ELKHART — It’s 30 minutes before their weekly potluck meal, and the residents of Jubilee House are scrambling.
“Should I cook these greens?” asked Ellen Morey, one of the residents, holding up some leafy vegetables. Other residents bring out folding chairs and set the table with glasses they fill with water. A small collection of Ball jars and mismatched plates line the shelves in the kitchen.
About 30 people come to these community meals at 6 p.m. each Wednesday. Some are affiliated with Prairie Street Mennonite Church, next door, while others live in the neighborhood. Some are regulars, others come sporadically. Everyone is welcome.
“We never know who’s going to stop by,” said Luke Roeschley, another resident.
Before people dig in, resident Nick Simons announces what’s on the table, mentioning what is vegan and gluten-free. Most people bring a dish. One woman brings hard-boiled duck eggs dyed in honor of Easter festivities, another brings curried rice. Other offerings including banana nut bread, potato corn chowder and waffles. Near the end of the meal, Simons asks everyone to pair up into small groups and discuss their answers to the question, “What are some of your best memories with marshmallows?”
This is Jubilee House.
Since its inception in 2006, the Jubilee House has hosted participants from the Mennonite Voluntary Service, a program that allows adults to be placed in various communities around the country. The house, at 1320 Prairie St., Elkhart, is home to a core group that has settled in the Elkhart area. Volunteers work at various agencies and organizations, including the Elkhart Local Food Alliance, Just Help: Elkhart County Legal Advocacy Center, Rise Up Farms, Chain Reaction Bicycle Project, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Church Community Services.
What makes the Elkhart house different is that many of the people who have lived in Jubilee House are from the area. And once they leave the program, many of them stay in Elkhart County.
“It’s fairly common for folks who’ve been in the house, once their term is over, for them to stay in the community,” said Suella Gerber, the local coordinator for Jubilee House and pastor for Fellowship of Hope, one of two churches affiliated with Jubilee House. The other is Prairie Street Mennonite Church.
Simons, who grew up in the area, said he plans to stay close by after he is done with the program.
“I knew I wanted to serve here,” he said of his decision to apply to MVS.
The volunteers work about 40-hour weeks, but all of them have side projects. Simons is trying to set up a sustainable lawn care business and also runs Pedal Power, a community bike shop behind Jubilee House.
They are also involved with Prairie Street Mennonite Church and Fellowship of Hope. Volunteers receive a $50 monthly stipend their first year and $70 the second, but groceries, room and board are paid for and they have a car to share.
Morey said there is some freedom when choosing which agency for which to work. She works for Elkhart Local Food Alliance, AMBS and Just Help: Elkhart County Legal Advocacy Center. Osee Tshiwape also works at AMBS, and Simons works at Rise Up Farms. Roeschley has a degree in marketing and performs that role for Church Community Services.
There are 22 MVS units around the country, including one in Evansville, according to the Mennonite Mission Network website. MVS has no set length, but officials encourage volunteers to stay two years.
“They really want you to ground yourself in the community you’re in,” Roeschley said.
They hold community meetings at the house and make announcements about upcoming events during their Wednesday meals. And even though the house is in south-central Elkhart, the presence of the volunteers can be felt throughout the county.
“It’s not just about doing a service assignment and going away,” Gerber said. “It’s about learning who is this community, who lives here, what’s gone on before here.”
Before Jubilee House was established, former program coordinator Art Stoltzfus said he and others wondered who would choose to come to Elkhart to do MVS service. There are MVS units in San Francisco, Chicago and New York City, so why choose Elkhart?
But he said former MVS participants have encouraged others in the community to do the program. It’s relationships that keep people in the area, and Jubilee House residents have developed strong relationships with people in the area, many of whom also live in the neighborhood.
“They’re very strongly committed to that south central community,” Stoltzfus said.
For more information on the house, go to prairiestreetmc.org/JubileeHouse.html. For more information on the MVS program, go to www.mennonitemission.net/Serve/MVS/Pages/Home.aspx.