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Mennonite Disaster Service – Very special good neighbours

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The picture was in an old album of photographs laid out on the table in the church foyer at the MDS all-unit meeting in Saskatoon. Pictures from the early years are less profuse, but the themes were the same from 1948 to 2009: assorted disasters. In endless succession, they recorded the wreckage of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires – and the cleanups.

There weren’t many pictures of plaques and this one had no explanation, even from those who could have known its history.

I tried to imagine who the proud plaque-presenting Kring family might have been, but had no more clues than “The 1974 Very Special Good Neighbor Award” gave up.

But its message was clear: “Thank you so much, Good Samaritan!”

It wasn’t hard to imagine the events involved. In the world of disasters, 1974 is known by the “Super Outbreak” tornadoes that swept across 13 states and Ontario in the span of 18 hours on April 3–4. Three hundred thirty people were killed, 6,000 injured, and a swath of destruction covered 900 square miles.

None of that information was in the binder. No statistics, no addresses, no lists of victims or workers; just the thanks of one mysterious family on whom the heavens had poured down calamity. The pictures of the other disasters filled in the details.

It was a moving story. “At a time in our lives when we needed your help so much – you came forth so willingly and helped us so greatly with your most willing hands, chain saws and happy hearts.” I paged through the photographs of men and women wielding chainsaws, shovels, wheelbarrows, and hammers, hard at work and sometimes posing the way only Mennonites seem able to do.

Our Samaritans

I didn’t need the pictures to imagine who “The Reverent Quiet People” were, however. They were all around me at the meeting. The men had beards and the women head coverings. These were the “other” Mennonites – the ones we distinguish ourselves from: “No, we don’t wear odd clothes. No, we don’t live on farms. And yes, we are allowed to drink, dance, and go to movies. Don’t worry; we aren’t like that. Yes, I know that’s what you think of when you hear ‘Mennonite.’ Those are the ‘other’ Mennonites.”

In short, they are our Samaritans.

These “other” Mennonites smiled when I pointed out their unusual title. There was something distinctly odd about it even to them, but there really wasn’t anything to say, so they didn’t.

Paging my way through the photo albums I felt strangely convicted. No one will accuse me of not fitting into the real world and it is highly unlikely that I will ever be listed under the heading “reverent” or “quiet.” I’m OK with that.

But there is another matter that I couldn’t dismiss so easily. I’m not sure I’m eligible for a “Very Special Good Neighbour Award” either. It’s not that I’m uncharitable. When a hurricane strikes New Orleans, or a tsunami sweeps across the South Pacific, or an earthquake strikes Haiti, I do my part, definitely even more than the average.

So why was I feeling convicted? First, it was the matter of the “quiet.” Thinking and then talking is so much easier than doing.

Second, my charity is very safe. It keeps the deep problems of calamity at arm’s length. Why go back to the same flood plains, tornado alleys, hurricane pathways, and fire zones year after year for 60 years? It makes the pragmatist in me impatient.

But the question is, if you were wounded and lying beside the way, or if your house had been destroyed by a hurricane, who would you hope was coming down the road? A preacher, a scholar, the average worldly-wise Canadian Mennonite Brethren – me – or one of the “other” Mennonites? I knew the answer. It’s not good enough.

The “other” Mennonites have their problems. I know them well enough to know that behind their neat farms and conservative dress codes social forces are wreaking havoc. I know that they need the insights we’ve gained from living immersed in the world.

But we need them as well. We need to learn again how to obey our master by being the “reverent quiet” of the land, and with “most willing hands, chain saws and happy hearts” actually step into the disasters that life brings into our neighbourhoods.

We have been “other” from each other for much too long. It’s time we change that and join them with their shovels and hammers.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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