Need for long-term recovery work from 2018 flooding met by Mennonite Disaster Service and River Valley Community (Pentecostal) Church
By John Longhurst
For many Canadians today, the church is “unnoticed and unimportant.”
That’s the view of Gabe and Rachel Warriner, co-pastors of River Valley Community Church in Grand Forks, B.C.
“The church is invisible,” says Gabe. “Nobody knows who we are as Christians. We’re irrelevant to people who drive past our buildings every day.”
But then a natural disaster comes along and—if Christians are paying attention to God’s leading—all that can change.
That’s what happened in Grand Forks following unprecedented flooding in spring, 2018 that damaged over 400 homes in the community of 4,200 people.
River Valley, part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada denomination, decided to respond.
“The church became a hub for sandbagging efforts,” says Gabe, 44, who co-pastors the church of about 100 people with his wife, Rachel, 41.
That was a good and important thing to do. But when the water receded their thoughts turned to long term recovery work.
But what could they do? With so many needs, and lacking resources—both people and skills—the job was daunting.
Then Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), an organization that specializes in long-term recovery from natural disasters, showed up.
“MDS came knocking, and we were off,” says Rachel.
Following an invitation from the local long-term recovery committee, MDS sent an assessment team to community.
Once MDS was sure it could respond, the next step was finding a local partner to house its volunteers and host its operations. That’s where River Valley came in.
“MDS asked if they could take over our basement and we said ‘yes, of course,’” says Gabe. “We had to do it. We had to be part of our community’s recovery.”
For MDS, it meant a convenient and comfortable centre of operations; from May to September, this year, the church became home to over 200 volunteers from across North America.
For the church, giving up the space wasn’t a problem, says Rachel.
“The timing was perfect. We were just winding down our programs for the summer, so it wasn’t a great sacrifice to host MDS.”
Plus, she adds, “any inconveniences we experienced were so minor compared to the good being done in the community.”
A “message of hope” in Williams Lake
Grand Forks was not the only B.C. community where the witness of local churches was enhanced by working with MDS.
The same thing happened a year earlier in Williams Lake, about 650 kilometres north, where homes were destroyed by wildfires in 2017.
MDS operated a project in the city in 2018, bringing in volunteers from across the U.S. and Canada to build five houses.
“MDS was awesome,” says Jeremy Vogt, pastor of the Cariboo Bethel Mennonite Brethren Church which hosted MDS.
“They made it easy for us to partner with them to respond to our neighbours.”
In addition to helping people get back into their homes, the work of MDS enhanced the view of the church in the community, Vogt says.
At time when many have lost trust and respect for the church, MDS was “a message of hope,” he says.
“When I told people in Williams Lake what MDS was doing, their eyes got big,” he adds.
“They could hardly believe it. It touched their hearts. Someone cared. People from all over North America cared.”
Now, he says, “wherever I can, I share the MDS story.”
At the same time, says Gabe, the church benefitted.
“MDS was a such a blessing and encouragement to us. The Christian fellowship we had with volunteers from across North America was awesome.”
It also helped them reach out to the community, says Rachel.
“MDS provided a new doorway for us to engage the community in a practical way. We got to meet people and go into homes we never could have gone into on our own. They trusted us because they trusted MDS.”
Working with MDS changed the perception of Christianity and the church for many in the community, they say.
“People were surprised when they saw the church was stepping up to help,” Rachel shares. “It wasn’t what they expected. They didn’t think that’s what Christians did.”
“There was a growing awareness of what the church is for,” adds Gabe. “It’s a real plus for the Christian faith in Grand Forks for people to know what it means to be a Christian, to see what Christians are supposed to be and do for others.”
At the same time, being part of the recovery effort was good for the church.
“We made a lot of new friends in this city,” Gabe says. “It re-vitalized and renewed our congregation.”
Now that the MDS project in Grand Forks has ended, the baton has been passed to the church—quite literally.
At a Sunday morning service in early October, 2019, project co-director Peter Thiessen handed Gabe an old hammer used by volunteers.
“We recognize we are only in a community for a season,” said Peter at the service of how MDS becomes involved in communities across North America.
“It’s like a relay. We are glad to do what we can to help people rebuild their homes and restore their lives. But we can only take it so far before we leave. Then we hand off the baton to the local church to follow up with the people we served.”
“We took the baton passing very seriously,” says Gabe, remembering that occasion.
“We’re not going anywhere. We plan to stay engaged with MDS’s clients and our community. We intend to let people know the church is always here, always ready to help them.”
With files from Zach Bartel, MDS volunteer in Grand Forks.