Mennonites keeping faith in the bayou country

Reaching out to younger members

It was “with a small beginning and lots of faith” when Chester Wenger started the Des Allemands Mennonite Church in 1918 and it’s still running on faith 80 years later.Member Billie Jo Warren calls it “a small church with a big heart,” but she worries about its future because people don’t really know who they are in St. Charles Parish.

“I’m scared that if we don’t start growing, eventually the church will be gone,” she said. “Once we do have people come visit, they fall in love with being here.”

Mennonites are Anabaptists or “re-baptisers” that belong to the Christian group named after Menno Simons of Friesland, a province of the Netherlands.

“Mennonites are about peace loving people who are giving, caring and helping and loving,” said Pastor Butch Clay. They are from the same branch as the Amish, but he added, “We’re the ones with electricity. We’re more modern than the Amish are, but we’re like our cousins … family oriented as ‘the body of Christ church.’ We’re all one big family.”

Even so, the church’s numbers have declined beset by the societal changes sending many churches to outreach.

Clay said attendance peaked at about 175 in the past, but the number has come down to about 80 members and holding.

“We’re an older congregation,” Clay said. “As people have been passing away it’s been coming down. People are moving and younger teens moving on at college age so it’s been challenging to sustain our number.”

Member Herman Cortez  agreed the church needs younger members.

“We’re in our 70s getting close to our 80s,” Cortez said. “We’re established here and we want to keep going.”

Clay also agrees with Warren that some people have little understanding of their religion.

“Anytime anybody asks what church you go to, they treat it like a cult because no one has heard of Mennonites,” he said. “They just never heard of it.”

Even so, the church on Old Spanish Trail keeps its doors open to the community, especially fishermen who don’t have a “church home,” he said. When they need a place for a funeral or wedding, they call on the Mennonites.

“I love all the people there and I know them,” he said. “We get along well and we all love the Lord. We just celebrate when we get together … laugh together … cry together.”

Their church was built in 1977 from much of the Mennonites’ original church that was built in 1937. Clay said he and his wife, Charlene, a native of Des Allemands, were among the last couples married in the old church.

A native of Los Angeles, Calif., Clay has been a church member for 40 years and was chosen by the members as the pastor six years ago. He, like the church’s founders, believes the church’s future is in the hands of God.

“The future of the church is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the community and be there when we’re needed,” he said. “I just hope people can say that we help anyone who needs help.”

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