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Building on Faith in a Tornado-Hit Town

Volunteers converge on China Grove, Tenn., to help fellow Mennonites who choose to rely on the goodwill of believers instead of insurance.

April 05, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

CHINA GROVE, Tenn. — Without the aid of radio, television or the Internet, the nation's Mennonites heard about the tornadoes that laid waste to much of this tiny community that their brethren call home.

The news was passed along by phone, the calls tracing a network of kinship and shared faith that connect the hundreds of conservative, technology-averse Mennonite communities dotting the American heartland. By Tuesday, China Grove's 110 Mennonites found 200 volunteers in their church parking lot.

They were dressed in the plain, Old World style -- the women in smocks and bonnets, the men in suspenders. Some came from as far as Pennsylvania. They brought casseroles, heavy machinery and children with shovels and tools. And they came to work.

On Tuesday afternoon, a dozen men were helping James Yoder clear debris from his roofless, ravaged brick ranch house. He expected they'd have his new metal roof in place by tonight.

"They just come," said Yoder, 26. "Word spreads, they come, and they pitch in."

Two days after tornados ripped through eight states, killing 28 and destroying hundreds of homes, faith-based volunteer groups rushed in to help. Some Baptist preachers estimated that hundreds of volunteers from their churches were already cleaning up the four hardest-hit counties in western Tennessee.

But the Mennonites' response in devastated China Grove has perhaps been the most dramatic, and not just for the images of women in ankle-length dresses toiling on the mangled landscape.

China Grove, a 75-home farming community two hours northeast of Memphis, suffered some of the worst damage from Sunday's storms. Many houses were destroyed, and two non-Mennonite women were killed.

The Mennonites here are among the 15% of the followers of this Protestant faith who shun insurance coverage, choosing to rely instead on their biblically mandated responsibility to care for one another, according to Donald B. Kraybill, a sociology professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

So instead of sparring with insurance adjusters Tuesday, China Grove dairy farmer Charles Diller had reunited with his brother Donald, a Pennsylvanian who joined a handful of other volunteers to help rebuild Charles' 40-by-80-foot tool shed.

Diller, who suffered $100,000 worth of damage to his ranch, figured he was gaining more than a free work crew. Among other things, he had the opportunity to break bread with his brother at the two-room schoolhouse Tuesday, where volunteers had donated fresh vegetables, orange juice cake and fruited tapioca.

"In the long run, what we see is the sharing and caring of working together," he said.

The idea of service is deeply ingrained in all manifestations of the Mennonite faith, including more liberal groups that do not dress in the "plain" fashion that conservative Mennonites share with the Amish.

Followers of the faith, which dates to 16th century Europe, take a special pride in their post-disaster rebuilding efforts, a specialty that stems from rural Mennonites' preference for practical trades. Their mutual aid does not just extend to fellow Mennonites, said Kevin King, executive director of the Mennonite Disaster Service, the largest Mennonite relief group in the U.S.

In 1999, Mennonite volunteers built homes in Princeville, the poor African American town in North Carolina hit by Hurricane Floyd. They built homes in the San Diego town of Julian after the 2003 Cedar fire. This year, they helped tornado victims in Evansville, Ind., and they continue to work on rebuilding the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast.

Bishop Steve Yoder, the leader of the China Grove Mennonites and James Yoder's father, said the volunteers had been focusing Monday and Tuesday on fixing roofs and weatherproofing the Mennonites' damaged houses. They had already made progress: The house of widow Ruth Witmer was a tangle of debris in the morning. By afternoon, the concrete foundation was swept clean. A pile of trash burned a few yards away as a group of men piled junk onto a front-end loader.

Alva Miller, a 70-year-old former farmer from Paris, Tenn., was directing the efforts. He said there were five other major projects underway around China Grove.

"That's just the way we grew up," Miller said. "If somebody in the area needs help, we just go and help them."

The Mennonites came to China Grove 10 years ago from Deer Lodge, in east Tennessee, where the church had grown too big to accommodate all of the families. Though there are about 1,400 Mennonites in the state, their way of life was unfamiliar to many in China Grove. They stood out, not just for their dress, but for a belief system that accepts some technology, such as cars and cellphones, but rejects others, including radios, TV and the Internet. Computers are allowed, but only in their capacity as numbers-crunching "workhorses."

Longtime residents say the Mennonites have proved to be good neighbors. Last year, they built a modest, handsome church. More recently, they opened a country store -- the only store in China Grove -- and stocked it with fresh-baked bread, bags of grain and other staples.

On Tuesday afternoon, China Grove resident Angela Sims stood outside of her destroyed house in a yard covered with fallen branches. Her country casual ensemble -- a Garth Brooks T-shirt and sneakers -- gave her away as a non-Mennonite.

There were no bearded men clearing away her junk. But Sims said they had already come by and offered their services. The Mennonites were just waiting for her to give the word.


Times researcher Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.

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