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MB congregation standing firm after flood

By Myra Holmes

As members of Bible Fellowship Church, a small Mennonite Brethren congregation in Minot, ND, talk about the helplessness of watching the waters sweep away hopes and about a faith that stands firm, snatches of a classic hymn come to mind: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

For them, the hymn’s “whelming flood” is literal: The Souris River flooded Minot June 23 in the worst flooding there since 1881. At least 11,000 of the town’s 40,000 residents were evacuated, including seven families from Bible Fellowship, a congregation of only about 60. About 4,000 homes were flooded, including the parsonage. The Bible Fellowship church building, too, was flooded with about 10 feet of water.

But the facts don’t tell what it feels like to come home after the waters recede, to see the mold consuming a lifetime of belongings and memories. “Devastating,” says Val Keeney of Bible Fellowship. Floodwaters rose over four inches onto the main level of the home she and her husband spent 20 years pouring time and money into—the home they believed God had called them to use for hospitality and ministry.

Words on paper can’t carry the smells that linger—mold and decay mingled with methane and chemicals. The statistics don’t include the piles of soggy belongings on the curb that crop up as quickly as they’re cleaned away—piles that represent lives, memories and hopes.

Even those whose homes were on higher ground talk of an overwhelming sense of loss. One of those spared, Cory Nissley, says that when folks ask if the flood affected him, he tells them that when a big flood hits small community everyone is affected. “It’s hard to explain how bad the flood was and how it affected the whole town until you’ve been here and seen it,” he says.

Violet Vix, another Bible Fellowship member whose home was safe, describes the cloud of uncertainty that hung over the congregation as they met after the flood. And yet, she says, “We needed to be together.”

The facts also can’t tell how faith becomes a hope and stay when all else around gives way. “It takes you to that place to see if what you said is true,” Keeney says. “Do you really trust that God is who he says he is?”
Keeney has been drawn to the Old Testament story of Job, who believed in God before his trials but knew God deeply after. She hopes that her faith, too, will prove more firm after the flood. “At the end of this, I’m going to be a better follower of Christ than when I entered into it,” says Keeney.

Minot residents have a long way to go. The initial shock was quickly absorbed in the scramble to gut damaged buildings—including the church and parsonage—and inhibit the growth of mold. Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), the disaster response agency supported by Mennonite Brethren, was among the agencies that responded. Volunteers poured in.

Again, a report of the numbers of volunteers wouldn’t begin to tell what that hands-on support has meant to Minot residents. Emotion rises to the surface as Duane Deckert, pastor of Bible Fellowship, talks about those volunteers. “It’s just incredible that people would come, give a couple of days to clean the muck out of people’s homes just because they love Jesus,” he says. “That’s when we really see God at work.”

Nissley, who took a turn at organizing the MDS volunteers, says those who have rolled up their sleeves have been an important witness in the community.

With the initial chaos of cleanup over and the harsh North Dakota winter just around the bend, Minot enters a new season of uncertainty. Rumors swirl of another flood coming in spring. Since few in Minot had flood insurance, too many are left without resources to rebuild, even if they want to risk it. And Keeney says that even if they had the money to rebuild, “I don’t think we have the stamina.”

Deckert says the church can offer hope when hopelessness begins to settle in. “That’s where MDS and the church come in: We can be the hands and feet of Jesus to people,” he says.

In order to better show the love of Christ to Minot, Bible Fellowship and MDS have entered a two-year partnership. Together they are rebuilding Bible Fellowship Church to the “bare bones,” a just-functional facility that will include a place for the congregation to worship as well as housing, showers and restrooms for up to 30 MDS volunteers at a time. Barring unforeseen obstacles, they hope to be using the building for worship and volunteer housing by November.

MDS’s two-year commitment is huge, says Deckert. While many relief agencies are pulling out, Deckert describes a valley still desolate, still devastated and still in dire need.

The two-year partnership with MDS will also give Bible Fellowship much-needed time to discern next steps. Rebuilding on their current site or relocating, perhaps to a growing part of town with new opportunities for outreach, are among the options.

As Bible Fellowship looks to the future, the continued support of the larger Mennonite Brethren family will help them stand firm. Deckert asks for prayer for “a hearing heart,” for unity and for obedience. “Prayer keeps us strong,” he says.

Because Bible Fellowship, like so many, didn’t have flood insurance and because they don’t qualify for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), financial support is also important. Donations to assist the Minot MB congregation are being channeled through MB Foundation (MBF), the U.S. Conference stewardship ministry, and can be sent to MB Foundation at P.O. Box 220, Hillsboro, KS 67063. Checks should be made payable to “MB Foundation” and reference “Minot Bible Fellowship Church Rebuilding Fund.”

Most importantly, Deckert says, come to Minot. Because the facts in black and white can never adequately portray the devastation of the flood, nor can words adequately show how solid is the rock on which they stand. To volunteer, contact the MDS office at 800-241-8111.

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