From Strangers to Neighbors: The Story of Bethel Neighborhood Center

I attended one of the most joyful celebrations ever on Saturday.  Bethel Neighborhood Center hosted a groundbreaking for their 2.2 million dollar construction project.  Not only did they celebrate successfully completing their largest capital campaign, they put on display the rich variety of ethnic groups that are part of the Bethel story.



The largest meeting place at the center was packed, and I got the distinct impression that the very soul of American Baptists of the Central and Great Rivers Regions was in attendance.  Faithful churches, faithful donors, and faithful staff all came together to give thanks for God’s providence in this endeavor to continue to serve a community.  Donning hard hats and grabbing shovels, we turned some soil as a sign of future promise.




For 106 years, Bethel has welcomed those who were not welcome elsewhere.  As new waves of immigrants came to the greater Kansas City area—Croatians, Hispanics, Burmese, Somalis, Bhutanese, and many others—Bethel was and is a lighthouse of hope.  Providing the kind of neighborly assistance that smooths the way for newcomers, this ministry continues to shape generations who want to make a new home.



The Executive Director, Rev. Mang Sonna, is an immigrant himself, not yet celebrating a year of citizenship.  He and his family came to Kansas City, Kansas, for him to study at Central, and with God’s help, made their way in this new land.  He and his wife felt called to be missionaries; and amazingly, some of the more recent persons coming to Bethel speak their native tongue, one of the Chin dialects.

In my mercifully brief remarks, I noted that people give to a compelling vision for ministry and a leader whom they trust.  Thankfully, Rev. Sonna embodies both.  His leadership of Bethel is the key to its flourishing present and future.  The mission of Bethel demonstrates what is most sorely needed at this time: through welcoming strangers they help form neighbors.




It would be easy to regard immigrants as a drain on already scarce resources, but Bethel chooses to see new inhabitants of the community as welcome strands for a richer tapestry of diversity and giftedness.  They share a common desire: to make a better life for their families through education, better employment, and cultural assimilation, while cherishing what they brought.



As we enter Holy Week, it is crucial that we remember Jesus pattern of welcoming those who others despised. As Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities has said:

“Whatever else the Gospel is about, it is essentially about welcome.”  And when people sense “that they are wanted and loved as they are and that they have a place, then we witness a real transformation—I would even say ‘resurrection’.”[1]  Amen.


Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares leaders for diverse ministry contexts.


[1] Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 15.

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