The church that builds together, stays together

Saskatoon church sends 13 volunteers to Cape Breton

July 10, 2023 | News | Volume 27 Issue 14D
Emily Summach | Saskatchewan Correspondent
Volunteers work on repairing the roof of a hurricane damaged home on Cape Breton Island. (Photo courtesy of Heather Wiebe)

With suitcases full of work clothes and spirits full of enthusiasm, 13 people from Mount Royal Mennonite Church in Saskatoon traveled to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The group served together on the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) project to rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Fiona in 2022. They were there from May 21 to 27.

The leader of the trip was Heather Wiebe, who has been a part of Mount Royal for 46 years. She says that MDS work has been a personal passion for a long time. Wiebe proposed the trip to the congregation in January, and several people indicated an interest in going. She then researched the costs, available project options and other logistics. “People just kept dribbling in, until we had 13 people committed. It was very exciting,” said Wiebe.

Wiebe explained that a typical day at the Cape Breton site began with a 6 a.m. wake-up call. Volunteers had breakfast, took part in devotions and packed their bag lunches. They would arrive, tools in hand, at their project houses by 8 a.m. and work until 5 p.m. Evenings were spent eating together, hearing more about the work of MDS and socializing.

The work at the Cape Breton homes ranged from hanging drywall to roofing to completely gutting damaged homes.

Wiebe explained that MDS follows strict criteria when deciding which homes will be included in a project. MDS helps the most vulnerable. All homeowners who are helped are on low or fixed incomes. This includes seniors, people who are disabled, single parents and people who lack insurance or other resources to fix their damaged homes.  

The organization also places a strong emphasis on listening to the stories of those whose homes are being worked on. Volunteers are told to put down their tools and talk to homeowners when they want to talk. Part of processing the impact of a disaster is talking about it. The mission of MDS is to “rebuild homes and restore hope;” listening is part of this.

“It’s really wonderful to be able to help,” said Wiebe. “On MDS, I feel like I get back more than I give. We had the chance to pray with one of the homeowners, and afterward they said, ‘Thank you—nobody has ever prayed for me before.’”

One of the MDS first-timers on the trip from Mount Royal was pastor Garth Ewert Fisher. “MDS made it clear that no experience was necessary in order to volunteer, so I took that offer seriously,” he joked.

Since the church has a significant number of tradespeople and a strong culture of service, sending a large group to an MDS project fit well with the church’s values. Even those who were not able to join the trip, gave generously to support the team.

Ewert Fisher said the trip provided an overall benefit to the entire congregation. “When people come back [from an MDS project] it makes a big impact on the congregation. People are inspired. Our congregation doesn’t write theological tomes; our service is with a hammer and screw gun.”

What he found most striking was the devotion people have for the mission of MDS. He met a woman at the site who had volunteered for MDS some years ago and felt like she wanted to gain more skills to help. She spent two years at a trades college learning construction and contracting and now serves as a crew leader. “I was blown away by her commitment to doing this good work,” he said.

John Longhurst, communications manager for MDS said it’s not uncommon for groups of people from the same congregation to volunteer together. Typically, there is a person who is enthusiastic about MDS and gathers others to join. It’s an excellent bonding experience for churches. Teams can also have an intergenerational element.

Longhurst noted that there is always a need for more help, and there is still room for volunteers at the Cape Breton site from August 27 to September 2.

“Service with MDS is possibly one of the best forms of Christian witness,” Longhurst said. “It offers practical help to those lacking the resources to help themselves.”

Related article:
Cape Breton church hosts disaster responders

Volunteers work on repairing the roof of a hurricane damaged home on Cape Breton Island. (Photo courtesy of Heather Wiebe)

Volunteers, crew and staff of the MDS Cape Breton project. (Photo courtesy of Heather Wiebe)

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“The mission of MDS is to ‘rebuild homes and restore hope;’ listening is part of this.”

A community begins to rebuild hope from the moment MDS volunteers begin the cleanup. Just knowing there are people who care enough to begin the process of restoring peoples’ lives at whatever stage it happens is key to the process.

As a project director, I always stressed the importance of taking time to listen to people.

Volunteers may never understand what being part of the process of restoring hope will mean for those impacted by disaster. In Mississippi one woman in charge of the long term recovery team announced, “My angels are here!”

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