Minot congregation values MDS partnership for itself, community


USMB congregation benefits from renovated facility, partnership with MDS

By Connie Faber

Bible Fellowship Church, a USMB congregation in Minot, ND, and its pastor Duane Deckert are enjoying a “new normal” this Christmas season. The same can be said for their community.

Many of the changes the congregation has processed are directly connected to the Souris River flood that occurred in late June 2011. The flood left the Bible Fellowship Church (BFC) facility with three feet of water inside and destroyed everything in the building except for a copy machine, two pianos and a drum set.

Deckert doesn’t have an exact figure for total damages but he estimates it was more than $150,000 just in materials alone, not including labor. The congregation is thankful for $100,000 in donations it received from Central District Conference and other USMB congregations.

So last Christmas the congregation was meeting for afternoon worship services at Immanuel Baptist Church while their facility was being remodeled and updated with the help of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).


Enjoying benefits of a new worship facility

This December BFC is celebrating Christ’s birth in their new worship center that has chairs instead of pews and a contemporary look, including a professionally selected color scheme. Deckert is especially excited that the congregation is holding a Christmas Eve family-oriented service in addition to the children’s program. This will be the first Christmas Eve service held at BFC since Deckert came to Minot almost 10 years ago.

The congregation held its first service in the refurbished facility on Easter Sunday, April 8. The building was again filled to capacity later that month when the renovated building was dedicated April 20. During the afternoon dedication service attendees walked around the building singing hymns, in keeping with biblical dedication events.

“Now that we’re back in the church we’ve seen quite a few visitors and have had some growth,” says Deckert.

In addition to newcomers from the Minot community, BFC is enjoying temporary numerical growth thanks to the congregation’s partnership with MDS. MDS, a volunteer network of Anabaptist churches that responds to natural disasters in the United States and Canada, is using the BFC facility to house its volunteers. Six to 10 long-term workers, who are housed in the former BFC parsonage, regularly worship with the Bible Fellowship congregation and are involved in church life. Deckert says their participation is refreshing.

While Deckert has welcomed new faces, he’s also said goodbye to some 20 familiar faces, a significant loss for a small congregation. Two families left Minot following the flood and additional households left BFC during the months the congregation held afternoon worship services while their building was being repaired.

In spite of the challenges the congregation has faced since the flood, Deckert says he is “optimistic about what will happen with the church.”


New ministry opportunities

One new avenue of ministry Deckert and the congregation are involved with is the work of MDS. “Our mission right now is to be a place for MDS and to help our community,” says Deckert.

In exchange for restoring the BFC facility, the congregation agreed to partner with MDS and to house MDS volunteers for an estimated 18 months. The church building, once a quiet place Deckert had all to himself, is now bustling with MDS volunteers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“If our building could talk it would say, ‘What happened?’” says Deckert. “When I go to the church now, someone is always there.”

Deckert currently has his office in his home—a change he has come to enjoy—because the church office is filled with bunk beds, as are the three former Sunday school classrooms, which means that the congregation is currently not meeting for Sunday school. The church basement now houses showers and a full kitchen from which volunteer MDS cooks prepare and serve two meals a day.

Minot MDS project director Robert Unrau reports that 1,085 volunteers have served with MDS since the Minot project opened. Part of Unrau’s responsibility is to meet with potential clients to assess their needs and to outline the scope of MDS’s work in their home.

One hundred and two jobs have been initiated and 89 jobs have been completed since MDS opened the Minot project. Completed projects include 60 muck-outs, 30 minor repair jobs and 12 major repair jobs with an additional five jobs near completion. Two new houses have also been constructed.

MDS offers to hold a dedication service for the home after repairs are completed and Deckert is often invited to be present and involved in the blessing service. The service involves presenting the homeowner with a Bible, keys to their “new” home, a comforter and other small gifts.

In late September MDS was one of four agencies working in Minot to receive a grant from Catholic Charities North Dakota to provide building assistance and other aid to people recovering from the flood. Of the $1 million grant, MDS received $100,000. The majority of the funds went to Recovery Warehouse, a local agency with which MDS works. Recovery Warehouse purchases building supplies that are then given to individuals and families who don't have the resources to rebuild from the 2011 flood.

While the repairs and construction work is appreciated, Unrau says that independent research shows that the relationships a homeowner makes with the MDS volunteers is what is valued the most.

“For me, its great to meet the volunteers and thank them for coming,” says Deckert. Since MDS volunteers come primarily from North American Mennonite, Amish and Brethren in Christ congregations, “I get to meet new members of the family,” says Deckert.


Volunteers urgently needed

If Deckert and Unrau had one wish for the New Year, it would likely be that more volunteers would find their way to Minot in 2013.

Speaking in November to delegates at the 2012 Central District Conference convention, Deckert reported that the Minot MDS project was then only at 40 percent of capacity while the agency had a waiting list of as many as 200 families in need of help in repairing their homes.

“We need volunteers to come,” said Deckert in an interview last week with C-Link, emphasizing that lodging and meals are provided free of charge. While BFC is outfitted with 24 bunk beds, the number of volunteers in December varied from as many as 20 volunteers to as few as six.

Other Minot residents interviewed in a video posted on the MDS YouTube channel echo Deckert’s plea for volunteers.

“We’ve had so few volunteers because we’re off the beaten path,” says Mary Barker who manages the Recovery Warehouse.

“The reason you should come is because we have a need,” says Debra Ball-Kilbourne of Resource Agency Flood Team, a consortium of 15 agencies working together in Minot to assist with the recovery. “Because it was a forgotten disaster and because we won’t be rebuilt unless you come…. Because God’s people are here to serve.”

Minot residents working with volunteers acknowledge that the cold temperatures deter many volunteers.

“People are afraid of the cold,” says Deckert, but he quickly points out that MDS typically has five or six projects in process that allows workers to serve inside in some locations. One indoor work site Deckert recently visited was heated.

In mid-December 793 Minot families were still living in trailer homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). More than 3,000 FEMA trailers were occupied at the peak of flood recovery. Only 53 of the 793 families have indicated that they will be moving out of the FEMA trailer park before January 1, 2013. That’s the date on which those remaining in the park will be required to begin paying rent and utilities—a requirement that will strain many families’ already tight financial resources.

The MDS web site reports that approximately two thirds of Minot’s households live below national median standards, with nearly 13 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

“Paul (Unrau) has a heart for these people,” says Deckert of the Minot project director.


Economic prosperity complicates recovery

Life in Minot is tricky right now if you are still displaced from the flood. Unrau says that economic prosperity in Minot has complicated the disaster caused when record flooding of the Souris River, also known as the Mouse River, forced nearly a third of the 45,000 residents to evacuate and left more than 4,000 homes and businesses heavily damaged.

Minot, North Dakota’s fourth-largest city, is in the midst of an unprecedented building boom as it recovers from the flood. But Minot was already experiencing rapid growth thanks to the state’s booming oil patch. Minot’s population grew from 36,500 in 2000 to about 41,000 in 2010, U.S. Census data show. City officials say the present population is nearing 50,000.

Plentiful work and good pay are bringing people to North Dakota, which has some 22,000 more jobs than takers and the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, at 2.4 percent, Job Service North Dakota data show. The unemployment rate in Minot is 2.3 percent.

A Nov. 29 Associated Press story reports that a recent listing for a pizza delivery driver in Minot was advertised at $15 to $20 per hour, plus a $250 signing bonus. The same news story reports that home improvement retailer Menard Inc. has begun flying workers hired from its headquarters in Wisconsin to Minot to work in week-long stints, housing them in hotels. The company is offering a starting wage of $13 an hour at the Minot store, well above the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

“It’s going fast and furious here,” Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman told the Associated Press. “As it is, there is not a big enough labor force around here, and as it gets colder there is less of one.”

The boom has resulted in a housing shortage and high construction and rental costs. Deckert says he typically receives one phone call a week asking if the church can help a new resident find housing for his or her family. “But we can’t really help,” he says, because nothing is available.

Deckert says the onslaught of out-of-state construction companies has included some less than reputable firms that have left homeowners with sub-standard work and a big bill. Some of these homeowners have come to MDS for help.

The building boom also means that securing skilled tradesmen in a timely manner for MDS construction projects is a challenge. Unrau, the Minot MDS project director, persuaded a retired master electrician to renew his license so that MDS volunteers could work under him. MDS electricians have wired at least 25 homes, saving each homeowner $10,000 or more, estimates Deckert.

“Dave is a real gift to MDS,” says Deckert of the master electrician.

As Deckert considers the impact the 2011 flood had on his community, he refers to a conversation with Unrau during which the MDS project director reflected on the complexity of many natural disasters.

“Too often we wonder why something happens,” Deckert recalls Unrah saying. “But the same flood that brings disaster also brings welcome rain to someone else. I thought that was a good reminder.”

Those interested in volunteering with MDS is Minot is invited to contact the agency at minot@mds.mennonite.net.

To view videos of MDS work projects, visit their YouTube channel.


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