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In these polarized times, as many Christians in the U.S. are divided over politics,  Rev. Byron Meline has something different on his mind: working for a common goal.

As he put a fresh coat of paint on a tornado-damaged home in Columbus, Mississippi, the pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Stewartville, Minnesota, said he believes serving on a Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) crew helps draw people closer together.

“Working together for a common goal is one of the best ways to bridge the gaps between people and gain a deeper understanding,” he said of his work with people from different denominations. “We become better listeners.”

The house Meline was working on was among 50 homes damaged or destroyed when a tornado tore through Columbus in February 2019.

Meline, who has brought a dozen volunteers from his congregation to the eastern Mississippi city of almost 26,000, is taking direction from construction supervisor L.C. Cook, a lifelong resident of the state who grew up in the Baptist church.

The work itself is made possible by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which provides funding to employ Cook, an African-American, to oversee volunteers from MDS and other groups.

“Working together for a common goal is one of the best ways to bridge the gaps between people and gain a deeper understanding, we become better listeners."

— Rev. Byron Meline

“I believe in the mission of MDS: to get out and help people,” he says. “That’s why I took this job. I was attracted to that idea.”

Cook, who owns his own construction contracting business, has had to shift his mindset from hiring professionals to being in charge of volunteers.

“They are awesome,” Cook says. “The mission here wouldn’t happen without them.”

In fact, most volunteer groups that have come through Columbus, Mississippi, have had at least a few very skilled workers, says Cook.

“They get the job done,” he says, nodding toward Meline and other volunteers. “We should have one common goal: that’s to serve,” he says.

The project in Columbus is sponsored by MDS’s Mississippi/Louisiana Unit. Since starting in mid-2019, volunteers have repaired nearly 20 homes.

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