Mennonite Disaster Service: Where faith meets action
by Kevin King
Executive Director, Mennonite Disaster Service
Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) is a volunteer network through which various constituencies of the Anabaptist church can respond to those affected by disasters in Canada and the United States. While our main focus is on clean up, repair, and rebuilding homes, this activity becomes a means of touching lives and helping people regain faith and wholeness.
After the massive tornado leveled most of Greensburg, Kansas in 2007, Pastor Jeff Blackburn at Greensburg Mennonite Church was stunned by the prompt response of MDS. “I was just amazed how quickly people were ready to respond to us. [The storm hit Thursday night, and] by Saturday MDS was here. Just the rapid response. It was just amazing how many people were here so quickly to help us.”
In 2018, more than 5,500 volunteers gave their time and skills to bring more than 550 people back to their homes. But these volunteers provide more than just labor. We frequently hear about MDS volunteers praying with families who are displaced. Sometimes there are evening Bible studies that impact the neighborhoods. Many MDS volunteers see their work as a way to put their faith into action at a time when it’s needed most.
Our immediate response after disaster strikes focuses on removing debris, securing partially damaged roofs, and preventing further damage to homes. This includes making early response teams available to communities, families, and individuals in order to limit secondary damage and expenses.
MDS is committed to responding to the needs of people directly affected by disasters, regardless of socio-economic circumstances, racial ethnicity, gender, or church affiliation. MDS also gives priority to helping Anabaptist communities who are affected by a disaster. We provide consultants and community workers to Anabaptist congregations and conferences to assist with recovery plans and emotional, spiritual and/or pastoral care.
Our long-term efforts assist communities through repairing and rebuilding homes. We work with homeowners who cannot repair or rebuild their homes without volunteer assistance. This includes, but is not limited to, homeowners who are uninsured or underinsured (this frequently includes the elderly, handicapped, and single parent families). During most disasters, we work with the local Long-Term Recovery Committee (LTRC) to identify those with the greatest need. We also consider additional assistance on a case-by-case basis to other Anabaptist homeowners and to churches who have experienced disaster by linking the affected Anabaptist churches with other Anabaptist churches offering volunteers.
MDS began at a Sunday School picnic in Hesston, Kansas, in 1950. As Sunday school members gathered 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.”
In 1950, following significant response efforts to tornadoes in Oklahoma and flooding in Manitoba, Mennonites began to further organize their practice of mutual aid. Two Sunday school class groups from the Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and the Hesston Mennonite Church formed a joint committee in Kansas, and Mennonite Service Organization was born. Over time it expanded beyond the Midwest into all of the United States and Canada. The name changed to Mennonite Disaster Service, more accurately reflecting the type of service carried out by volunteers.
Today, MDS has a network of staff and volunteers scattered throughout the US and Canada, creating a system for initial response and assessment and long-term recovery. MDS currently involves more than 4,000 Mennonite, Amish and Brethren in Christ churches and districts.
Last year, MDS volunteers responded throughout Canada and the U.S.—building 75 new homes, performing 278 home repairs, 301 cleanups, and building 14 new private access bridges.
Volunteers are our primary asset. Weekly volunteers consist of individuals, couples, families, groups, students, retirees, friends and others working to reach out to people in need by serving with a positive and Christ-like heart. One can use their trade skills or learn new skills on the job. In return, MDS provides lodging and meals.
The weekly volunteers are led by our Leadership Volunteers. They are responsible for the day to day operations of an MDS project. They work together with local community partners and homeowners, organize the work for the weekly volunteers, and ensure that all volunteers are well fed and cared for throughout their time on the project. Leadership volunteer positions include project directors, office managers, head cooks, assistant cooks, construction supervisors, and crew leaders.
As the severity, frequency and scope of disasters continue to increase in Canada and the U.S., so does the response of our hardworking volunteers. Last winter at 18 different locations, volunteers served disaster survivors affected by floods, fires, tornados, and hurricanes.
In light of our changing climate, MDS is putting more time and resources in mitigating against future disasters by elevating new homes, building with more resilient wind-load practices, installing storm shelters, and in some communities (especially in West Virginia and Texas) relocating entire neighborhoods.
Our climate is changing: physically, politically, and spiritually. To be the hands and feet of Jesus requires action. The actions of MDS volunteers can have a powerful impact as illustrated by this story from Bloomington, Tex., where Hurricane Harvey ravaged the town:
“We had a home dedication for John and Carol White. It was a great celebration with many of their friends, family and coworkers joining our group of 23. They were so happy and excited to have already slept in their new home one night. It was a particularly joyful celebration as John had just learned that a tumor on his kidney could not be found at a recent CAT scan. He credited this to a time of prayer the MDSers had for his healing one night after he and Carol had brought in a pot of chili to share with us. We are all giving God the glory. What an amazing show of God’s goodness to John!”
MDS volunteers continue to discover that something amazing happens when they serve—building the kingdom by being the church at work. When they show up at a disaster scene, in the midst of chaos, love and mercy breaks through in a hands-on practical way. The homeowner, in their grief and shock, meets a stranger willing to muck out their home or pick up the pieces. Love breaks through and hope is restored.
And in the process of doing that, in the process of what may seem like volunteers giving away their lives, as Jesus said, they find their lives. That’s what matters most to God. Connie, a homeowner in Pensecola, Fla., said, “You changed me more than you changed this house.”
These are the stories that carry the heartbeat of why MDS exists and where faith meets action. To God be the glory.
Kevin King is Executive Director of Mennonite Disaster Service. He lives in Lititz, Pa.