Sep. 26—GOSHEN — The frenetic sound of auction calls echoed across the grounds of the Elkhart County 4-H Fairgrounds early Saturday morning, a sure sign that the 54th Annual Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale was officially underway.
Since the event's launch back in 1968, the Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale has raised funds to support the projects and programs of Mennonite Central Committee, a worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches whose mission is to respond to basic human needs and work for peace and justice both in the United States and abroad.
According to Les Gustafson-Zook, a representative of MCC's Great Lakes office, such relief sales are among the MCC's largest and most widespread fundraising efforts. The sale, made possible with the help of hundreds of local volunteers, is one of about 35 such fundraising events held annually in the United States and Canada that together raise more than $5 million for the organization on average each year.
"This event is an annual event that basically, we call it a celebration of generosity, because it's a celebration of community, of congregations and other community people that are interested in this relief development and peace work that MCC does," Gustafson-Zook said of the event. "The relief work is responding to natural and unnatural disasters. So, natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti. MCC works outside of the U.S. and Canada, and then we have a sister organization, the Mennonite Disaster Service, that works inside the U.S. and Canada.
"And then the peacemaking is actually one of the cores of what we do, because we recognize that if we put energy into helping people get along, so they don't get displaced, it's a much more effective way than trying to deal with it after the conflict happens," he added of the work.
While Day 1 of the two-day event kicked off at 5 p.m. Friday and included children's activities, a haystack dinner and community garage sale, the real crown jewel of the event — the annual quilt auction — started promptly at 8 a.m. Saturday featuring approximately 250 handmade quilts, comforters and wall hangings crafted and donated by area artisans.
"Quilters and churches make these quilts because they have a vision of being able to help folks around the world, and this is one way that they can raise funds without having to give funds out of their pockets," said Quilt Auction Coordinator Helen Glick. "So, we've got some wonderful quilters and artisans who have made some lovely quilts.
"We have 255 items today," she added of Saturday's auction. "I've been part of this for six years, and last year, because of COVID, the numbers were way down. But we usually average around 250."
Beyond the better sales expected this year, Glick also expressed excitement about being able to return to the in-person nature of the annual event, which she said is an important aspect of the fundraiser.
"You know, I think people are just glad to be able to finally get out and do something, because last year, we did online things, we did the auction online, and we had drive-through food sales in local parking lots, and so on," Glick said. "So, it wasn't the same experience at all."
"The community gathering of an event like this is one of the wonderful things about it," he said. "Last year we were able to actually raise quite a bit of funds moving everything online, with the quilt auction online, etc. So, it was a good year last year with the twist of COVID, but it's nothing like a gathering like this, getting to see everybody coming together. These are part reunion, part community celebration types of things, and we just really enjoy that, and celebrate that part of getting people from churches all across the political and theological spectrum together. It's a great thing."
In addition to the popular quilt sale, Saturday's offerings included an online auction, the popular My Coins Count coin donation program and multiple vendors for attendees to enjoy. Also featured Saturday was the "Run (or Walk) For Relief," a 5k run and 2k fun walk, with proceeds going to MCC relief efforts.
"I'd say we're one of the top five or so fundraisers in the country," Gustafson-Zook said of the overall event. "Over the last few years, it's been raising somewhere around $300,000 to $400,000 for MCC. I mean, I would say it's one of the bigger relief sales, because there are other fundraisers that happen, too. But this sale, we consider it a gift to the community both in terms of the community-building that happens, and also that it raises these funds for MCC."
And of course, one can't talk about the annual MCC relief sale without talking about the food — lots and lots of food. Visitors to this year's sale were treated to everything from pancakes and sausage in the morning to a baked and sweet potato bar, taco salad, pulled-pork sandwiches and homemade ice cream.
Such taste bud tempters were among the biggest draws for Ruth Lengacher of Harlan, who returned to Saturday's relief sale after about a decade's absence.
"I like the food!" Lengacher said of her favorite part of the event.
Yet for friend Velma Albrecht of New Haven, a longtime attendee of the annual gathering and sale, it's the handmade quilts that keep her coming back year after year.
"I come every year, well, except for last year of course," Albrecht said. "I love to see the quilts. I like to pick out the good ones."
John Kline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 240315. Follow John on Twitter @jkline_TGN.