Mennonites do what they do not for recognition or for public accolades but to serve their fellow man in the name of God. They approach life with an attitude of humility and thanks. This is the Mennonite way.
Lora Whaley of Pine Bluff is a single mother of two whose life’s trajectory intersected with those of a group of Arkansas Mennonites thanks to a very large tree that came crashing into the roof of Whaley’s house one August day last year and left a massive hole through which copious amounts of rain fell just a day later from the remnants of Hurricane Isaac that swept north from the Louisiana coast.
“In the Bible there is the story of the traveler who fell in with robbers who left him beaten and penniless on the side of the road,” said Jeff Miller, a Mennonite from southwest Arkansas. “It was the Samaritan who stopped and helped the traveler. This is one of the ways that we look at what we do when coming to the aid of people who have suffered destruction from natural disasters.”
Miller is the coordinator for the Rapid Response Team of Southern Arkansas, which is part of the Christian Aid Ministries Disaster Response Services based in Berlin, Ohio.
“When people have suffered from a natural disaster and their material possessions are damaged or destroyed they are more responsive than they might otherwise be to hearing our message,” Miller said. “We try to portray the love of God through our actions.”
Mennonites are adherents of the Anabaptist faith, which traces its origins back to the Radical Reformation in 16th century Europe.
A passage of scripture from the book of Galations instructs the relief work that these Mennonites do.
“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” reads Galations 6:2.
Miller said that it was an early September call from Karen Quarles of the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management that first alerted his organization to Whaley’s predicament.
“We got a call from Ms. Whaley who told us the situation with her house,” Quarles said. “The tree was from her neighbor’s yard and their insurance wouldn’t pay. Ms. Whaley did not have her own insurance so she called us looking for help.”
Quarles said that funding issues normally preclude assistance of the type needed by Whatley.
“When this house was damaged Karen found out about me and got in contact with me,” Miller said. “Three of us came up to Pine Bluff to assess the situation in September. We saw the condition of the house and assessed that the owner was near the poverty level. Bottom line, she needed help. We cleaned it up and put a tarp on it.”
Miller said the following months included a great deal of discussion on how funding could be found for the project.
“Willie Smith, one of our disaster response coordinators, came up with the idea of appealing to the 15 Anabaptist Churches in Arkansas for help,” Miller said. “We decided that the project would cost $10,000 and the churches came up with it. It may be as much as $15,000 with an increase in the price of materials but we may be able to stick with the lower amount.”
Miller said that he found the ideal crew leader in Dennis Miller of Belleville, Ark., not far from Russellville.
“When the tornadoes went through Atkins, Jerusalem and Damascus several years ago we saw what Dennis could do,” Miller said. “He is capable of managing the people and of doing the work. Over the last three weeks we got everything ready.”
Miller said that capable workers from throughout the state answered the call for help.
“We put out the word that we were in need of volunteers and everything just fell into place,” Miller said. “I didn’t have to juggle days with people or anything.”
“I don’t believe any of us live closer than a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive,” Miller said. “Nobody really lives any further away than that either.”
Salinda Hayden, who works with Quarles at the OEM and is a member of Southside Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, was a vital link in the chain of assistance assembled for Whaley.
“When I heard that there was a group in need of a place for people to sleep and eat I contacted Pastor Matt Weaver and he immediately agreed to provide space in the church for the people coming in,” Hayden said.
Weaver said that hosting the group of Mennonites was completely in line with the mission work of his church.
“We are beginning to emphasize more of a mission function for the church,” Weaver said. “We are planning to build a Missions Receiving Center for groups coming into town so hosting this group right now is the type of thing that we are happy to do. A church ought to be hospitable to these groups. We were just willing to be a part of the process. It was a no-brainer for us. We’ll do whatever we need to do.”
Hayden said that businesses, churches and other groups from throughout Pine Bluff and White Hall responded to calls for food donations.
Crew leader Dennis Miller was quick to dissuade a reporter from writing anything that would convey any sense of personal publicity on the part of him and of his work crew.
“I do what I do because of what the Lord had done for me,” Miller said. “I want to do for others what He has done for me. We reach out to others when they are in need. Sometimes it takes resources and time of your own, but really is it yours or is it God’s to use for his will?”
“There are many benefits to this,” Miller said with a smile. “It opens your eyes to the needs of others. I get great enjoyment out of working with my fellow workers. These past five days have been wonderful. I get more than I can ever give.”
Miller said the project is going much faster than anticipated and instead of two weeks should be mostly complete within one week.
Miller wanted to thank the people of Pine Bluff for their assistance.
“Everybody that has helped out here have just been super,” Miller said. “Karen has been great and I felt that the city inspector had an understanding heart for the work we are doing. He saw the need and the importance of it. The churches and businesses that have been involved in sharing food with us … it has been a wonderful experience.”
Friday afternoon weather conditions were cloudy with precipitation ranging from heavy mist to light rain and back again accompanied by temperatures in the low 40s. This, however, did nothing to slow down the work of approximately 10 men who were working throughout the house located in the 1600 block of W. 17th Avenue.
A group of four men were busily scraping and wiping down bricks that were to be used to fill holes left in the outside wall left by the impact of the tree. Inside another four men were involved in various activities.
Whaley was understandably grateful for the work of so many on behalf of her and her children.
“I feel blessed,” Whaley said Friday afternoon. “I’m amazed and I appreciate what they are doing for me and for my family. I can’t ask for more. I’m pretty much at a loss for words.”
Once complete, Whaley’s home will have all-new electrical wiring as well as a new roof and a repaired front porch, among other improvements.