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BOLIGEE, Ala.— Tornado devastation is fresh and new in parts of Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana. Many volunteers are cleaning up debris.
Less than 10 months ago, huge swaths of the southern US lay ripped open and devastated from tornados. The immediate need was great, and received constant media attention. When the immediate interest wanes, who picks up the pieces? What happens after the news cameras shut down?
On April 27, 2011, the Christian Valley Baptist Church in Boligee, AL, was flattened by a tornado with 150 mile per hour winds. Boligee is in Green County—one of Alabama’s 14 poorest counties, each having a poverty rate of 20 percent or more. Hedged in by the Black Warrior River and not far from the Mississippi line, the community of Boligee is home to approximately 400 people.
“Boligee is the ‘back beyond’ of Greene County,” said Baptist Pastor Tracy Giles, Sr. With few job opportunities and a high-school graduation rate of only 50 percent, prospects for the immediate future appear dim.
That there’s little spare change lying around was driven home to members of the community’s Christian Valley Baptist Church after their church was reduced to rubble.
“You can’t get blood from a turnip” is the saying Pastor Giles used to explain his congregation’s dilemma. Not that the 50 or so members, many of them elderly or on fixed incomes, didn’t try.
“Ladies in the church had two programs for raising funds, and they went as far as Birmingham in their efforts,” Giles said. “They may have raised $6,000.”
Meanwhile, contractors were giving Giles estimates in excess of $500,000 to rebuild the church. Because the building had been old, the insurance would provide about $165,000, insufficient to replace it.
Pastor Giles was growing despondent. His congregants had been proud of their church, and it played an important role in their lives. He felt his people had “lost their spirit” to see their church churned into rubble. “It made reaching out to them all the more difficult,” he added.
One day Giles happened to hear that a Mennonite disaster response organization had helped rebuild Little Zion Baptist Church, also located in Boligee, some 2 to 3 miles from Giles’ church and one of three Greene County churches destroyed by racially motivated arson in 1996.
Pastor Giles googled “Mennonite disaster.” When the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) website popped up, he phoned its Lititz, PA, office. Giles didn’t know what to think when the receptionist took his name and number and said someone would get back to him. Would he encounter another dead end in his search for help?
Before long, however, Jerry Klassen, MDS Disaster Response Coordinator, contacted Pastor Giles and shortly afterwards visited the Boligee church site.
Seeing it, Klassen had a brainstorm, envisioning a possible “match made in heaven.” In October 2011, he phoned Perry Miller, one of four men in the Hartville, OH, area who had organized volunteers from their respective congregations for the past three years to help build houses for people in need. The other three men were Dan Dutcher, Blaine Miller and Joe Weaver.
“I think I have a project for your group,” was Klassen’s message, Dutcher recalled.
In that and subsequent conversations, Klassen convinced the four-man committee to meet him and Pastor Giles in Boligee to check out the situation. They did so. After their three days there, they said they’d talk it over with their church committees.
About a week later, Pastor Giles received the news that the Ohio group would build a new church. He was as grateful for the process as for the decision. “From day one,” he said, referring to both Klassen and the Ohio folks, “they never put us off. From the onset they were prompt, considerate, kind and professional, and they always gave the impression that they were genuinely willing to do anything they could.”
It proved a major undertaking for the four-man committee, not only to organize the skilled volunteers in the order in which their trades would be needed but also to locate supplies in the rural area and/or the means to deliver them to the site, while staying within the church’s barebones budget.
The four Hartville-area churches—three Mennonite, one nondenominational—participate in MDS’s Partnership Home Program. The congregations count among their members many skilled tradespeople willing to volunteer for a week or two during their less busy winter months.
In early January, the first crew of Ohio volunteers leveled the land and poured the concrete slab. They also delivered a “bathing” trailer—tailor-made with four shower stalls and space for a clothes washer and dryer—to the church that had agreed to serve as their headquarters and home base, none other than Little Zion Baptist Church. Little Zion is sharing its worship facilities as well with the temporarily no-place-to-meet members of Christian Valley Baptist.
On February 6, the intense relay race to build the church began. Teams of some 20 individuals apiece had committed to specific tasks on a tight timeline, and they intended to deliver. Within days, a precise geometrical lattice of wood trusses rose above the 5,000-square-foot slab.
Next came the bricklayers, many of them professional masons, who in their first day on the job sandwiched together 5,300 of the 25,000 total bricks needed, while electricians wired and other volunteers installed insulation. By February 15, an attractive church building—baptistery installed—was emerging, well on its way to an anticipated early March completion.
Pastor Giles says members of his congregation are questioning their mistrust of whites as they view the beehive of activity at their church site—and the impressive physical form it’s rapidly taking—before their eyes.
The pastor called the project “a labor of love”. “It’s a unique opportunity for people here to see a group of different people with a different religion giving you back the only thing you have. It’s unlike anything the people here have lived to see. It’ll result in a change of heart and mind.”
Volunteers from the Ohio group are members of these Hartville-area Ohio churches: Cornerstone Mennonite Church, Hartville Mennonite Church, Maple Grove Mennonite Church, and RiverTree Community Church. Dan Dutcher, Perry Miller and Joe Weaver are members of Maple Grove Mennonite , and Blaine Miller belongs to Hartville Mennonite; these two churches lead the project.
MDS volunteers are known for repairing and rebuilding homes damaged by disasters. But it takes more than construction skills to serve with MDS. During the time that you serve as a volunteer, you will learn that MDS also restores lives.
Your contribution will help to connect volunteers with disaster survivors who need assistance on their path to recovery. MDS depends on the support of people who believe that disaster response is an important part of helping those who are in need.
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