“Engaging in a peaceful and helpful activity”: MCC and Mennonite Disaster Service

[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers sisters Hilda and Selma Toews from Steinbach, Manitoba, work side by side to finish drywalling in Little Rock, Arkansas in this 2000 photo. Many MDS volunteers express the long-term benefits of volunteering. (MCC photo/Ted Houser)

Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), the disaster-relief agency of Mennonite and other Anabaptist churches in the United States and Canada, began at a picnic in Kansas in 1950. As Sunday school members gathered in Hesston to share ideas and food, they expressed a common desire to “seek opportunities to be engaged in peaceful, helpful activity . . . just where we find ourselves.” Through a series of “picnics in the park,” the “Mennonite Service Organization” emerged and began to define itself. Questions arose, widening the circle of interest. Who is available to help? What skills can we provide? Do we have carpenters? Cooks? Typists? Welders? Nurses? Airplane pilots? How quickly can we respond? These questions led to more questions, pushing the boundaries of the organization and enabling it to grow.

The first call for assistance came in May of 1951 when, during a period of heavy rains, the Little Arkansas River flooded and Wichita called for help. By 11 pm that night, 45 men with four trucks had arrived in Wichita to build sandbag dikes. A week later, volunteers were called to Great Bend, Kansas, mobilizing a response to yet another flood.

Mennonite Service Organization continued to grow, expanding out of the Midwest across the United States and Canada. The name changed to Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), more accurately reflecting the type of service carried out by volunteers. In 1955, MDS became a part of Mennonite Central Committee, an inter-Mennonite relief agency founded in 1920. MDS grew rapidly over the ensuing decade, establishing training schools for field directors, opening a mobile office in 1956, holding its first all-unit meeting in Chicago, producing a film about its work in 1958, training and assembling rescue teams in 1959 and adding radio equipment in 1960. By 1966, Red Cross officials expected MDS to show up at the scene when natural disasters occurred. Even as MDS expanded, the desire remained to “seek opportunities to be engaged in peaceful, helpful activity… just where we find ourselves.”

Despite the rain and fog, Amish volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) worked at a farm in Casselman Valley, western Pennsylvania, where four tornadoes struck in May and June, 1998. In this photo, the volunteers are repairing and rebuilding the farm of David and Rebecca Hostetler, who are also Amish. (MCC photo/Pearl Sensenig)

My own personal involvement in the MCC-MDS world began early, showing me how people in both MCC and MDS sought to carry out “peaceful, helpful activity.” As the nephew of Paul and Doris Janzen Longacre, I regularly heard stories from their MCC travels in Vietnam and to points all around the world. My father, meanwhile, shared stories of driving busloads of Amish volunteers to clean up after a tornado somewhere in the U.S.

I began as a volunteer with MCC Brazil in 1981 at the young age of 23. After three months of language training, I eagerly moved to the country’s interior and set up my home, ready to engage in peaceful and helpful activities. My assignment was to help set up a farming cooperative. Sadly, the region was in a drought that lasted for seven years. My work changed to digging wells, building cisterns and constructing a large earthen dam. The dam was built by 94 families, mostly by hand. A cash-for-work program of US$20,000 was funded by the Canadian government. Soon I learned that the mayor told people that I was there as a communist. The local people thought I came to discover gold, while the Catholic priest from Holland said I came to take people out of his church to start my own church. I sometimes felt like the world was against me. I worked during the day, played futebol in the evenings and hunted armadillos at night with the farmers. On the weekends I taught the youth how to play volleyball and we made the Bible come alive with the parables of Jesus. They taught me Portuguese and I introduced drought resistant nitrogen-fixing trees, a better breed of goats for milk production and appropriate technology windmills and hand pumps.

The drought worsened to the point where we were burying children almost weekly due to a lack of clean drinking water and proper sanitation. In desperation, I sent a letter home to my small Mennonite church in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to please pray for rain. One night the heavens opened and it poured for days, breaking the drought. Months later, I found out it was the same day the church called a special meeting and literally got on their knees and prayed. God answered our prayers!

Lowell Detweiler and I viewed MCC and MDS efforts as complementary, with MDS and MCC then as now sharing much of the same constituency that seeks ‘opportunities to be engaged in peaceful, helpful activity.’

In 1992, I began work as MCC’s material resources coordinator. My role consisted of overseeing MCC’s meat canner and coordinating the collection and shipments of relief aid overseas. Daily I dealt with international emergencies of war, famine and natural disasters. Working with our MCC team, we would always try to assess what the local resources were and what was needed to rebuild hope. I sat next to Lowell Detweiler, MDS executive coordinator, and observed his work domestically with MDS. Lowell and I viewed MCC and MDS efforts as complementary, with MDS and MCC, historically and currently, sharing much of the same constituency that seeks “opportunities to be engaged in peaceful, helpful activity.”

In 1993, MDS was incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, separate from MCC but in keeping with the same spirit of Christian response. This was a year that witnessed an extraordinary amount of disaster response activity as volunteers mobilized to assist the victims of Hurricane Andrew (1992) and the Midwest floods of 1993. Through the assistance and perseverance of the MDS network, the organization continued to grow and increase its disaster response capabilities. Thanks to a solid beginning within MCC, MDS is now a full-grown separate organization that collaborates with MCC as needed. MDS responds to disasters in the U.S. and Canada but will call on MCC for assistance with humanitarian resources such as canned meat and relief buckets, like in the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and for sharing personnel, as in the 2017 response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

MDS currently operates thanks to the involvement of more than 3,000 Mennonite, Amish and Brethren in Christ churches and districts. The major contribution of Mennonite Disaster Service is supplying personnel for cleanup, repair and rebuilding operations. This activity becomes a means of touching lives and helping people regain faith and wholeness. MDS’s binational and regional offices are organized to assist its 50 local units in the United States and Canada in the effective operation of disaster programs. MDS has come a long way since people gathered seventy years ago in Hesston, Kansas, for a picnic to discern how they might be of service close to home. Yet the spirit of service and the commitment to be engaged in “peaceful and helpful activity” remains, standing as distinguishing marks of both MDS and MCC.

Kevin King is executive director of Mennonite Disaster Service.

Detweiler, Lowell. The Hammer Rings Hope. Scottdale, PA:Herald Press, 2000.

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