The Southern Hills Mennonite Church Story
In 1949, Mennonite Central Committee chose the Topeka State Hospital as a site for a Voluntary Service (VS) Unit. Twenty young people arrived in Topeka that year to participate in the VS program. In 1952, during the Korean War, 23 young Mennonite conscientious objectors arrived to perform their I-W alternative service at the Topeka State Hospital and Veterans Administration Hospital in Topeka. As these young people married, began to have families and put down roots in Topeka, they felt the need to establish a place of worship. In 1956, the fledgling congregation of 37 young people decided to organize formally as the Topeka Mennonite Fellowship. The Charter Service was held in a rented church building on 16 June 1957. After a time of “ups and downs”, the congregation decided to “step out in faith” and commit to building a permanent home in Topeka. On 16 September 1962 the Fellowship dedicated its new church building on 37th Street in Topeka and the name of the congregation was changed to Southern Hills Mennonite Church (SHMC).
From its location in a neighborhood of lower-income households, SHMC has launched many ministries in the community, including a food pantry for area low-income residents, annual Vacation Bible School programs, a community garden, a children’s day care and a voluntary service program. SHMC has participated with other congregations in Interfaith of Topeka, Cornerstone of Topeka (serving the housing needs of lower-income families), Meals on Wheels, Common Ground (a city-wide gardening project), the Topeka Rescue Mission, and many other urban mission programs. Lamont Woelk, SHMC pastor in the 1970’s, founded the Topeka Peace Center in the basement of the church, an outgrowth of his work as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War. The Topeka Peace Center, now called the Topeka Center for Peace and Justice, has been a vibrant and active community service. The congregation has worked with Mennonite Disaster Service to help many in our community recover from destructive storms in the Topeka area
Music has long been an integral part of congregational worship. A children’s choir existed from the early years of the congregation. In the early 1980s, the Southern Hills Men’s Quartet delighted audiences both at home and with visits to other congregations. Many talented musicians have participated in the adult choir, as organists, and in the Southern Hills Orchestra to provide special music for worship services or church programs. Several SHMC musicians play in the Topeka Symphony and a number teach in local schools or provide private music lessons.
The spiritual life of the congregation has been nurtured by many Sunday School classes, spiritual growth groups, fellowship groups for all ages, youth clubs, common interest groups and spiritual retreats. An annual time/talent survey challenges congregants to travel the “Inward/Outward Journey” of the Christian life.
The Southern Hills congregation has had the distinction of being shepherded by husband-wife co-pastors since 1983, first by Rosie Epp and Ray Reimer (from 1983-1988), then by Roger and Cynthia Neufeld Smith (from 1988 to the present)
A sanctuary renovation took place in 2004, which resulted in the remodeling of the old church sanctuary and the building of an addition to the church to house a fellowship hall/gymnasium, multiple classrooms, new church offices, handicap-accessible restrooms, and a library. In 2006, the old pipe organ was replaced with a (used) Kilgen/Miller pipe organ.
Recent years have seen a renewed interest in Mennonite Disaster Service. Groups from the church have traveled to various locations in the Mid-West and Gulf Coast (after Hurricane Katrina) to help with rebuilding efforts after natural disasters. In addition to community gardens, recent creation care efforts include an annual observance of Earth Day and construction of a pollinator garden and a riparian buffer to enhance local water quality. Southern Hills was a founding member of the Topeka Justice and Unity Ministry Project, a group of 20 racially and theologically diverse congregations who annually bring 1,000 congregants together to ask local leaders to act on specific proposals to combat injustice in our community. Southern Hills also has a number of members who mentor community members in a new anti-poverty initiative, sponsored by the Topeka Rescue Mission, called NetReach.