Hello! My name is John Bergen, and I am excited to begin serving as OFR’s new Outreach Minister, helping this church live out the call to serve and stand in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized, particularly the homeless community in Philly. I come to OFR, and Philly, after much traveling and growing, and I am excited to begin to call this place home.
I come from a Mennonite family with roots in the midwestern United States and Canada (I’m a dual citizen, born in Ontario but raised in Kansas). I also am descended from a long lineage of pastoral leadership (you could say that being a pastor is a genetic condition on my father’s side of the family). The Mennonite tradition places a strong emphasis on Jesus’ ethic of the nonviolent pursuit of justice, and I grew up actively participating in my church’s service programs and attending protests against the invasion of Iraq.
Growing up, the commitment to social justice that I learned from my church and my family frequently came up against the local conservative community in Newton, Kansas (in traditional Osage/Niukonska territory). I loved engaging in arguments with my friends, and through these conversations and my love of reading, I began to doubt whether the church was the place for me. I was baptized into my church at age sixteen, but continued to feel not at home in the church community.
After I graduated high school, I decided to take time to learn more about the work that Christians and other people of faith were engaged in around the United States, trying to find other versions of “church” that spoke to me. I lived in a church on the south side of Chicago, the long-standing Christian intentional community Koinonia Farms in rural Georgia, a house full of young Christian volunteer workers in San Antonio, and a spiritual retreat camp in northern Minnesota. (Feel free to ask me for more details about these places!) I can’t say that I found a lot of solid answers to my questions about the church, but I did get to see some of what is possible when people of faith try to live out authentic lives committed to justice.
This year of travel and growth ended a week before I set out on a new learning path. I began school at Oberlin College in the fall of 2011 (Oberlin is located in northeast Ohio, traditional Wyandotte territory), and for the next three years I threw myself at everything I could. I majored in Religion, studied environmental studies and politics on the side, and devoted a lot of time student cooperatives, the anti-fracking movement, and local community organizations combating poverty, racism, and sexual violence.
For all three years of college, I attended and interned at Peace Community Church, an open and affirming American Baptist church, which both nurtured and challenged me. I still keep in close touch with several people from the church, and you will undoubtedly hear me talk about them.
As much as I am indebted to Oberlin College and to the community there for educating and transforming me, by the end of college I was exhausted and burned out. And feeling it.
I left Ohio, took last summer off, and then trained with and joined Christian Peacemaker Teams, an interfaith human rights organization. Starting last August, I served in Iraqi Kurdistan (the northern part of Iraq) in the fall, and then in the spring in Palestine. On the ground, we built relationships with local communities, accompanied people threatened by violence, and documented human rights abuses. I was deeply moved and challenged throughout my time, and was very upset when the Israeli government denied me entry to Palestine in May of this year. I still remain very committed to supporting the struggle for justice in both these places.
After I was denied entry, friends invited me to come crash in Philly. Having nowhere else to go (while I was in college, my parents moved to Ghana to do missions work and still live there), I agreed. I’ve been in Philly for almost three months now, and every day I learn new things about this city and its history.
Feel free to ask me questions about any of this when you meet me, and I look forward to meeting all of you. I will join you all on August 8, after a quick trip out to the midwest, to pick up some of my belongings, now that I know I will be staying in Philadelphia for awhile.
*When we were hiring for this new position, we used the job title “Outreach Coordinator,” which seems appropriate for a half-time staff member supporting our outreach ministries and the work of the Outreach Standing Leadership Group. …Except that was the same title we used when a very different position was filled by our recent interns.
To differentiate and as a sign that John arrives among us with a deep sense of calling and experience in ministry, I am using the title of ‘Outreach Minister’ informally. Though John has not been called by Old First in the formal sense and does not hold ordained, ministerial standing, I welcome him to our staff in a new position for us and as my colleague. — Michael