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Mennonite Men and Mennonite Disaster Service collaborate in first joint project


Mennonite Church Canada/MC USA joint release
For immediate release
February 25, 2003
by Gordon Houser


and Porcia Boat with Eddie Neufeld dig trench for sewer line at LA Faith Chapel. (file photo)


MC Canada/MC USA.- Even when there are no disasters to clean up from, plenty of work needs to be done, according to Harold Neufeldt, who volunteers two to three months each year with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). He is not one to remain idle.

A few years ago, Neufeldt, a landscape architect in Vancouver, was looking for a project on the West Coast where he could help. He contacted Mennonite Men (MM), a joint effort of Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA because he knew they gave grants to new churches needing help with their buildings. Jim Gingerich, MM director, told him about Los Angeles Faith Chapel, which was due to receive a grant in 2003.

This fit well with a partnership MDS and MM had formed in March 2002. They agreed to pursue projects in which MDS provides a construction manager and labor for a project, while MM provides funds, labor and, in cooperation with the local congregation, lodging and food. The local congregation also provides labor and is involved in planning the project.

The Faith Chapel project became the first to emerge out of this partnership.

Eddie Neufeld, Magalia, Calif., who chairs MDS in California, visited Faith Chapel to assess the needs there. Together, Neufeld and Neufeldt arranged to have MDS volunteers come in January to work on the church's building.

Seven men came from British Columbia, joining volunteers from California, Arizona, Idaho and Oregon during the Jan. 2-23 project. Among other tasks, the volunteers added a kitchen stove hood and fire-suppression system; rebuilt rotten exterior wall sections; installed windows for two windowless living units, office and classroom; added a handicap-accessible restroom and painted walls and trim.

Faith Chapel, which developed with help from Pacific Southwest Conference of Mennonite Church USA and from the Center for Anabaptist Leadership, has a ministry to homeless people. The church manages three transitional shelters, a day care, a computer classroom and a Sunday meal and clothing distribution for homeless people. Pastor Chuwang Pam and most of the church's 30 or so members are originally from Nigeria.

One of the purposes of this MDS-MM partnership, in addition to offering help beyond finances, is to expose volunteers to other cultures. Neufeldt says that "working with people of different cultures" requires listening a lot about what people really need. For example, he says, "business plans are a foreign idea" to some cultures.

Neufeld says this project involved getting acquainted with people who do not understand building codes. He wanted "to help them not ever have a problem with being closed down."

The volunteers had contact not only with people from the church but also with the homeless residents in the surrounding buildings. Men from MM and the homeless prepared the meals and served them. The volunteers slept in the shelters as well. Neufeldt says this experience, which included many conversations, was a "delightful way to be close to them."

Each day the volunteers took time for devotional reading as a group. On Sunday mornings they joined the congregation in worship. On one Sunday, Neufeld preached the sermon.

Faith Chapel's worship includes lively, African music and passionate prayers, Neufeldt says. "I can't put into words how [we] felt after the worship service."

This particular project did not take care of all the building needs of the church. "There's more to do," says Neufeld, "but we ran out of workers." MM gave the OK to a $50,000 grant to Faith Chapel and used part of that for the work in January. Neufeld hopes to go back this summer with volunteers and do more work.

Tom Smucker, executive coordinator of MDS, says, "We need to encourage these urban and rural collaborations so we get to know the entire Mennonite family."

MDS and MM plan further projects together. In fact one is proceeding in February at Seeds of Life Community Church in Altona, Man.

This kind of project is also a way of implementing Abraham and Sarah Caravans, a program begun in 1993 by the General Conference Mennonite Church's Commission on Home Ministries and later adopted by MM. Abraham and Sarah Caravans, originally geared toward seniors, emphasizes Bible study and exposure to another culture.

What began as a way to use building skills in serving others has evolved into a partnership that promises to reach churches in need, even when there has been no flood or tornado.