MACON, Miss. (Mennonite Mission Network) – This spring, lasting relations sprung out of short term service experiences for three families who visited Macon, Miss., this spring.
For three families, spring break provided the perfect opportunity to get away from home and serve. With the help of the SOOP program and director Arloa Bontrager, five parents and seven kids traveled to Macon to volunteer and learn at Mashulaville Dormitory. During their time there, these families bonded with local coordinators, Larry and Maxine Miller, as well as local neighbors and church members.
The dormitory is a Mennonite house of hospitality run by Larry and Maxine Miller for travelers, disaster work teams, and Mennonite Your Way guests, and also provides emergency shelter and lodging for individuals in crisis. The Millers tutor youth and mentor young people with job/life/spiritual skills, and in the summer, they operate a 10-week summer recreation center on site.
The SOOP program, one of Mennonite Mission Network’s Christian service programs, gives families and adults of all ages a chance to use their gifts to serve others. Participants identify locations of interest, can choose the timing and length of service, and work directly with on-site coordinators to plan their visit.
Jay and Melissa Unruh were looking for a way to introduce their daughters, Courtney, Kelsey and Mackenzie, to service.
“We wanted our children to understand that not everyone lives the same way that we do and that the world is not always fair,” Melissa Unruh said.
During their time in Macon in March, the Unruh family helped to redesign, paint and decorate a bathroom at the dormitory with a polka dot theme, fed chickens and goats, built relationships with an elderly neighbor, Ms. Mary Carr, while fixing her porch, and attended worship at local churches.
The Unruh family came away so inspired that they issued a challenge to their home congregation, Hesston (Kan.) Mennonite Church, to collect sports and recreation equipment that can be donated to the dormitory for use during their summer program. These supplies will be hand-delivered by two church members, Bill and Maureen Regier.
“It just feels like a long-term fit for us with the Unruh family,” said site coordinator, Larry Miller. “We look forward to receiving these gifts and setting up a soccer goal, so that we can teach our rural and football-crazy guys how to kick a soccer ball around this summer!”
In April, two families from Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., also worked alongside the Millers for a week. Rod and Femi Hollinger-Janzen and Jeff and Kay Miller, with sons, Jared, Josh and Hans, spent a week helping with chores around the dormitory, redecorating and painting an upstairs bathroom with a Kwanzaa theme, and preparing food for the dormitory’s weekly fish fry fundraiser. The families also learned about the legacy of segregation that still affects Macon.
“I was really struck by the segregation. Most African-American families lived on dirt roads, while white families lived on paved roads,” said Femi Hollinger-Janzen. “There was also a member of the KKK that lived right down the street. That was frightening for me, and people have to live every day being scared of those kinds of things in Macon.”
Larry and Maxine Miller have long been activists and important workers for equality in the Macon community, and they shared stories and information about the history and culture of Mississippi.
“We learned that just changing laws doesn’t end racism – it’s something we need to work at day to day in a conscious way,” said Kay Miller. “While racism may be more blatant in the south, [we need to ask ourselves] how is it present here and in what ways can we work against it in our daily lives here in Indiana.”
Larry and Maxine introduced the two families to four young men—Keshawn, Keon, Jermaine and Marco—who have found a home at the dormitory. They formed fast friendships. Together, the group of eight boys played basketball, watched the NCAA tournament and movies, and jumped on the trampoline.
Keshawn, Keon, Jermaine and Marco taught Hollinger-Janzen and the Miller boys how to prepare potato salad for the fish fry. In return, the Waterford boys invited the young men from Macon for a time of prayer and scripture reading. On the first day, the young men from Indiana prepared and led, using readings from Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book,, and on the next day, the young men from Macon led worship.
“When the guys parted [at the end of the week], they hugged, clung to each other and even shed some tears and then went and did a final mass jumping on our trampoline to celebrate their friendships. We love these guys and miss them a lot already,” said Larry Miller.
Hollinger-Janzen has continued to keep in touch with his new friends via Facebook.
“This spring break was an answer to prayer that I hadn’t even formulated,” said Jeff Miller. “We were able to meet new people and form new friendships. It gave the boys and us a chance to cross cultures and see another part of the world – right here in the U.S. It was a life-changing time for us.”
Harold and Elaine Yoder of Middlebury, Ind., also served for two weeks in Macon. For more information about the SOOP program, visit Service. MennoniteMission.net.