War. Famine. Hurricanes. Refugees. Every day, denizens of the world community suffer in ways most Americans can barely imagine. We only even know of such misery by way of this nation's leading export to these disaster areas – television crews.
And so I was touched and warmed to learn of a group who puts their money, time and love into places where I thought only the networks (and a few high-budget affiliates) dared to go. I speak of the Mennonites.
My wife Liz and I visited her parents in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania this past Easter weekend. Virginia, my mother-in-law, suggested on Saturday morning that we drive into Harrisburg to "see the Mennonites." She was talking about the Pennsylvania Quilt Auction which is held every year to raise money for Mennonite efforts to aid suffering people all over the world.
Thirty minutes after our day's destination was announced, the four of us stepped onto the concrete floor of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Building. It's just a cavernous hall, but there was something comforting about the faint smell of the farm which greeted us as we walked in.
In the first section of the building, we entered into a real-life kaleidoscope – over 400 quilts in different colors, patterns and degrees of intricacy hung from racks. These quilts, lovingly pieced, stitched and donated by members of various Mennonite churches or supporters of the work they do, were on display before they were moved to the main area for auction.
My mother-in-law, who knows of such things, told me it takes eight women getting together all day, once a week for 10 or 12 weeks, to produce one of the more elaborate quilts.
We progressed into the bigger part of the edifice where the auction action was fast and furious. A few of the fancier quilts sold for upward of $2000, most went in the $800-$1400 range. More than a handful were probably bought by dealers in places like Manhattan or Greenwich, Connecticut to be sold at three or four times their cost.
I got thirsty and walked over to one of the booths which ringed the auction area to get some bottled water. It cost a quarter. Out there on the periphery, there were several enterprises going on to augment the main fund-raising done by the auction. Like a cruise missile, my wife homed in on the chicken corn soup stand (a traditional favorite) and followed that up with a visit to the homemade strawberry pie and ice cream section. My in-laws checked out the crafts displays.
One booth which caught my eye was called "Penny Power." People brought in their penny collections in all sorts of containers from paper cups to five-gallon jugs. The tally board indicated that they had taken in $15,000 to that point but their goal was $40,000.
This event raises more than half a million dollars. All the money goes to the Mennonite Central Committee to fund its worldwide relief efforts in places whose very names conjure in the mind images of the worst human suffering: Kosovo, Honduras, Tornado Alley in the United States, North Korea, Sudan, Afghanistan.
The Mennonites trace their beginnings to the year 1536. At the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, a young Dutch theologian named Menno Simons united several groups under one set of beliefs. They became known by his first name, hence "Mennonites." Perhaps more well-known to outsiders, the Amish, began as an offshoot of the Mennonite movement one hundred and fifty years later in 1693.
There are several sects of the Mennonite church and each practices their faith a little differently. All of them, however, are as one under the tenet that personal salvation includes helping those in need and that "Whatever you want others to do for you, do for them" (Matthew 7:12).
Before the quilt auction, I knew little of the Mennonites and nothing of their good works around the world. They are not publicity-seekers. According to one of its official statements, the Mennonite Central Committee believes "a steady diet of heart-wrenching images of crisis and disaster is counter-productive in the long run. It is better if people share their resources – time, money and prayers – not out of guilt but rather because they see themselves as partners with poor people in the struggle against hunger, oppression, injustice or poverty. Ultimately, a donor base rooted in a shared sense of partnership is healthier and more sustainable than one that is regularly shamed into sharing with those who have needs."
Sally Struthers, Save the Children and others of their ilk must know even less about the Mennonites than I do.
Personally, I've never been a believer in the notion that one denomination or another has a monopoly on the route to heaven and its eternal reward. But I suspect that these Mennonites have set upon at least one of the paths which leads there.
April 15, 1999