Despite local economic hardship, Pigeon River Mennonite Church has cultivated a culture of “extreme giving” — a tradition that is in at least its fourth generation.
The 200 members of Pigeon River Mennonite, located in Huron County at the tip of Michigan’s “thumb,” not only meet their general church budget of about $300,000 per year but also contribute $150,000 or more to outreach and to share with people in need and with organizations like Mennonite Disaster Service.
The Conservative Mennonite Conference congregation does so merely by passing the giving baskets.
The offering of each month’s first Sunday is for the conference’s Rosedale Mission and its Bible college. This totals close to $55,000 a year.
Then, throughout December, church members take up a “harvest offering” devoted to meeting human need.
In the past decade or so, Pigeon River’s harvest offering typically amounted to $70,000. In 2012, however, members gave $187,000 and in 2013, $132,000 — partly a reflection of high prices for corn and sugar beets, according to church treasurer Darrel Yoder.
It’s not as though the church is located in a wealthy oasis. While a fair number of Pigeon River members are farmers, who are doing well currently, an increasing percentage are not.
“There’s very little industry, so there’s high unemployment,” Yoder said. “Many are moving out of the area.”
His own three grown children left to find jobs elsewhere.
The number of area children qualifying for assistance in the school lunch program has ballooned from 10 to 15 percent a decade ago or so to 50 to 60 percent currently, said Pigeon River’s pastor, Alvin Yoder. The increase is a reflection of the community’s changing demographics and generally harder economic times.
Half his income
Pigeon River’s “extreme giving” is so much a part of the congregation’s identity that members find it hard to explain. Pastor Yoder simply says it’s in the church’s DNA.
Darrel Yoder’s uncle Glenn Maust, 83, recalled how he learned of the tradition in the early 1950s. His father, who farmed and served as one of three volunteer pastors, had traveled to Canada for a winter Bible school. In his absence, he asked Maust to review the family’s income tax forms and mail them.
Maust’s jaw dropped when he saw that his father gave more than half his income to the church and its outreach. The tax return became a potent lesson to him on the importance of giving.
The December harvest offering also goes back four generations. It began in the mid-1940s when member Raymond Byler asked the congregation if it’d be willing to buy a rail car of legumes (beans such as navy, black and kidney, grown in that area of Michigan) to alleviate post-World War II hunger in Europe.
Church members donated enough to purchase not one but two rail cars of beans.
Maust also recalled a tradition of strong teaching. Byler went to the pulpit one Sunday carrying a box of Shredded Wheat.
“ ‘Think about how much more this ready-made cereal costs compared to the real grain,’ ” Maust remembered Byler saying. “He urged us to be better stewards of our family resources so we’d be able to share. It was a very down-to-earth message.”
Not the norm
One church member, Tyler Yoder, now 21 and a senior business major at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., spent one spring break in Far Rockaway, N.Y., helping with an MDS project.
He is Darrel Yoder’s nephew and Glenn Maust’s grand-nephew. Growing up in the Pigeon River tradition, Tyler said he thought such extreme giving was the norm until he got to college and learned it was unusual.
“I grew up with the idea that it’s important to give to people who need help whenever you can,” he said. “If you see a need and have the money, you should pass it on.”
The tradition, he speculated, may have something to do with farm culture and the habit of farmers “to kick in and help other farmers.” Following in these footsteps, he said “is a high priority for my future life.”
He and his uncles also attribute the congregation’s strong outreach to several action-oriented individuals with special gifts and passion for it.
“I see people with amazingly sincere hearts to follow Christ,” he says, “which leads to service.”