Bill Mast is a ‘get-‘er-done’ guy who witnesses in deed
by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest
Bill Mast, of Memorial Road MB Church of Edmond, Okla., has volunteered with Mennonite Disaster Service for more than 20 years and has served disaster victims in nine U.S. states.
In 1947, nine-year-old Bill Mast bumped along the road in the back of a truck with other men and boys from his family’s Amish community in Western Oklahoma. They were headed for the town of Woodward, Okla., where Mast would get his first taste of disaster relief work.
Woodward had been hit with a massive tornado and Mast, along with his father and brother, joined in the cleanup effort.
“As a nine-year-old I was able to do some work, though probably not as much as I thought I did,” Mast says with a chuckle.
Two years later his own family was on the receiving end of disaster aid as the community pulled together to rebuild their own barn destroyed by a tornado.
After more than 20 years of active involvement with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), Mast, a member of Memorial Road MB Church, Edmond, Okla., calls the 1947 tornado cleanup his first MDS experience before MDS was even in existence.
“Being the recipients of that spirit of cooperation and volunteerism shaped my thinking a lot,” he says.
A love for service has taken this little Amish boy far beyond his insular Western Oklahoma community, extending a hand to disaster victims and people with housing needs in nine U.S. states, from California to Alabama. Mast has left the conservative dress and austere lifestyle of the Amish behind and has been part of Mennonite and MB congregations during his adult life. But he has retained the lifestyle of service nurtured by his Amish upbringing.
Mast and his wife, Betty, met during a voluntary service assignment in Colorado. They married and eventually settled in Oklahoma City where Mast learned cabinetry and worked in the building trades. After a number of years in construction in Oklahoma City they returned to voluntary service for three years at a housing repair program in Brownsville, Texas.
“When we came back from Brownsville, I said I want to continue to do something and not just totally leave the volunteer sector. MDS seemed to be a natural because of my skill and background,” he says.
“I’m a strong believer that we give witness in word and deed,” says Mast. “I’m better at deed than word. But the thing is, when you do it, you’re going to get asked, and that gives you the opportunity to tell your story.”
Fellow church member and MDS volunteer Jay Blough confirms that Mast excels in witnessing through his deeds.
“He is a get-‘er-done kind of guy,” says Blough, “and at 75-years-old can outwork any 50-year-old and probably some 30- and 40-year-olds.”
Mast says that his MDS experience has taught him also to value those who can’t do the demanding work he can. One summer youth team he supervised included a girl with some health problems. Though she was very limited in the kinds of physical work she could do, she had a unique gift for reaching out to people.
“She made the most significant contribution of anyone in the group,” says Mast, recalling her praying with a client who had cancer and taking time to talk and pray with neighborhood children. “She and others like her can make up for some of us who aren’t so good at sharing our faith.”
Much of Mast’s MDS work has been with young people. He delights in seeing work accomplished by youth and other inexperienced volunteers. “If you give me someone who is willing to work, I can give them instructions and we can get something done,” says Mast.
On the other hand, Mast is also energized by leading the Amish teams who work like well-oiled machines. He served as foreman for a group of young men who traveled to Newton, Texas, to rebuild after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In just six weeks the 22 men built two complete houses and re-roofed 14 others.
“It was just awesome what they got done,” he marveled.
The only new skill Mast had to teach his team was electrical wiring since Amish don’t install wiring in their own homes.
“That was new to them,” he says, “but I taught two fellows to do the wiring on one house and they did the second one on their own.”
Mast’s fluency in German and Pennsylvania Dutch makes him an effective link between the Amish communities and the disaster work.
“I just enjoy working with Amish people. They are one of the most dependable labor sources,” he says, noting that the Amish community has a ready pool of young adults who are home and available for service during a time in life when non-Amish are off to college.
Retirement has freed up additional time for Mast’s MDS work, but even during the years he worked as a building contractor, he found ways to volunteer. As MDS’s Oklahoma Unit chairperson in 1999, Mast was called on to investigate after several severe tornados struck the Oklahoma City area. When the call came, he was in the middle of a room addition project for a client. Assessing the project, he was satisfied that it was under roof, and it wouldn’t disrupt the homeowner’s life to put the project on hold.
“I told the lady I have to go and I don’t know when I’ll be back,” says Mast.
The investigation involved selecting the area where MDS would work and setting up facilities to house and feed volunteers. A month passed before Mast could return to his business. He recruited his brother to help him catch up, but while he and his brother worked on the business backlog, Mast continued to commute the 30 miles back to the MDS site two or three days a week to keep the project on track.
Over the years, Mast has continued incorporating service into his life. Whether it was taking off a day here and there to help on an MDS site or suspending his business for weeks at a time, he has somehow found a way to make room to volunteer and doesn’t regret missed opportunities for greater financial success.
“People ask me, ‘How do you make it?’” Mast says, “and I really don’t know. It’s God’s blessing. I always tried to keep a little money on hand to operate with. Somehow, my bank account would stay about the same.”
Others from his church have caught the vision for service, and he has seen a spirit of volunteerism flourish there. The dozen or so men who do projects for fellow church members have lost count of how many roofs they have replaced. Even Mast himself was a recipient: “One man saw the materials I had gotten to re-roof my house and the next night he brought a bunch of guys to help me.”
When Memorial Road church decided to undertake a building project, they tapped into Mast and the ready volunteer workforce he had developed. Mast was appointed project manager and oversaw the volunteers as they built a gymnasium and classrooms—13,000 square feet of added space.
After three years on that project, Mast was eager to be freed up for more MDS work. “The church construction wasn’t touching people’s lives directly. It’s still God’s mission, but it’s different.”
Mast is confident that his investment in service has more than paid off.
“People think that when you volunteer you really sacrifice, but that’s not exactly how it is,” he says, noting the blessings that have come to him. “Where else can you take a vacation and travel that cheap and see new places? I’ve gotten to meet and make friends with people from all over the U.S. and Canada. I feel blessed beyond whatever I have given.”
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