This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Tractor whisperer

Each year, relief sales raise more than $4.5 million for Mennonite Central Committee’s work around the world. They are made possible by the work of hundreds of volunteers. Some, like Jerry Toews of Goessel, Kan., end up donating not just a few hours but days or weeks of time a year to make these efforts a success.

Jerry Toews prepares antique tractors for sale at the 2018 Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale. — Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News
Jerry Toews prepares antique tractors for sale at the 2018 Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale. — Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News

Toews’ childhood love for tinkering grew into a passion that generates tens of thousands of dollars each year for MCC.

For nearly 25 years, the 76-year-old has been refurbishing donated vehicles for auction at the Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale in Hutch­inson.

In recent years Toews has refurbished about 20 vehicles annually, and he’s willing to give almost any vehicle a chance.

“Cars, trucks, tractors, motorcycles, lawn mowers . . . anything mechanical that people donate,” he said.

The refurbishments are practically a full-time job, but Toews is driven by his passion for MCC and its programs.

“They’re good programs to teach people how to put food on the table for their families, and also to give them self-confidence,” he said. “And, of course, this is all done in the name of Christ.”

As Toews was refurbishing vehicles for this year’s sale, he received an unexpected and powerful reminder of MCC’s first relief work 100 years ago when an MCC Central States staff member found a 1920 Fordson tractor for Toews to restore.

MCC was founded in 1920 to provide aid to starving people in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine). In addition to establishing soup kitchens, MCC coordinated two shipments of 25 1920 Fordson tractors to help with the harvest. These, along with horses and cows, were provided to farmers on credit. The farmers were finally able to begin feeding themselves.

Toews has a friend from Tabor Mennonite Church whose parents were saved by those relief efforts. All his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Russia. Working on the Fordson tractor reminded him of his heritage, as well as the beginnings of an organization he loves.

While this year’s relief sale was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some refurbished vehicles can still be bought online at The Fordson tractor is not among them; it and some other vehicles are being held for next year’s auction.

Mechanically inclined

Toews didn’t plan to start supporting MCC by rehabilitating vehicles, but he stumbled across it at the perfect time.

Shortly after he retired as a high school music teacher in 1996, an elderly couple from his church wanted to donate an antique car they used to drive in their college days to the relief sale. They hoped he would restore the 1928 Star Coupe.

Toews spent several months working on the car. He was thrilled when it sold for about $15,000. The next year, he started letting people know he would volunteer his time to refurbish their donated vehicles.

“It mushroomed into people donating all kinds of things,” he said.
The roots of his passion for vehicle restoration go back to his childhood.

Toews remembers wandering the alleys of Nickerson, Kan., and taking old clocks and mechanical devices from his neighbors’ trash barrels to take apart at home.

At his high school job baling hay, he once asked for the farmer’s old junk car in place of a paycheck. The farmer agreed, much to Toews’ parents’ chagrin.

MCC tops the list

MCC was always a part of Toews’ life. He attended the relief sale each year, put together school kits for children in need and listened to stories of MCC’s overseas work in church. Later, he and his wife, Leann, enjoyed taking their two daughters to volunteer at the relief sale.

The couple coordinates MCC service projects and fundraisers at Tabor Mennonite, including a fellowship meal fundraiser and preparations for the relief sale. Toews also serves on the relief sale board.

On top of everything else they do for MCC, the Toewses made a gift in honor of MCC’s 2020 centennial.

“When you start getting older and thinking you’re not going to be here forever, what do you want your estate to go toward?” Toews asked. “MCC is at the top of that list.”

He’s developed a vehicle refurbishment network of people who are always willing to lend a hand, many of them former students. The head of the automotive technology department at the local high school helps out when Toews hits a snag. A repair shop faithfully donates parts. A tire shop repairs and donates tires, and a body shop offers body work.

Toews’ dedication to refurbishing vehicles makes him a valuable part of the relief sale, said sale chair Jim Robb.

“Each year he dedicates a huge amount of time and effort taking vehicles that need attention and restoring them to a state of former glory,” Robb said. “He also makes a commitment to the donors to do all he can to get the best possible price for their donations. These donations become dear to him, and he puts his heart and soul into each one.”

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