Hesston Laypeople Started Agency 40 Years Ago

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March 22, 1990 by Marjorie Jantzen
Mennonite Weekly Review

-- Mennonite Disaster Service came home to its roots last week.

After the tornado, some of the first MDS volunteers clutched others hands extended to them "in the name of Christ."

MDS, now matured into a well-organized, widely recognized agency throughout North America was conceived in July 1950 by people from the Hesston area. The idea was born during a Sunday school picnic held by young married couples class from the Pennssylvania (now Whitestone) Mennonite Church.

The discussion that day centered on the idea of a peace-honoring way to meet needs in the surrounding community. Sunday school members who had served in Civilian Public Service during World War II were convinced that such opportunities for service should be sought.

The Pennsylvania Church class shared the idea with its counterpart at Hesston Mennonite Church during a joint picnic August 8. The classes met several immediate financial needs, but the group wanted a more practical means of service.

Five men -- Harold Dyck, Paul Shenk, Allen Diller and teachers Daniel Kauffman and Fred S. Brenneman -- were appointed to prepare a statement of purpose for their tiny new movement.

The statement was sent to Mennonite Central Committee and to the Mennonite Relief Committee of Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. The agencies expressed little enthusiasm and directed the classes to the South Central Conference (MC).

The statement of purpose was read to the conference assembly on August 17 at Pleasant Valley Church, Harper. The conference encouraged the two sunday school classes to continue searching for a way to implement their idea during a probationary period. Some people in the conference were afraid the movement might bypass the church.

The conferenceasked the five man committee to prepare a constitution and submit it for consideration. The constitution was was adopted in December 1950 and the fledgling organization had a name -- Mennonite Service Organization.

Men interested in serving filled out questionnaires. John A. Diller of Hesston, wheelchair-bound due to a farm accident years earlier, was appointed coordinator.

There were no disasters for nearly a year after the Sunday school picnics. Enthusiasm ebbed. Then in May 1951 the Little Arkansas River in Wichita threatened to overflow its banks due to heavy rains.

Diller recalls: "I think Lyle Yost was chairman of MSO. About 4:30pm on May 17th he called to tell me he was going to Wichita, that I should call volunteers. About 6 o'clock, he called back and said he had promised 15 men and one truck."

"I passed this information along to the Meridian Church of God in Christ; Mennonite and to Eden Church, Moundridge. All responded and by 11 o'clock we had 45 men and 4 trucks in Wichita. The men's main work was building sand bag dikes."

One of the volunteers who drove his truck to Wichita was Bob Diller, Manager of Kropf Lumber Co. Last week, nearly 40 years later, men brought trucks to help him after his house was demolished by the tornado that ripped through Hesston.

MSO's second call to service came from Great Bend on May 24 after heavy rains in the area. "I believe the men's sandbagging efforts save the city," Diller says.

On December 26 representatives from Mennonite churches in a 40 mile radius met in Hesston at the Hesston Manufacturing Co to set up a list of men who could help the MCC unit in north Topeka rebuild flood damaged houses.

In March 1952 a tornado ripped through White County, AR. Peter J. Dyck, pastor of Eden mennonite Church, called Diller and asked, "What are we going to do about Arkansas?"

A meeting was held March 31 at Hesston College's Hess Memorial Hall to organize volunteers to be sent to White County. At the meeting a Temproray Disaster Committee was appointed to represent  an er disaster, to be composed of two men from each branch of the MCC constituent churches that wanted to cooperate and to widodowed or handicapped residents in White County.

In May 1953 Mennonite volunteers  from Kansas helped residents of Hebron, NE, clean up and rebuild after a tornado devasted that city.

"Galen Rediger worked out plans for the total operations with the mayor of hebron, and their plan worked well," recalls Diller. We had good response from our volunteers, and it was a good experience for MSO."

The movement in Kansas did not go unnoticed by Mennonites in other areas of the country. The also began to organize disaster relief efforts. It soon became apparent that coordination and encouragement were necessary on a national level.

MCC called the first meeting of representatives of the various groups for March 2, 1955, at the Hotel Atlantic in Chicago. At that meeting, one representative from each of the constituent groups was recommended by MCC. This plan remains the basis for national cooperation.

At the national meeting in February 1962, MSO was reorganized as the Mennonite Disaster Service under MCC, with an executive coordinator and executive committee. North America was divided in to six regions comparable to regions of the American Red Cross, with which MSO had cooperated since its early projects.

MDS "just grew" says Diller. "We do more good to get to a disaster are aright away and give victims support and hope than to wait for government people to come in."

"MDS has been good for the people who served. Response from the people who received help has been gratifying, More often than not the response has been deeper than expressions of appreciation for work done. They have been expressions of appreciation for Christian principles and the love of God."

After a tornado tore through a section of Wichita in 1965, Diller received this letter from a businessman: "On visiting my neighbors and friends damaged homes, I was amazed, gratified and thankful to find that members of your disaster servicewere already there and working."

"Not having been previously aware of your volunteer organization, I was considerably touched to see men and women of all ages giving so freely of themselves to help others they had never met and in all probability may never see again.

It helped to renew faith in human nature which has often been sorely tried. Although my proud heritage is that of Judaism, I would like the enclosed donation to go to your church for continued good work."

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Bibliography - Sources for this page
Jantzen, Marjorie A. (1990, March 22). Kansas Tornado Brings MDS Home. Mennonite Weekly Review.

Update: Saturday, January 31, 2009 3:16