Video: Quietly assisting Katrina victims in Cajun country

  1. Closed captioning of: Quietly assisting Katrina victims in Cajun country

    >>> it's time now for our "making a difference report," in our line of work we show up at a lot of disasters. and often the first people we see arriving on the scene to jump in, help out and rebuild are the mennonites . hurricane katrina was no different. they are still there on the job every day, volunteering to rebuild, restore and make a difference. their story tonight from nbc's kerry sanders in grand bayou, louisiana .

    >> reporter: on a slow trip into grand bayou where five years on, recovery from hurricane katrina is still a way of life , cajuns who live here say to this day they know little about those strangers who dress old school and speak dutch.

    >> i think it's great. they're helping out a bunch of people. a bunch of my people here on the bayou.

    >> first, a dozen mennonites from wisconsin and canada came to louisiana in the weeks after katrina. and they're still coming. as is their way, they're still volunteering quietly a week or two at a time.

    >> it's a culture of service. they grew up with the idea that you help your neighbor. when your barn burns down, you rebuild it. a neighbor may be someone across the country.

    >> reporter: dwight and his wife lived 4.5 years on his fishing boat . about as much room as a prison cell.

    >> all this was built here?

    >> yes.

    >> reporter: when outsiders promised him a new home and wanted nothing in return, he was skeptical.

    >> you thought to yourself?

    >> i thought, what is going on? people from nowhere, came here to help other people.

    >> reporter: not all the mennonites we met wanted to be on camera, because they would stand out. in an effort to remain humble, they asked we not use their names.

    >> we don't have to know somebody to do good for somebody.

    >> reporter: kerry sanders , nbc news, grand bayou, louisiana .

updated 3/29/2011 7:14:01 PM ET 2011-03-29T23:14:01

Just before the sun comes up, as fishermen crank up their diesel engines breaking the silence of the still air, a small group of outsiders to Cajun country quietly begins the day.

Two dozen Mennonites from Western Canada and Wisconsin are seated at long tables in a church hall. Some of the men rub grit from their sleepy eyes, as others sit almost motionless, waiting for prayers.

Today, like every day for the past five years, these volunteers from the Mennonite Disaster Service will begin their day as they would at home: Pray. Listen to a devotional. Share a hearty breakfast.

Mennonites are often described as “Amish-like, but with modern conveniences” (think cars, electricity etc.). There are an estimated 1.5 million Christian Anabaptist Mennonites worldwide.  The largest populations are in Canada and the United States.  

Like the Amish, Mennonites are reluctant to draw attention to themselves. They believe that’s a form of being “prideful,” which their religion preaches against. At the same time, one of their strongest beliefs is in doing good work for neighbors, even if they’re far away. Which is why they decided it would be instructive for others outside their faith to understand the value and joy of helping and allowed a team from NBC News to spotlight their efforts.

Kerry Sanders  /  NBC News

But our visit is still very unusual for the Mennonites. With our cameras not yet turned on, we get our first understanding of what exactly it means to avoid attention, to avoid being “prideful.”

As we sit at the breakfast tables, the devotional will be read by a volunteer. But this morning, as we discover happens every morning, no one offers to read. This is not a case of shyness among the volunteers, but rather an attempt “to be one with the community.”

No one wants to seek attention. (Think “Lady Gaga” in reverse.) Eventually, after a long, awkward silence, a man in his late 50s offers to read the devotional.

As our several days with the Mennonites would reveal, this culture was difficult to penetrate, especially with a TV camera. At one point, while trying to engage a 20-something volunteer from a Wisconsin dairy farm, my question was met with complete silence. She was not being rude. She was just adhering to her ways.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention her name. 

In another nod to the community, which prefers to be know as a collective, members either didn’t tell me their names, or asked that I not use their names.

I spoke with one woman, her dress blowing in the wind as she stood on the roof of a Katrina-destroyed home. She shared, in an almost confessional way, that if there was one thing she would admit to missing while she was here for these two weeks, it was her five children back home on the farm. She and her husband were here at their own expense, she said, because “it’s what we do.” Everyone here pays their own way.

When I asked one 60-something woman if she enjoyed this work, she corrected me:  “This is not work...This is how we live our lives. We enjoy this.”


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