NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Growing up on a farm outside Moundridge, Kansas, Michelle Schrag drove the tractor and grain cart to catch harvested wheat pouring from the combine. If the truck or cart broke down, Dad Kyle Schrag and Grandpa Lee Flickinger fixed them, or took them to the shop.
Last August, that all changed when the 22-year-old biology graduate of Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, left the prairies for a year of Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) in Tucson, Arizona. In her assignment with Community Home Repair Project of Arizona (CHRPA), Schrag has learned to wield her own tools to do home repairs and install modifications for low-income residents.
Now, Schrag installs toilets, fixes faucets, repairs water coolers and heaters, and converts tubs to showers for people who need easier access. Though most of her work is done hundreds of miles away from her family, her father, Kyle Schrag, and her mother, Robin Schrag, got to see her in action during Thanksgiving.
"Before CHRPA, I was familiar with farm tools, but only from watching Dad and Grandpa use them," Schrag said. "When Mom and Dad were here over Thanksgiving, my host [Jen Metzler] home's toilet began to leak, and Dad and I fixed it together. … my grandpa wasn't with us, but I've told him all about how I am learning to use home repair tools. He and Dad are pretty impressed."
Her mother cited other reasons for being impressed. "She is gaining so much confidence," Robin said. "We are proud of how she is experiencing a whole new community and branching out on her own."
It's not all about me
All beaming aside, Schrag is a humble soul; she said her MVS experience is mostly about the goodness of her church family at Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, her CHRPA co-workers, and the residents she serves. They have enlarged her world beyond the fields of home and are providing a harvest of new relationships.
"It is so gratifying to serve these residents," Schrag said. "They give you a big hug and have a big smile on their face. They want to give you something in return — a drink of water, or a snack. They're very thankful. It's neat seeing how … what you do really makes a difference for someone."
The church and Schrag have adapted to the fact that she is the sole MVS participant this year. As an only child, Schrag said she is comfortable with adults; and yet, she thinks of her MVS friends in other places who have peers. "I sometimes feel I am missing out on that aspect of this experience," she said.
She enjoys perks, too. She is often taken out to eat and to sports events, a treat for a college athlete. She also is growing socially and culturally. "I didn't know anyone here, and MVS has pushed me to relate to new people, such as some other young adults at CHRPA who I do things with socially," Schrag said. "It is not my first instinct to reach out like this, but I am gaining confidence."
As a member of a mostly White, rural congregation, Eden Mennonite Church, in Kansas, she now worships with a multicultural group, and she is engaging the challenges of urban poverty and immigration traumas in ways she doesn't have the opportunity to do back home.
Bonding across generations
This past November, she joined the Mission Network-sponsored alumni and friends service-learning tour that focused on immigration in Arizona. Participants Abram and Glenda Moyer, former MVSers of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, said a highlight was meeting Schrag.
"Having Michelle along with us brought our former MVS experience to life for us again," Abram Moyer said. He and Glenda had served in MVS as newlyweds from March 1966 through March 1968 in Buckeye, Arizona, and Carlsbad, New Mexico.
During the tour, they re-connected with their former MVS experience and gained new insights, along with Schrag. For example, the three of them joined the tour group in a vigil for immigrants from Mexico and Central America who have died in the desert.
During the vigil and an earlier prayer time at the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Douglas, Arizona, the Moyers and Schrag were not aware of age differences; rather, they were unified in praying for healing and seeking solidarity with those suffering.
"During the vigil, calling out the names of the people who died … was really powerful," Schrag said. "It really sinks in, that people are suffering."
Glenda Moyer agreed. "… We grappled on a deeper level with the issue of immigration that we have all been struggling with in our home communities." Upon return to the wooded hills of Pennsylvania, the Moyers shared with their home congregation, Plains Mennonite Church, about their life-shaping Arizona experience.
During Christmas vacation, Schrag did the same at Eden, next to where green winter wheat shoots peeked through the prairie. "It felt so great to have so many people at home be so interested in my experiences," she said.
Her mother agreed. "Having someone to support in service adds a very important dynamic to our church," Robin Schrag said. "It gives the people in the pew the sense that they are part of God's work, even when they can't go themselves. It's a two-way thing."