CHENGDU, China (Mennonite Mission Network) — When the May 2008 earthquake largely destroyed the church in Mianzhu, China, church members were among the first to help their neighbors.
This outward focus, backed by financial aid from Mennonites, has had specific results. For one, the Mianzhu church has grown tenfold in less than two years since the quake.
Millions of aid dollars rolled into China following the earthquake in Sichuan province. Some of that was from Mennonite donors and agencies. But most of the recipients of Mennonite aid will never know it. Instead of sending pre-packaged or foreign-shipped aid packets, the Mennonite aid was used to buy local supplies, distributed by local churches, volunteers and agencies—not by white-skinned foreigners.
Chinese leaders believe the aid and the growth are connected.
Yuan said, “We're still learning new ways, together with local leaders in the community and outside help, to be supportive and relevant in our community.”
The local government recognized the work done by the church and its growing importance in the community by making the church building part of the rebuilt central town square. The cooperation among church members and the government has been vital, Yuan said.
James and Michelle Stabler-Havener serve in China through Mennonite Mission Network and MPC. James Stabler-Havener said it was not the Westerners’ place to lead or direct the relief effort.
“If help from the church is always accompanied by a white face, or even primarily accompanied by a white face, it reinforces the notion that Christianity is a foreign faith, led by foreigners,” Stabler-Havener said. “In a time of crisis, when the [Mianzhu] church itself was largely destroyed, they still continued to focus on serving others instead of helping themselves. This was a powerful witness to a different way of life.”
Some international groups that tried to control the process, he said, ran into obstacles at local levels that stopped aid distribution, in part because disaster area access was controlled to prevent so-called disaster tourism. North American Mennonites, who served as friends and partners acting to localize aid, found no such barriers.
“The people who live in the disaster area wanted to do something themselves, not just have others show up and help them,” Stabler-Havener said. “They didn’t want to feel helpless.”
After listening to those living in quake-affected areas, Mennonite Partners in China’s representatives and partners found local supplies and used networks of area residents to serve and distribute in the midst of their distress. While many aid organizations sent items on their standard lists, Stabler-Havener said the Mennonites asked what was needed. They sent what was requested, including baby formula, milk and feminine hygiene products, which Stabler-Havener said made it on few other distribution lists.
Stabler-Havener said long-term relationships among North American and Chinese leaders helped partners better organize the distribution through local channels.
In addition to the numerical growth and the plans for the town’s reconstruction, church leaders have been offered suburban land from the government for an additional building. And a Chinese donor now living overseas has pledged money to rebuild the old church building.
Stabler-Havener said the compassion of believers in China and worldwide has been a light in the midst of the suffering, but should not reassure believers that those who love God will naturally benefit in the quake’s aftermath. Rather than reassure, he said, his role, and the role of the church, is to be present in the anguish of those whose loved ones, homes, jobs and communities were destroyed.
The need for a variety of types of aid remains, Stabler-Havener said, including lay leadership training for church leaders in the expanding congregation and building funds.
Mennonite Partners in China is supported by Mennonite Mission Network, Eastern Mennonite Missions, Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Church Canada Witness. The Stabler-Haveners serve in Chengdu, less than 60 miles from Mianzhu.