The best — and perhaps quirkiest — aspects of being Mennonite were on display in northern Indiana last weekend. The Michiana MCC Relief Sale is an annual fundraising event for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a world-wide relief organization. The sale is part quilt auction, part junk auction, part garage sale, part bake sale, part county fair, part family reunion.
Although there are 30 MCC relief sales in the United States and 14 in Canada each year, Michiana (Indiana-Michigan area) hosts the largest, attracting between 20,000-25,000 people and raising upwards of $350,000 annually. It also happens to be in my old hometown of Goshen, Indiana.
So this past weekend I made my pilgrimage to the Elkhart County Fairgrounds with two non-Mennonite friends who have always wanted to experience this sale. They weren’t disappointed, and I was proud to call myself Mennonite.
The Mennonite denomination, like many others, has struggled with divisive issues over the years, and I haven’t always appreciated how these issues have been — or have not been — resolved. But this weekend we were at our best. Progressive Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites, Conservative Mennonites, and Amish worked hand-in-hand to raise money for a belief they all share in common — that it is our joyful duty to lend a helping hand to those in need.
Church groups have been working all year: quilting, woodworking, baking, and canning to donate these goods to the sale. The weekend of the sale, groups and individuals are selling their items, staffing the quilt auction, cooking food, planning logistics, and cleaning the fairgrounds. Our differences are forgotten as we work toward a common goal.
The sale runs Friday night through Saturday afternoon and features multiple auctions, a garage sale, children’s auction and activities, a 10K run, and lots of food: pies, sausage, cheese, pancakes, kettle corn, moon pies, elephant ears, apple dumplings, and new ethnic foods. For my parents, Friday night is the night to buy their year’s supply of sausage from Mishler’s Meats before they sell out. So, my friends and I went with them.
Walking through the crowds on Friday night with our bags of sausage and Nelson’s Golden Glow chicken was like being at a family reunion. In addition to Goshen being a small town, many Mennonites are related and/or know one another. Mennonites in the area go to the sale; Mennonites who have left the area come back for it. Running into relatives and friends I haven’t seen since my last relief sale in 2007 felt like “old home week” at the fairgrounds.
One highlight of the year is the Penny Power fundraiser in which each person is asked to save pennies as tokens of the privileges and abundance he/she has. During the month prior to the relief sale, participants put aside pennies each day based on a Penny Power calendar. The way the Penny Power project links giving and self-awareness is evident in some of these example days on the calendar:
- Many refugees are forced to leave home with only the shirt on their backs. Give one penny for each shirt or blouse in your closet.
- In some countries there is only one doctor for every 125,000 people. Give 4 pennies for each health care professional you see.
- Many people have only one ragged cloth for cover. Give two pennies for every quilt and blanket in your home.
- Much of the world exists without consistent electricity. Give two pennies for each light switch or lamp in your home.
- In Haiti, few people can read and write. Give one penny for every book in your home.
But, without question, the crown jewel of the weekend is the quilt auction. Hundreds of quilts are carefully and lovingly created throughout the year and are put up for auction to around 300 bidders. This year, the quilts alone raised $102,000 with one quilt selling for $5,000.
Perhaps most moving was the traveling quilt. The traveling quilt is a beautiful quilt that began traveling earlier this year. It has gone from one relief sale to another across North America, always going up for bids but never sold. Instead, everyone who bids on the quilt gives his/her bid as a donation to MCC. Bids started at $1,000 for a quilt you can’t take home with you and ended with $25 bids. And now it moves on to the next MCC Relief Sale to be held in Virginia this weekend.
Ultimately, the relief sale is not just about giving to help the poor. It is also about acknowledging our relative wealth and the resources we have. The sale helped me once again appreciate the values with which I was raised — be generous, care for others, work hard, give till it hurts, work for peace, be the hands and feet of your faith.
Photos by David Yoder