Flood waters recede, MDS raises hope in Minot

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MDS prepares to help MB church, families recover from flood

by Laurie Oswald Robinson for MDS

Members of Bible Fellowship Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Minot, ND, were astounded at the height of the water that ravaged their church building. They were even more amazed at the level of support offered by Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) several weeks later when an MDS assessment team visited their community (July 12-14) to explore how to help with clean up and recovery for the church and seven homes of its 55 members.

The Souris River flooded on June 23. This flood was the worst to hit Minot since 1881. Though the flood cut through the heart of the city of 40,000 people, causing 11,000 people to evacuate; the flood of recovery ministry brought healing. The fact that help could flow so quickly and so generously left a mark on lives that would outlast the floodwater marks on the sheetrock. 

As 10 feet of water receded from the church and left behind moldy walls, sodden hymn books and ruined pews, their hopes for restoration rose when MDS brought the comfort and cooperative spirit of Christ.

“Having MDS here has recertified for me the way we experience a brotherhood in the Mennonite family and how we so quickly find common ground in Christ,” said Pastor Duane Deckert, whose parsonage home several blocks from the church was also flooded. 

“I didn’t come from an MB background, but this whole experience has cemented what I had previously learned – that people just love you and want to help. And there is an openness about MDS that is really special. I had never met Kevin King [MDS Executive Director] before, but after yesterday, he feels like a long lost friend.”

MDS team extends Christ’s hope to all 

King, Al Kroeker, Region III Director, and Dan Klassen, MDS Manitoba Unit Chair, provided the friendship of Christ to the MB church and the wider community during their assessment trip. They fellowshipped with church members over meals, absorbed their trauma through prayers, took tours of the city and hammered out logistics for MDS volunteers, who began arriving July 18.

They also met with leaders of other denominations and faith groups and state and federal disaster personnel to explore how MDS may join others to provide long-term recovery for the entire community. The flood peaked at several feet higher than a 1969 flood which also devastated Minot. Many of the people who evacuated, including MB families, had no flood insurance, because they were not situated in what was considered a flood plain.

“I’m very excited by what I’ve seen in the last 24 hours,” said King during a July 13 interview in Minot. “The way this effort is evolving is very much in keeping with the way God works on the ground through MDS assessment, planning and recovery in cooperation with many groups.

“It’s an effort that takes everyone – the local folks working in cooperation with the Binational folks and all the volunteers in between coming from out of town. … We are here to spur these local folks on to continue to do good within their community and to continue to do the networking and connecting required, as we partner with them in that.”

Because of the hot weather and the encroaching mold, the MDS assessment team expedited a plea for MDS volunteers. A couple of small teams arrived July 18 to help muck out the church basement, pull up soggy carpets and tear down moldy sheet rock as well as to help work on homes of church members and others in the community. 

They are joining the local church family that, on July 14, – after enough water receded – began to pump out the basement, squeegee mud and debris and pitch damaged furniture and appliances. 

The church members had moved furniture and other items out of the basement and up to the first floor, feeling that they would safe and dry there. But the flood waters rose up to an unthinkable three feet up on the pews, which were destroyed with most everything else. 

Volunteers near and far become Christ’s hands 

Though it has the feel of a local and regional project, MDS is also identifying the effort as bi-national, given the fact that North Dakota does not have an MDS Unit within the state, Kroeker said. North Dakota belongs to Region III – including such states as South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa. But the flooded city is located only 50 miles south of the border of Canada – Region V. 

“I was a little worried about what to do because we have no North Dakota unit at this time,” said Kroeker, of Inman, Kan. “But like always, people from all over are dropping what they are doing to come and to help. … Many people have assured me that they will be there.”

Cory Nissley, MB church member named as the local Coordinator of Volunteers, is grateful for the volunteers who are already on site. They are lodging at Our Redeemer Lutheran Brethren Church. However, as soon as showers are installed in the Congregational United Church of Christ, most volunteers will stay there. 

Coordinating such an effort is a new experience for Nissley. He accepted the challenge because he believes it provides a new avenue to share Christ with the larger community. From his perspective, no floodwaters are so deep that the living waters of Christ’s love is not deeper still. 

“MDS is modeling for me what it means to bring Christ into a disaster,” he said. “I see so many people in the midst of this mess who don’t have the hope of Christ. … This is giving me the opportunity to share Christ in ways that I haven’t before – in ways that bring some of that hope. 

“I feel God is in this whole recovery process. Jesus told us that when we visited the sick and those in prison, we were visiting him. This flood is giving us a chance to do all the good we can for people.” Photos available 

Note: To arrange for volunteer opportunities in Minot, call the Binational office at (800) 241-8111. MDS volunteers are not paid, but MDS does provide food, lodging, tools and support for them. Donations can be made on the website, mds.mennonite.net or by sending a check to MDS. Label the check “Minot ND Flooding 2011.” Mail to MDS, 583 Airport Road, Lititz, PA, 17543 or in Canada, MDS, 6A-1325 Markham Rd., Winnipeg, MB, R3T 4J6 CANADA.

Sidebar: MB pastor learns that God resides in hearts, not buildings

It took the 2011 historic Minot flood to remind Duane Deckert, pastor of Bible Fellowship Church, that one’s shelter – whether a church building or one’s home – is not where God dwells.

Rather, when the floodwaters rise, it is the solid rock of Christ’s presence in one’s heart and in the hearts of the members of one’s church family that makes the difference between human despair and dependence on God, he said. 

“The flood happened on a Thursday, and I felt it was really important to have church right away on the very next Sunday, even though we had to meet at Immanuel Baptist Church, where we are still meeting now,” Deckert said. 

“I wanted to communicate to the church family that the church is love, it is not a building. I assured them that even though a flood threatened to wash away our church building, we were not going anywhere. Christ is our foundation. Even if there is not a building, He still stands.”

In having to grapple with a personal as well as a communal disaster, Deckert is striving to practice what he preaches on all fronts. Even as he helped to prepare the church building – though unsuccessfully – for the incoming flood, he was evacuating the parsonage that was home to him and his wife Linda and young adult children Heather and Joel. 

During the first flood surge on May 31 to June 3, he and his family evacuated. Then they came home again, only to be told that the next surge a couple of weeks later –predicted to burst the dykes around the city – would send them fleeing again to the blare of sirens and bull horns. 

“In our wildest imaginations, we did not dream that the floodwater could rise to three and a half feet in the middle of our living room or come up to three feet on the church pews,” he said. “I think there was a lot of denial going on, but who could have really believed this would happen? 

“This has been a really tough journey, and I know that prayers of God’s people are holding us up right now. Disasters tend to bring out a stronger faith in people, and it helps to keep us from being crushed. … Yes, we are mourning our losses, and yes, there are days and days of clean up work ahead of us, but we aren’t people without faith and without hope.”

Much of Deckert’s hope lies in the strong spiritual connection he has to the Lord. But he also is experiencing the comfort of Christ through Jesus with skin on – Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers and brothers and sisters in Christ in his church family. 

Two such people are Art and Judy Lautt, an MB family whose home was unaffected by the flood and who helped to host the MDS team when they visited. They are helping out the pastor’s family and the other six MB families who fled their homes. 

“There are two hills – a north hill and a south hill — and a valley that make up this city,” Art Lautt said. “We live on the south hill, and the church and the parsonage are in the valley, where the flood struck. 

“Because we were unaffected, I am having some survivor’s guilt. … But I am dealing with it by purchasing a couple of pumps and a water tank to loan out to people who are cleaning out.”

Judy Lautt said, “We are also open to hosting people in our home whenever we can – even people that we don’t know, people who aren’t from our church.” 

Though the flood didn’t hit them directly, it has hit them in many ways indirectly. For example, they are helping Art Lautt’s parents – Art Sr., 82, and Opal, 83 – to cope with the losses incurred by their congregation, a mission church sponsored by the Harvey MB congregation in 1955. 

“Just yesterday Dad came into the church, looked around at all the debris and ruined pews, hymn books and Bibles, and sat down at the front of the sanctuary, and he teared up,” Art Lautt said, as tears gathered in his own eyes. 

“Then one of our church friends, Kenton Vix, came over to my dad and placed a hand on his shoulder. Kenton wanted to comfort Dad. … That says a lot about who we are.”

Deckert agrees. “This flood has brought people together and has shown us in a drastic way that God is not about buildings but about relationships,” he said. – Laurie Oswald Robinson 

Sidebar: A flood washes up the buried treasure of ecumenical cooperation

On the first morning of the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) assessment trip to Minot, ND, Kevin King, MDS executive director, traveled down Broadway Street with his host, Art Lautt Jr., a member of the Bible Fellowship Church. It is the flooded out Mennonite Brethren congregation that hosted the team that came July 12-14 to work out logistics for an MDS volunteer effort.

As Lautt took King and several others on a tour of the devastated areas of Minot, King was busy in the back seat of the van, making a call to Frank Picard, a pastor he did not know. Someone had recommended Picard to King as a pastor who welcomed ecumenical relationships. 

A few minutes later, King snapped his cell phone shut and smiled. “He said to come on over and that he wants to discuss possibilities for partnering together in the flood clean up.” 

Lautt got an even bigger smile on his face when he said, “That church is the one we just passed as you were making that call.” 

Several introductions and an hour later, MDS and the UCC congregation had hammered out a plan. Volunteers with MDS would come to help the MB church family and the wider community with flood disaster recovery. In exchange, the UCC congregation would host the volunteers in the basement, as well as help to buy the food to cook their meals. 

Though some of the other travelers in the van were stunned by the timing of the connection, King simply smiled and said, “It’s a disaster – that is how God works.” 

And that indeed was how God continued to work the during the entire assessment – including providing a much-needed tool trailer filled with all the equipment needed in flood clean up. The Jewish equivalent of MDS – the Twin Cities-based Nechama– owns several such trailers and was willing to loan one to MDS for the duration of its efforts in Minot. 

King said that MDS has partnered with Nechama in other disasters, when the different faith-based groups forged an unlikely, though respectful, working relationship. The shared values of expressing faith in doing good to others in times of need has cemented their connection. They have worked together many sites, including the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast, flood-devastated areas in Minnesota and tornado-torn parts of Nashville. 

“We first met the Mennonites in 2000, when both our groups came to work on flood recovery in Fargo,” said Gene Borochoff, a Board Member for Nechama who had come with his organization’s assessment team to Minot during the same days MDS came on site. 

“A group of MDS volunteers were working on the same site we were – a home for a Somali family. At one point, someone said, ‘Where else could you find a Jewish organization from the Twin Cities working with Mennonites from Canada to clean up a home of refugees from Somalia?’” 

King said, “Working with other disaster agencies and faith based groups is a marvel. It avoids duplication of efforts and ensures a more efficient delivery of services to the disaster survivors. In disaster lingo we refer to this as the ‘Four C’s – cooperation, communication, coordination and collaboration.” 

Perhaps Picard demonstrated the ecumenical spirit best when he turned to Lautt during the serendipitous UCC meeting and said, “If you need a place to worship, you can come here and we could do Sunday worship together. I’ll be with you until the cows come home. My blood is ecumenical. It is not normal blood.”—Laurie Oswald Robinson

Sidebar: Magnificent Divine Source

by Laurie Oswald Robinson

My stomach lurched as the pilot from Hesston (Kan.) College buzzed off the runway of the Newton, Kan., airport into the hazy, heat-wavy sky. My heart raced. I shut my eyes tight and then slit them open to look down on the green-brown patchwork of Harvey County. The single engine buzzed like a fly caught in a window, and I silently prayed, Lord, I’m coming home soon. 

As dubious as I was on that four-seater flight bound for the flood-ravaged community of Minot, N.D., I was also delighted. This serendipitous adventure had cooked up when I met Kevin King, Executive Director for MDS, at Pittsburgh 2011 a few days before. He needed to take a writer along on an MDS assessment trip, and would I like to go? 

Nothing could have prepared me to take my first flight on what I nervously called a “toy plane” – my attempt at bad humor in the midst of anxiety. But nothing, either, could have prepared me for what was to follow once we landed safely in Minot.

Upon seeing the flood devastation, I was immediately ashamed of my shallow fears about joining a flight for which I had to reveal my weight in order to board. That seemingly unimportant fact helped the pilot to know how many gallons of fuel the plane could hold at one time before we had to land to get more. That fuel fact was important, so I swallowed my pride and confessed. 

But suddenly, all that stuff seemed inconsequential when I saw the suffering. People were grounded and broken-winged by the mud and muck of a flood that had displaced and disoriented them. In seeing them pitch moldy carpets and wrecked appliances onto the mountain of soiled items on the street, I realized what a tremendous psychological luxury I enjoyed on that flight: I could view their heartache and backache from a safe distance, far removed from the gritty pain.

Suddenly, too, I was very grateful to be part of MDS, an organization that was not afraid to put on its boots and wade through the emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical sludge of families who had no choice but to view their mess up close and personal. 

After interviewing members of the Bible Fellowship Church, an MB congregation flooded in the Minot disaster, I vowed not to whine about flying back home. I also bargained with God: If God set me down safely on prairie soil, I would be forever grateful for my drought-stricken community. It was keeping my bed dry, my walls mold-free and my soul intact with an endless string of 100-plus-degree days. 

And I would tell everyone that MDS – at least for a newbie like me — is not an acronym for what tongue-in-cheek volunteers call “Make Do Somehow.” Rather, in honor of people who because of faith help strangers muck out flooded homes and hearts, I would like to rename it “Magnificent Divine Source.” The organization is a conduit for God’s presence to steady people on the rock of Christ, whether they are flying high in the air, or slopping through sewage in the basement. 

I know that longtime MDS volunteers have endured much more personal sacrifice and witnessed more on-the-ground suffering than I did at Minot. But my first humbling impressions would be enough to coax me into another such plane – with two qualifications: I wouldn’t have to reveal my weight; and the flight was delivering heavenly hope to a hopeless corner of a city, waiting and watching for the presence of Christ to touch down.

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