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Greetings from Cape Breton! When Susan and I first contemplated joining MDS in Nova Scotia, it immediately rekindled memories of previous Maritime travels. It did not disappoint.

Reflecting on the four weeks there, we were truly blessed. When I first encouraged storytelling at the supper table instead of job reports, it soon became evident that the sea air had given us the spirit of Cape Breton. Homeowner stories abounded. Weekend adventures were shared. Jokes were swapped. Job site shenanigans were plentiful. Learning new construction disciplines always brings with it the sharing of bumbling effort and in the end great results.

Some supper hours it seemed like the volunteers had spent the day creating stories to outdo each other around the table! How else would a three-step horse become the symbol for a yarn about the three stages of Mennonite dating? Tom had worked alone all day, and this was the result. We decided to give him onsite company the next day.

From day one I nagged Roman to provide Celtic music and seafood for a full Maritime experience. On a Friday, Ross and Roman unabashedly asked a boat captain in port about selling them some crab. Roman had failed to bring along a container, so the captain just gave him a full tub off the boat. When Roman wanted to pay it, he was instantly rebuffed with the words: “This is on us for the service MDS is providing for our people.” We had two full meals of crab and leftovers for snacking, with many volunteers tasting crab for the first time.

I should mention that we had no tools for the crab-eating task, but by the time we raided our tool trailers we had snips and pliers that gave a whole new meaning to MDS: Make Do Somehow.

The following week, I gave Steve Hanhart the task of making sure lobster would be on the table by Friday. First, we asked the volunteers if they were willing to pay a good tip if this luxury would not meet MDS food budget guidelines. They all agreed. We found Lobster for $12 a pound and, of course, cooked in sea water—the only way to really get the best taste. Many again needed lessons on how to eat lobster.

The next Friday, not to be outdone, Mary—who was receiving a new metal roof—gave us lobster for $8 a pound. (With thanks to her brother-in-law who sacrificed his profits that day.) Ray from Saskatoon had been determined to have his first Lobster in Cheticamp on the weekend—until they were going to charge him $85. He got an $8 lobster but had an $85 smile while he feasted. And not only that; the cooks had a night off!

Speaking of the cooks, I don’t want to forget Karen and Florence. The rest of our meals they made were also amazing!

And I would be remiss if I didn’t refer to what was perhaps the best four weeks of volunteers I have ever led. Not only did I have three of the best crew leaders (thanks Robert, Neil and Jan!), but because of the many jobs we were on each week I depended on leaders from the weekly volunteers as well. Each week I would sniff out three other skilled leaders so that we could work on seven or eight jobs per week. ) Thanks, Ken, for spending your full two weeks on a lift cleaning up all the siding jobs.)

As always happens, the expertise needed showed up. Which reminds me of the four carpenters who came from Ontario. They probably thought they were going to have a good time working together. Nope! I scattered them among the 25 volunteers and everybody enjoyed their skilled guidance. It was MDS at its best.

Which brings me to a darker story. One of these men missed two days of work for health reasons. No big deal—until the weekend when four other people tested positive for Covid. The result was 11 cases, including all four carpenters. We quarantined, changed our kitchen and dining ways, masks came out, sanitizing bottles were at every corner and there was extra weekend cleaning. Thanks to all who were there, calm prevailed and today all is well. (Thanks especially to Susan for remaining calm in a storm. One group of three realized they were feeling fine, but worked all week on an isolated project.)

The question was asked whether we would do dedications for small renos. We decided to ask the key volunteers who had spent the most time with a given homeowner to do an abbreviated blessing. Quilts were presented, some Bibles given along with other gifts, and prayers were said. This was well received by both homeowners and volunteers.

As director, I did not lead one dedication. The volunteers did it all, being encouraged to use their own gifts. They responded with genuine creativity.

Credit goes to Roman and others who have done a good job of case management in this difficult setting. It is hard to decide where to stop the repair when there is deferred maintenance. Or should we do less repair and more clients? There are 20 on the waiting list. Glace Bay will have many houses with two colours of siding, one new window, unmatched flooring, still sagging floors, etc. Each house we leave is left with a mixture of old and new.

CBC came to do some interviews. Sean and Amy could not praise “the Mennonites” enough to the reporter. It was a rainy day, so I sent volunteers to the same house to demolish some flooded ceilings. When the reporters found out what was going on upstairs, the whole interview shifted to the heart of MDS: Volunteers serving. It was a proud moment.

Thirty years ago, Susan and I were in Kentucky at an all-North America MCC retreat when we first heard “606.” It was sung as a thank-you to the local blue grass band that played for us during a square dance. At the time, we were outsiders. NO more! Ever since, when at MDS projects, I have polled the volunteers about “606.” When the odds seemed good of most people knowing it, we would sing it. We sang it twice t this month, in four-part harmony. Now this EMCer can sing it by memory as well!

This brings me to our scholarship volunteers. Sarah was a music major from Canadian Mennonite University. She had not heard this song before. By the end of her month of service she had the alto lines cased. She also has the most wonderfully refreshing gift of conversing with seniors on almost any topic. Jared, from Columbia Bible College, was known as the energizer bunny. He was so busy telling stories that he sometimes forgot to eat! And we thought of him as our canary in the coal mine; as a canary, we thought because he circulated so well among the others if he didn’t get Covid, we knew it was gone.

And finally, a cat story. Three volunteers were drywalling a house on Thursday and Friday at Birch Point near Glace Bay. On Monday, they came back to finish the job. The homeowners said they had lost their cat for three days—no idea where it was. When the volunteers went upstairs, they heard mewing. It was coming from inside a wall! They removed a piece of drywall and there, behind it, was the cat. It was fine; it just went hungry for three days. A true story!

These yarns were written on the ferry crossing the Gulf of St. Lawrence from Port Aux Basques to Sydney. The sea is calm. A project director working from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. finds little to write on location!

God Bless, Peter (and Susan) Thiessen

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