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.
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.”