Thousands of Mennonites and others from around the globe will gather in Harrisburg next July for the first Mennonite World Conference Assembly ever to be held in Pennsylvania.

The assembly is held every six years; in 2009, Paraguay was the host country. The last time it was held in the United States was 1978, in Kansas.

In coming here, the Mennonite World Conference Assembly comes to a region where the Anabaptist community is strongly rooted.

It is one thing for believers around the world to see Mennonites and other Anabaptists portrayed on television.

But “to be here, and to know the real Mennonite world, to experience this area, it will be a wonderful experience,” Cesar Garcia, the MWC’s general secretary, said in an interview Wednesday in Lancaster.

The MWC includes the Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren Church, and the Brethren in Christ Church.

Garcia said he hopes 8,000 or more of the faithful will attend the assembly, which will be held July 21-26, 2015, at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center.

The assembly will be preceded by a Global Youth Summit, for Anabaptists ages 18 to 30.

Some 50 to 70 countries are expected to be represented at the assembly.

Attendance will depend on how many visitor visas are issued by the U.S. Department of State.

The MWC has been strategizing for years about how to get visas for those who want to attend the assembly.

Obtaining nonimmigrant visitor visas is no easy matter, especially for those who hail from particular countries.

Visitor visas will be easier to obtain for those coming from Canada and Europe, said J. Richard Thomas, superintendent of Lancaster Mennonite School, who has a lead role in the assembly planning.

The concern is getting them for those coming from the global South — Latin America, Asia and Africa, where about 65 percent of baptized Anabaptists reside.

The current controversy over an influx of migrant children into the United States may not make matters easier.

Garcia said the MWC is guaranteeing, “as best we can, that these young adults will go back” to their home countries after the assembly concludes.

People attending the conference will be hosted by families in the Harrisburg area, including Lancaster County.

Some 850 houses already have been found.

“We need about 150 more,” Thomas said.

The assembly will feature a global church village, as well as an array of workshops, discussions and service projects.

Each day will begin with singing led by a multinational worship team.

It is not a policymaking conference — the MWC’s governing work will be done by its General Council, which will convene in Harrisburg before the assembly.

“This is much more of a fellowship,” with great music and people coming together,” Merle Good, a volunteer spokesman for the assembly, said.

Garcia said he hopes that people  from beyond the Anabaptist community will attend.

It will be “a very good window into the Anabaptist world,” he said.

The assembly’s theme will be “Walking with God.”

“The goal is to act as one,” Garcia said, noting that those who attend will be challenged to transcend nationalism, and to seek opportunities where they might work with others in the MWC,  and share resources.

The MWC, established 90 years ago, is an Anabaptist movement to which some 1.2 million people in 83 countries belong.

It includes both progressive and conservative Anabaptist denominations, Garcia said.

A native of Bogota, Colombia, Garcia is a first-generation Mennonite, who was drawn as a young adult to the Mennonite Brethren Church by its commitment to peacemaking, restorative justice and conflict resolution.

Thomas quoted Garcia as saying that “we can see Jesus most clearly if we see Jesus through the eyes of others.”

The assembly, Thomas said, will enable Mennonites and others from Lancaster County to see Jesus through the eyes of people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Taiwan, Swaziland, and other distant places.

Next year will be a big one for global religious gatherings in Pennsylvania.

The Roman Catholic Church will hold its 8th World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia from Sept. 22-27.

Thousands of people from more than 150 nations — and Pope Francis — are expected to attend the Philly event.

A kickoff rally and dedication service for the Mennonite World Conference Assembly will be held at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 20, Mount Joy Mennonite Church, 320 Musser Road, Mount Joy.

Suzanne Cassidy is a Lancaster Newspapers reporter. She can be reached You can also follow @SuzCassidyLNP on Twitter.

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