In an unusual act of generosity toward myself, I took the night off Sunday to go hear a concert in Porterville. A friend from the handbell choir at First United Methodist Church there sings in the West Coast Mennonite Men’s Chorus, and they were performing at the Nazarene Church across town. I’d had a relatively productive week and felt I deserved a little vacation.

The concert was magnificent in some very old-fashioned, honest American way. More than 90 men stood and sang on risers, most of them as white-haired as they were white-skinned. A fifteen-piece brass band plus concert piano accompanied them on almost 20 songs beautifully arranged for men’s voices. Two interludes were performed by a young, exciting string quartet from Fresno, a family of three brothers and one wife with the last name Nguyen. All of it was volunteer.

Over half of the men singing are from small towns in this column’s readership. Two-thirds of them live in the watersheds of the Kings and Kaweah Rivers; three-quarters live in this valley. The director, Randy Janzen, grew up in Enid, Okla. and has served the Mennonite Brethren churches in Visalia and Reedley. To say that this is a home-grown performing group would not be wrong.

But to miss the connection with the wider Mennonite movement would be. The primary goal of these free concerts given by volunteers is to raise money for another Mennonite volunteer group, the Mennonite Disaster Service. Funds given to MDS pay to feed, house and insure volunteers called to help people recover from disasters who can’t help themselves. One story told during the intermission was from relief efforts after the Paradise fire, where they have built 11 homes for people who had no other way to resettle there. MDS also rebuilt some homes destroyed by the Lake fire. One sweet note in photos from both communities was the gift of handmade quilts crafted by Mennonite women in Reedley, draped across beds in the new homes. MDS is currently investigating how they might help in flooded communities in central California. 

As the concert unfolded, I was struck by the beauty of the intent. In this era when open-ended church choirs, where anyone can sing who can carry a tune (and even some who can’t) have been replaced by praise bands, in which a small handful of people provide all the music while the rest of the congregation is supposed to just follow along—in this era, opportunities to sing have shrunken, a terrible waste of voices and hearts. The same can be said of brass and woodwind instrumentalists, even players of piano and organ. Yet here were over 100 musicians having the chance to give their gifts in four separate venues: Fresno, Reedley, Porterville and Arroyo Grande (April 30.) Myself, as a low alto and retired flute player, I felt the joy of their participation in my bones. I felt grateful for their chance to make music, wonderful music.

But the next day another realization arrived: that this double-edged ploughshare (not sword) is perfect evidence of the truth that real community development is trickle-up, not trickle down. Back in the 1980s, when I first began telling the story of the Arvin-Dinuba study, which examined and documented the more productive results of small-scale, operator-owned farms on the communities they surround, people naturally questioned whether there might be other explanations. One of them was that Dinuba, the more prosperous town, had Mennonites there. I had not yet met any Mennonites, so I asked why that would make a difference. The only answer I remember was that, well, Mennonites were “clean,” perhaps “industrious.”

Although I received that answer as vaguely, inversely racist (i.e., were the people of Arvin not clean and industrious?) I see now what difference it might make to “have Mennonites.” It’s what they do with their wealth, their value of community over individual gain. It’s understanding that we’re all members of each other, and that we all have something to offer in solving the problems of the world. 

I thank them for inviting the rest of us to join in, as both recipients of their generous music offering and as contributors. May all the men in that chorus sing until their voices give out. 

Visit to learn more about the choir and MDS relief efforts. Trudy Wischemann can be reached at P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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