall evening as our 12-passenger van bumps along the back roads of Bridgewater then Dayton, Virginia, just outside of Harrisonburg. I was warned ahead of time that it would be dark on these roads, but I don’t think I was prepared for how black the night would be.

I hear Rongbin Xie, one of the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) participants from China, jokingly ask from the back of the van, “Are they going to leave us in a cornfield?” Looking out the windows on both sides were fields, eerie shadowy fields. The GPS doesn’t even know where we are.

MCC’s IVEP participants and staff from the East Coast region have made this yearly trip to Dayton for around 15 years. In addition to spending the weekend with the Old Order Mennonite community who hosts the group, some community members will also spend the year as the IVEPers’ prayer partners. They remember the IVEPers in prayer while also agreeing to send handwritten letters to them during their IVEP year. Some IVEPers have already received letters from their families and have responded back.

We meet up with several people from the community who will serve as our drop-off guides. Kim Dyer, our young adult program coordinator, connects with the community in advance of our arrival to organize which IVEPers will stay in which host homes.

As one of the women and her young daughter hop in our van and help us navigate around the community, we begin the search for the different homes. We quickly leave paved roads to travel down long gravel lanes that twist and turn, traditionally only traveled on by horse and buggy.

Kate Memorie Apondi, an IVEPer from Kenya, enjoys the sunshine from the back of her host family’s carriage. 

The IVEPers are paired up in the families; some families have been hosting international young adults for many years. As I open the door for them to get out of the van, I watch the IVEPers’ faces. Some look excited; others look unsure, especially when the family dog greets them. I often forget that many of our IVEP participants are not used to dogs in their home countries let alone big dogs as pets.

As it is getting later and later we drop them off two-by-two and quickly head to the next stop. Finally, our van is quiet again as we make our way back to the family that will host us. 

That evening, we fellowship around the kitchen table with our hosts, who are elders in the community. While the Old Order Mennonite group has strong ties to MCC through the local meat canning in Hinton, Virginia, this weekend is something they also look forward to each year. Tonight, I hear stories about how IVEPers and community families develop such deep friendships over the brief time they’re together that the IVEPers often come back and visit.

“…I am fascinated by the Old Order Mennonite lifestyle, sense of community and cooking. I am a city person. I’m used to the cars, the noise, the sign of busy people walking on the pavement along the streets, surrounded by skyscrapers. I learned to eat fast, walk fast, to go about my business with precision without paying much attention to what’s going on around me. When I got to my host family’s house, I experienced something completely opposite. They have no car, no TV, no internet and there is no house that has more than three stories. And somehow I liked it. I enjoyed the horse and buggy ride. I enjoyed the calm morning in the farm. I enjoyed eating excellent food on a bench in the warm sunlight. It’s a welcoming change of pace from the busy lifestyle in New York where I am living now. And the family was very kind; I felt like I was a part of their family. I was so glad to be there, and I’ve made up my mind that I will return to this community again during my year of service.”

- Thien Phuoc Tran Quang, IVEPer from Vietnam

Waking up the next morning, the sunlight streams through the windows. I see the beautiful Shenandoah Valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. Farmland stretches for miles. We spend the day in Harrisonburg at the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale, Gift & Thrift Shop and the campus of Eastern Mennonite University. Then we start the drive back to Dayton.

I’ve been told this Saturday evening is always one of the highlights for the IVEPers. We arrive at a large barn for dinner and a celebration where the hosts and other community members will join us. As people start to trickle in from their buggies, I quickly notice that both the Old Order Mennonites and the IVEPers are shy as they group together with those they know. However, when the dinner buffet opens with pork, green beans, rice, homemade bread, salad and all the desserts you can imagine the walls begin to come down. “This is the best food I’ve ever had,” states Rina Maria Garcia Rosal, an IVEPer from Guatemala. I agree.

“The best part of the weekend was the food. It was so good, I almost cried. Delicious food can comfort people in a way.” — Chao Chen, IVEPer from China

IVEPers and community members mix together at tables sharing stories about daily life. Peacebuilding happens over another helping of mashed potatoes and fruit pizza. I’m reminded that this is what the IVEP program is about—breaking down stereotypes and connecting people from around the world in genuine relationships.

As I chat with community members, I hear stories of IVEPers they’ve hosted over the years. One of the women recounts her first time hosting. It was a new and unique experience for her family having four IVEPers from Africa in their home. While a bit unsure as they didn’t know what to expect, they now are regular hosts and look forward to having IVEPers each year. This host smiles as she tells me about how those first IVEPers drummed, sang and danced around their living room.

The IVEPers comment that it’s different not being on their phones or internet as they play basketball and volleyball with the community members—a good different. They’re quickly learning that the U.S. is made up of diverse people. Some are very traditional and don’t drive cars or have cellphones or Wi-Fi. This isn’t the U.S. they see on television in their home countries.

“I saw the Dayton Community as very close to each other. They spend a lot of time with family and community. They don't have electronics, even TV. So they can talk together instead of wasting time on TV.”

— EunHee Jang, IVEPer from South Korea

As the IVEPers stand along one side of the barn and the Old Order Mennonite community stands on the other side, we exchange songs. The IVEPers sing a praise song while the community members offer several familiar hymns in beautiful four-part harmony. One of the community elders closes by saying, “We get as much joy out of this as you do.”

That evening, the IVEPers travel back to their weekend host homes by horse and buggy. A chilly, dark evening, I can tell some of the IVEPers are nervous about this first cold ride. But off they go.

“My host dad was really good at driving a buggy.” — Rongbin Xie, IVEPer from China

The next morning, we join the Old Order Mennonites again for Sunday church service. While I travel by van, I smile as we pass horse and buggies with IVEPers riding in them. They’re starting to enjoy these rides. As the women enter one door of the church and the men another, we’re sprinkled around the congregation. Some of the IVEP women are dressed similarly to the community members with tight pinned buns in their hair. One is even in a cape dress and bonnet. You can quickly pick out the rest of us.

“I’ll always remember my relationship with my host sister. Originally, she didn’t like taking pictures. But for my memory, she tied my hair up like hers and took a picture with me. Just for me. I think the two pictures on my phone seem to be more special than the other 4,000 pictures.” — JeeHyun Yoo, IVEPer from South Korea

Philile Zondi, an IVEPer from South Africa, stands by a buggy dressed and ready for church.

We sing beautiful songs I’ve never heard, listen to testimonies and teaching and kneel to pray in the church. Luckily, the service is in English, making it easier to understand.

“I learned [on this trip] that life does not have to be complicated if God is your everything. I was touched by the beautiful singing. I enjoyed riding in the horse and buggy; that was so awesome. I loved this trip; it was my best ever!” — Philile Zondi, IVEPer from South Africa

Before we leave to head home, the IVEPers enjoy one last buggy ride as we head to a community member’s pavilion for lunch and goodbyes. It’s hard to guide the IVEPers back into the vans to head home as they’ve now formed special bonds with their host families. Tears are shed as hugs are freely given.

As we say thank you to the Old Order Mennonites, I’m struck by one of the stanzas in a song we sang that morning. “I’m a miracle of grace.” We’re thankful for the grace and hospitality extended by this community to these young adults. While we might live and worship differently, we’re all a miracle of grace as we seek peace in this broken world.

“The memory that I will keep in my life is to welcome all people and be kind to all people that we meet whoever they are.” — Phonesamay Volasane, IVEPer from Laos

From Friday, September 29, to Sunday, October 1, MCC's International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) participants in the East Coast spent the weekend getting to know a group of Old Order Mennonites from Dayton, Virginia, just outside of Harrisonburg. IVEPers and staff have been joining the community for a weekend activity since 2002. The community members are part of a traditional group which separated from the Mennonite Church in the United States and Canada between 1872-1901, keeping the "Old Order" of customs of worship and church life. This group of weekend host families serves as prayer partners for the IVEPers during the year, communicating by letter.

For more information on being a year-long host family for an IVEPer, or becoming an MCC IVEP partner agency in the East Coast region, contact Kim Dyer, young adult program coordinator, at

Diana Williams is the communications coordinator for MCC’s East Coast region.