What do you get when you put Mennonites from all over the United States and Canada, and from all sorts of different Mennonite conferences and churches, in the same place?
A Mennonite Disaster Service unit, that’s what.
Together, they are an amalgam and expression of Mennonites’ witness to the world.
In February, I visited three communities in Texas — La Grange, Bloomington and Wharton — hit by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. While there, I met MDS volunteers from Mennonite Church Canada and USA; Mennonite Brethren; Old Order Mennonites; Markham-Waterloo, Groffdale and Bergthaler Mennonites.
There was also one Catholic and a few from nondenominational churches.
They were Canadians, Americans and even a couple of Germans. Some came from big cities, many from small towns.
Some came for a week, others for a month. A few are giving a whole year to MDS.
For some, it was the first time doing MDS. Others can’t recall how many times they’ve volunteered.
There were singles, couples and whole families. Some dressed like everyone else, some dressed “plain.” Theologically, some were more progressive, while others were more conservative. Most drive cars, but some use only horses and buggies.
But none of the differences matter. They were there for only one reason: To show the love of God by helping people affected by a natural disaster.
As Jeanne Wollf of Hague, Sask., put it: “We like how everyone leaves all their differences at the door, how they have come here for a common goal.”
Meet a few of the people giving time to putting aside differences to help others — along with some being helped by their service. They are the faces of MDS.
A family adventure, and an education
For the Wiebes of Austin, Man., service with Mennonite Disaster Service is a yearlong family affair.
In January the family of five — dad Daniel, 41, mother Pamela, 39, and children Brianna, 17, Brenten, 14, Caleb, 12, and Corey, 9 — left their home for 12 months on the road helping others.
Dan, who owns a truck repair company, is serving as a crew leader in Bloomington, while Pamela is a cook.
“I enjoy helping others,” he said of his fourth time with MDS. “I like seeing them return to their homes and communities.”
The first time he and Pamela, members of MacGregor (Man.) Sommerfeld Mennonite Church, did MDS was in 2000, before they had children.
They liked it so much they kept doing it, including as a family for short stints. The idea for a whole year came while attending the all-unit meeting in Winkler, Man., last year.
The children were excited, although Pamela admits she was less enthusiastic at first.
“When Dan suggested it, I thought no way,” she said. “But the Lord led us to a place where we could see how everything would work out.”
MDS is covering expenses, but she admits it is hard to go a year with no income.
“We are at peace with it,” she said, adding that a few people back home have made donations.
As for the service so far, “it’s an amazing experience,” she said. “I thought I would really miss home, but we’re so busy.”
One thing she really enjoys is meeting new people, but it comes with a downside — saying goodbye every week when volunteers finish their weeklong service.
“I think I’ve cried more this year than any year before, saying goodbye to people who’ve become friends,” she said. The upside, though, is “we have friends all over the U.S. and Canada now.”
As for the children, they are enjoying it. Since they are homeschooled, they aren’t missing their education — although it is a different kind of learning this year.
“This is their school for a year,” said Pamela. “They are getting hands-on learning.”
Next up is service in South Dakota, at Pine Ridge. After that? Maybe to Newfoundland, or somewhere else in North America; they don’t know. That’s all part of the adventure.
‘I love volunteering’
“I love volunteering, I just love doing it,” said Dick Schock, a retired trucker and dispatcher from Lancaster, Pa. “I don’t want to sit around and get fat and lazy.”
The member of Faith Bible Fellowship has done MDS six or seven times before.
“I like physical work,” he said, although he admits “I’m not as mobile as I was 20 years ago.”
He’s met the new homeowners several times.
“It’s good to meet them,” he said, noting it reminds him why he’s doing service. “They lost their home to the flood. They’re really nice people.”
‘I like helping others’
“I’m a farrier,” said Justin Zimmerman of Boyd, Wis. “I shoe horses.”
That’s not an occupation you expect to hear about in the 21st century, but it makes sense when you learn Zimmerman, 22, is a member of Groffdale Mennonite Conference, a group that uses horses and buggies to get around.
“I shoe about 20 a day,” he said, explaining someone else drove him and others from his church down to Texas.
This is his second time doing MDS. The other time was in California.
Not a normal vacation
“This is different from a normal vacation,” said Mark Christner, 58, of Goshen, Ind.
For the accountant, MDS is “an opportunity to give back. I can give money [to charity], but I also can give my time.”
This is his second time with MDS after serving in Nebraska.
“I enjoy the work, meeting new people, the camaraderie,” he said. There is special joy in meeting homeowners and “seeing how they feel about getting a new home.”
He also likes the mixing of older and younger people, and a chance to learn new skills.
Plus, MDS is a chance to “get some exercise,” instead of just working at a desk. At the end of a day he’s aware of “a few muscles I don’t ordinarily use.”
Errol Stein, 77, met Mennonites for the first time in 1997, when he came from Ontario to Manitoba to help with recovery efforts after the “flood of the century” in that province.
A Catholic, he spent six weeks in Manitoba as a Red Cross volunteer seconded to MDS.
“It was a great experience,” said the retired insurance broker who lives in Toronto. So great, he decided to do it again.
“I’m happy to be here. I have been blessed abundantly by God,” he said.
Despite challenges and struggles early in life — born in South Africa, he was orphaned as a young child — Stein sees God’s goodness all around him.
“Gratitude is the one word I use to describe how I feel,” he said. “I had all the disadvantages in life starting out. But now I know I was never alone. God was with me.”
Now, through MDS, and volunteering with L’Arche back home in Toronto, he is finding purpose and healing through giving back.
“I want to do God’s work. That’s the main thing for me,” he said of his month in Texas as a crew leader.
Although he enjoys the “real hands-on service,” it’s not just about rebuilding houses.
“It’s also about coming together from many different places and churches and denominations in the spirit of the Lord to do service for others,” he said.
“Other Catholics should check it out.”
Raised to be kind, help others
Madi Kilmer of Goshen, Ind., is looking forward to studying social work at Eastern Mennonite University in fall. Right now, she’s taking a gap year to work and earn money — and do service with Mennonite Disaster Service.
“I like hands-on work,” said the 19-year-old of this, her second stint with MDS. She also appreciates the fact that she doesn’t have to pay to do MDS, “like some other mission trips.”
A member of Bonneyville Mennonite Church in Bristol, Ind., she likes getting to know others and also put her faith into action.
“I was raised to always be kind, to help others,” she said. Plus, she added with a smile, “it’s nice to escape winter a bit.”
For Karen Harder of Morden, Man., MDS is “pushing me out of my comfort zone.”
Sara Dyck of Plum Coulee, Man., likes “the physical labor and meeting other people.”
Harder, 21, and Dyck, 19, are part of Pursuit, a four-month discipleship training program at Steinbach Bible College in Manitoba.
“Building a house is a new thing for me,” said Harder, noting her brothers have done MDS before.
Dyck has wanted to do MDS “for a long time. I love that I get to go somewhere new and help people.”
‘Hooked on MDS’
Dave and Jeanne Wollf of Hague, Sask., are “hooked on MDS.”
That’s how Dave, 57, puts it about the way he and Jeanne, also 57, view service with MDS.
The Wollf family has done two trips together with MDS, and Dave and Jeanne have gone on trips themselves. Dave, who works in construction, figures he’s done more than a dozen trips.
“It’s a family affair for us,” he said.
In February the couple, who attend Blumenheim Bergthaler Mennonite Church, were in Bloomington, with their son and daughter-in-law building homes for people impacted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
When their children were younger, they liked how doing MDS gave them a chance to work and interact with adults, learn from people who “believe all the same ways we do” and “not just think about themselves.”
“We wanted to be good example for kids of what Jesus wants us to do,” said Dave of why they do MDS.
“We like how everyone leaves all their differences at the door, how they have come here for a common goal,” Jeanne said. “We’ll do more MDS.”
Learning new skills
For Kevin and Teresa Bueckert of Neuanlage, Sask., service with MDS is a way to experience new things, see new places, learn new skills and escape winter.
The couple left their three children at home but last year took them to an MDS family camp.
“We’re glad to help,” said Teresa, 36, a school bus driver and vehicle detailer.
At the same time, she’s learned how to use an air nailer, do sub-floors and put hangers on floor joists.
Kevin, 40, works for a property management company. For him, MDS is a way “to give back and get to know other people.”
A self-described nonpeople person, MDS is also a way to “get out of my comfort zone,” he said, adding: “It’s great to be with people who all share the same faith, even though there are differences.”
‘I have hands’
The first time Kevin Shantz signed up for MDS, the organization said he was going to Hawaii.
“I thought it was a joke,” said the roofing contractor from near Kitchener, Ont., who takes several months off each winter.
It was 2015, and he repaired roofs damaged by a tropical storm. He’s been “hooked on MDS” ever since.
Since then, the married father of two daughters has been to California, Saipan and now Texas, usually going for three weeks at a time.
Escaping winter for a bit is one reason for the member of Community Mennonite Fellowship in Drayton, Ont., but there’s more.
“I have hands,” he said, stretching out his arms. “I can work. I can help my neighbors. I don’t want to sit on a beach when people are in bad shape and need help.”
Honeymoon with MDS
Phillip and Melissa Weaver of Lancaster, Pa., joke that they are taking their honeymoon with MDS.
The couple, members of the Spring Road, part of the conservative Groffdale Mennonite Conference, were married in November. They didn’t get away for a trip back then, so they are doing it now.
For Phillip, 21, this is the second time he has done MDS service.
“I like seeing other places, meeting new people,” he said.
Melissa, 20, feels the same way.
“We’ve met great people, and heard all kinds of wonderful stories,” she said.
Serving as a family
Wes Reimer loves MDS. He thinks he’s spent about two years doing service since 2000, including a yearlong stint with his wife, Ashley.
It’s a way to “use my God-given gifts,” he said. “I enjoy serving with my hands.”
In February and March, the couple were in Texas for a month with their boys — Hudson, 7; Parker, 5; and Nash, 3 — helping people impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
“I want my kids to see it’s not just about us, not just me, me, me,” he said.
It’s the second year in a row they’ve come as a family. They took their older kids out of school for the month.
“The teachers were very accommodating,” said Ashley, 33.
She said it was hard last year, when Nash was just 2. So when Wes suggested doing it again, she wasn’t enthusiastic.
“My first reaction was no,” she said. But she prayed about it, asking God to “change my heart if you want us to go.”
The days can still be hard with three active boys, but she likes how they make friends with so many adults.
On Valentine’s Day, they made Valentines for volunteers, the people MDS is building houses for and neighbors.
“We gave away about 70 Valentines, with a chocolate and a note saying ‘God loves you’,” she said.
Together with other MDSers, she started a Bible study to which neighbors are invited.
It’s a big commitment doing MDS as a family, but they say it’s worth it — especially when they hear their 7-year-old say, “When I’m big, I want to be a crew leader like dad.”
‘MDS is awesome’
“I’d never heard of Mennonites before Harvey,” said Theresa Martinez, a disaster recovery caseworker for Victoria County, who knows them now through MDS building homes for clients.
She especially appreciates how MDS focuses on people who are poorer. Bloomington and the surrounding rural area is low- income, she said, without much in the way of employment. Many people couldn’t afford insurance.
Also, some are undocumented and couldn’t access government help. Others were overwhelmed by the process of getting assistance.
She has a special heart for single moms and the elderly — people “who have no one to help them. It’s a blessing to have MDS here, to help them rebuild.”
A Catholic, she said “the disaster changed me. I now go to church more frequently. It brings me peace, and I really like it.”
At the same time, “I tell my kids about MDS. I tell them the news in the world may be bad, but there are some good people out there.”
The love of God, in wood and walls
“A home is a powerful symbol of security and trust, shelter and protection from the elements, and rest. Let us pause and give thanks for this home, for the support and strength of this community and all who helped this home to rise after the disaster of Hurricane Harvey.”
So began the Feb. 27 dedication service of the new home built by Mennonite Disaster Service for Francisco and Lorena Flores Sanchez and their family in La Grange.
The bungalow replaces the mobile home the family lost when the Colorado River overflowed during the hurricane.
Matthew Kinney, their parish priest, provided some background to their situation.
“Many in my parish were affected,” he said, especially those who lived in the same mobile home park as the couple. “Everything MDS is doing is fantastic.”
Like Kinney, Marsha Pyle was unfamiliar with Mennonites and had never heard of MDS before Harvey.
“It’s the most amazing thing I ever heard of, the way volunteers come from across North America to help,” said Pyle, a member of the Fayette County Disaster Recovery Team.
Addressing the MDS volunteers, Lorena Flores Sanchez said “I thank you for all the work you did for us, and I thank God for putting you in our way.”
After they spoke, the family was given a Bible and a wall hanging. Then MDS La Grange project director Carl Dube handed over the keys.
“Now it is your home, not just a house,” he said.
Kinney concluded the dedication with prayer.
“This is the love of God at work,” he said, “in wood and walls.”
‘God is in this’
“When I opened the door of the house, I knew things were bad.”
That’s what Isaiah Coleman told MDS volunteers in Wharton about what it was like to come back to his home after the flood caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Although his house was a couple of feet off the ground, more than 3 feet of water had poured in.
“Everything was totally destroyed,” he said. “I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to do. I had no game plan for that. I felt hopeless.”
What made things worse was he had no flood insurance. He couldn’t afford it.
They were relocated to a government trailer, but Coleman had no idea what to do next.
Hope came when the local disaster recovery team selected them to get a new house built by MDS.
“You’ve been a blessing,” he said to volunteers. “You give me hope. I can’t say enough about MDS. It’s hard to recover [from a disaster], but because of you I am going to get there. There are better times ahead. God is in this.”
He told the MDSers he drives by the construction site every day and says a prayer of thanks.
Each day is a gift
For Chad Weaver, each day is a gift he wants to give back to help others. The 36-year-old from Mifflintown, Pa., received a kidney transplant 15 years ago.
“Transplanted organs don’t last forever,” he said, pausing from work framing a house. “I feel good, but I take a pharmacy worth of drugs. They take a toll on the body.”
Weaver, a member of Lost Creek Mennonite Church who lives and works on a family farm, gets help for his medical expenses from the U.S. government through Medicare.
“I get help from my country, so I want to give back to my country,” he said.
This is the 16th time he has served with MDS. “As long as I have health I will serve,” he said. “I’ll do it as long as I can.”