Partial to Home: Mission Mississippi

 

Birney Imes

 

 

It is not every day you drive down Seventh Avenue North in Columbus -- a timeworn neighborhood made more so by a tornado 10 months ago -- and see young Amish women in calico skirts toting power tools through red clay mud.

 

Had you been en route to Ronnie Clayton's Brother's Keeper Barbecue on the Friday after Christmas you might have seen just that.

 

The following day, thanks in part to the largesse of Clayton, whose business is about two blocks from where the young men and women were rebuilding a house destroyed by the tornado and re-roofing another across the street, Beth and I had the pleasure of lunching with about a dozen of these young Samaritans.

 

 

They were part of a contingent of 54 volunteers from Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Michigan here to work on a dozen disaster-relief projects in Lowndes and Noxubee counties.

 

As they got ready to return to the job site, a couple of the leaders huddled, then one of them named Tippy asked if we would like to join them for supper at their place.

 

"Their place" was the Mashulaville Dormitory, a rambling two-story brick structure at the western edge of Noxubee County. Generations ago the building housed the county's agricultural high school.

 

The facility serves as a staging ground for relief efforts by the Mennonite Disaster Service and other disaster relief organizations, as well as a hostel for back-roads travelers.

 

Larry and Maxine Miller, both retired Noxubee County school teachers, are owners, guiding spirits and facilitators for the good work emanating from this place. Throughout the year they deliver meals on Fridays to shut-ins in the Mashulaville community.

 

Larry Miller, 74, a robust, cheerful man with a booming voice, is of Amish descent. His parents purchased the building in 1970 and operated a foster home for Native American and African American children there.

 

"This place has been an icon on the Mennonite horizon for 50 years," Miller said. "The Mennonites and Amish are spiritual cousins."

 

And so it was on the Monday before New Year's Eve, we arrived in Mashulaville after driving west from Macon on a dark, empty road. By contrast, the warmth and animation awaiting us inside the old schoolhouse was startling. The crowded dining room seemed to pulsate with energy and good cheer.

 

Had we walked through a wrinkle in time? Amish young adults sat at tables talking while house parents ferried platters of food to a long serving table. A wood stove in the center of the dining area added to the coziness of the space.

 

As they do each evening after the meal, a spokesperson from each of the 12 work groups stood up and gave a review of the day's activity. The reports, some offered by males, others by females, were sobering and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Some work crews told of lunches provided by appreciative homeowners of the property they were repairing.

 

One volunteer told of reconnecting a non-working hot water heater and crawling under a trailer through raw sewage. A female representative of the housekeeping team told of the number of loads of laundry she ran -- the volunteers had played mud volleyball after church the day before.

 

These young people displayed a refreshing innocence, a calm demeanor uncluttered by a perplexing news cycle or a junk-food diet of pop culture.

 

"These kids are amazing," said Larry Miller in an interview later. "Those guys blessed us; they cut wood, cleaned the house.

 

"They can do it all. With eighth-grade educations of phonics, reading and no TV at home, they can take the manuals and do internet connections I can't touch.

 

"I'm a GED teacher," he continued. "I've taught GED here in Noxubee. I occasionally get an Amish kid. They get perfect scores."

 

After the reports, the group sang hymns a cappella in four-part harmony, while some joined the elders cleaning up the kitchen.

 

This group was one of three Amish disaster relief teams -- comprised of more than 100 volunteers -- working in Mississippi over the holidays. Groups from these congregations come to Mashulaville three times a year.

 

"It was raining the last two days they were here," Miller said. "They wanted to work, so we got them raincoats at Dollar General. Some went the trash-bag route. They were exhilarated."

 

Birney Imes (birney@cdispatch.com) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.

 

 

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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