The 2017 Redwood fire complex in northern California devastated hundreds of thousands of trees, built up structures, and the lives of hundreds of people. Soon, humanitarian concern and compassionate responses began to marshal the wide ranging infrastructure and resources of Mendocino County, the Red Cross, the potentialities of NGOs; and then the Mennonites came.
Background assessments by the Pacific region of Mennonite Disaster Service resulted in the establishment of a service presence in Ukiah. Appropriate agreements with the New Life Community Church (American Alliance) offered a fine home base of operations, and certain new build projects commenced.
In the two bunkhouse areas separately shared by fourteen men and three women, we typically woke around 5:45 am. 6:15 am found us in the dining hall, enjoying a coffee after having packed sack lunches and snacks for the day. We had devotions and a hot breakfast at 7 am, immediately followed by our daily job assignments, loading the trucks, and we were heading out by 8 am. We usually returned from the job site around 4:30 pm, showered, and then enjoyed a delicious dinner at 6 pm. Daily reports were received by the entire group (inclusive of the five support staff). Volunteers cleaned up dinner, shared stories and life histories, and while lights out were marked for 10 pm, most retired a little early.
Actual work on four houses accompanied conversations with recipients whose depth of gratitude and emotional/spiritual restoration upon receiving their new home palpably measured tremendous losses. A very dignified Indigenous Pomo woman, Gayle’s pride of ownership revealed itself via flowers, new chairs on the patio and a thankful smudging cleansing prayer to the Creator.
Having barely escaped with their lives, and having essentially lost everything, it was no surprise to see tears flowing as they signed the closing contracts and received keys to their new homes. How heartening and lovely to know that John’s 140 pound dog Hannah was claiming her new home. Having already often trundled up the stairs, she plopped herself upon the fine hardwood plank kitchen/living room floor, exactly in the passage space needed for the new appliances (fridge, stove, washer, dryer).
The opportunity to enter wide-ranging theological, political and social conversations afforded good lessons in listening. A large side benefit produced significant connections with dedicated volunteers from California, Oregon, Montana, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Alberta and Manitoba.
Having almost completed the agreed upon projects, the local community hosted a very fine well-attended catered thank you banquet. They noted their huge losses, their daunting task, only to declare, “And then the Mennonites came.” Without the volunteers, these very needy and worthy recipients would still be left in temporary housing, still requesting aid.
When the COVID-19 affected edict arrived on the evening of March 12 from headquarters in Lititz, Pennsylvania, what was done was done, and what was not done was not done. And just like that, the Mennonites left.
And yet, the inspirited residue of 233 servants inhabiting Ukiah from the fall of 2019 to the spring of 2020 continue to build up the variegated community of God.
O Great Love, thank You for living and loving in us and through us. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with You…we acknowledge Your presence and weight of glory in our common humanity (adapted from Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation).
Darrel & Lucille served with Mennonite Disaster Service in Ukiah, California (March 8-14, 2020), and were blessed to return home early per the quick re-arrangements by South East Travel, Steinbach.