Mission of young Mennonites and Catholic hospital intertwine

May 1, 2023

By KATHLEEN NELSON

After graduating from high school in Ithaca, Michigan, Darren Benesh sought direction. A member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, Benesh, "didn't know where I fit in and what I really liked. I didn't want to go to college with nothing settled in my heart."

Members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, come from across the country to perform six months of voluntary service at Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of the denomination's Christian service project. A recent group of volunteers included, from left, Kade Peaster of Mississippi, Matt Johnston of California, Brent Nichols of Kansas, and Darren Benesh of Michigan.

After working on a farm for a couple years, he turned to his denomination's service program with roots in the 1940s and found his purpose at Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center in Hartford, Connecticut, part of Trinity Health Of New England.

"All of our volunteers enhance our mission, but these young men are on a mission of their own," says Mary Liebig, manager of volunteer services for Trinity Health Of New England.

The partnership with Saint Francis is one of more than a dozen established by Christian Public Service, a Mennonite agency that originated during World War II. Its website says it was founded to provide "opportunities for conscientious objectors to serve their fellow men in lieu of military service." Today, the agency fosters volunteer service for young churchmen and churchwomen through nine service units for young men and six for young women. Its volunteers spend six months to a year in such diverse arenas as Navajo reservations in New Mexico and Arizona; health systems in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Canada; and in rebuilding projects following natural disasters in the U.S. and Canada.

Saint Francis' involvement began in 2012, when Mennonites living in Hartford who had volunteered at the hospital suggested a permanent, formal relationship. Four men volunteer for six months each, spending two to three days a week at Saint Francis helping in the emergency department and assisting in discharging patients.

"Because they come from small communities, they aren't used to some of the challenges from injuries, incidents or problems that are common in inner cities," Liebig says. "They are thrown into a Level 1 trauma center and see a lot of things. But they are very insightful young men and not judgmental."

They also unload and organize donations at the Joan C. Dauber Food Pantry on Trinity's Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital campus in Hartford and occasionally sing hymns a cappella in the main lobby at Saint Francis. They also spend time each week volunteering at Hartford Hospital, where they work in the surgical unit's family waiting area, and Habitat for Humanity. Liebig emphasizes that regardless of their assignment, they do not preach, proselytize or recruit.

"These young men walk the walk," Liebig says. "But they do it quietly. They don't look for pats on the back or accolades. They don't want a letter from us confirming their hours."

The foursome lives in a church-owned home in nearby Glastonbury with a Mennonite couple on a one-year volunteer mission as unit parents. Many of these couples also have volunteered at Saint Francis in the gift shop, emergency department, food bank and as visitors to patients on nursing floors. Since the program's inception, 82 young men from the U.S., Canada and Brazil have done their service mission at Saint Francis.

Though a volunteer service mission is no longer required in his denomination, Benesh says many men and women continue the tradition of donating months or a year of their young adult lives to service "because we want to give time to the Lord and our country."

He heard of the Hartford Service Unit program through word of mouth and researched it in the denomination's annual financial and activity report, which catalogs all the public service opportunities. Rather than a rebuilding project, Benesh was drawn to Hartford's "more humanitarian work, which I was more comfortable with and could put my talents to use." His parents co-owned a small assisted living facility, where he volunteered as a youngster. "I felt like I could draw on that experience and use the tools God has given me."

"I want to be a light and help where I can," he says.

He applied in September 2020 but because of COVID, wasn't chosen by church officials for the assignment until 2022. His favorite days, he says, were spent in the emergency department. "It's fast-paced, and it's not easy." He adds, "The staff in the emergency department really cares about us. And that means a lot."

By the time he finished his service in February, he says, he received more than he gave and set his course for the future. "Coming out here, praying about it and working and thinking, I feel like I have the tools to start being a nurse," he says. "This experience has made me think deeply, made me look inside, to see who I really am and what I'm capable of."

As soon as Benesh departed, another young man arrived to fill his slot and continue the shared mission. "Their service enhances their spiritual lives and what this hospital system stands for," Liebig says. "Our missions have matched up very well."

Copyright © 2023 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2023 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.