Header photo: Volunteers from local churches work together to can meat at the MCC Material Resources Center in North Newton, Kansas, in November 2020. (MCC photo/Heidi Huber)
As the costs of COVID-19 began to mount across the globe, Syrians were already grappling with a multilayered crisis.
Families had lost homes, businesses, savings and belongings over years of armed conflict. Many had fled home, some forced to relocate more than once. Food prices had soared—as much as seven times higher than before the conflict, according to one 2019 estimate.
Then, 2020 brought not only the looming health and economic costs of COVID-19 but also more than 2,400 wildfires, engulfing thousands of acres of agricultural and forest land across northwestern Syria. More than 2 million fruit trees, most of them olive trees, were lost. For more than a decade, MCC supplies have met urgent needs and offered a message of caring for Syrian families. In November 2020, MCC canned chicken was an especially welcome gift.
“We couldn’t buy chicken for a whole year, and eating it has become a dream for me, my husband and our children,” one mother in Homs shared with staff of MCC’s partner Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC).
Families, whose names aren’t used for security reasons, struggle daily. Some lost olive trees in the recent fires. Others have little safety net left after years of war and are grappling to make ends meet, a task more urgent as food prices rise.
Since 1946, volunteers have gathered to can meat through MCC’s mobile cannery, meat that MCC sends to hungry people across the globe.
But as the 2020-2021 canning season approached, John Hillegass, then-MCC canning manager, and others active in MCC meat canning faced an unprecedented set of challenges.
Health concerns and an ever-changing patchwork of COVID-19 shutdowns and regulations, plus supply chain interruptions and rising meat costs, added to the already complex logistics of operating a mobile cannery.
"Somebody said the theme for the year was, ‘Blessed are the flexible.’ That pretty much sums it up.”
In any year, producing more than 600,000 cans, or nearly 1 million pounds, of meat with primarily volunteer labor is an act of devotion.
Months before a single can is filled, canning committees are at work—raising the tens of thousands of dollars needed to buy meat and support the cost of canning it. When the mobile cannery arrives, the work turns into a dawn-to-dark operation—beginning as early as 5 in the morning and lasting until 8 p.m. or later.
COVID-19 brought new questions that often couldn’t be answered far in advance. Would meat be available? Could volunteers continue to gather, even if they spread out and worked at a distance from each other?
MCC photo/Heidi Huber
Some canning sites didn’t have the room to space out volunteers. And some of those who did—Cumberland Valley Relief Center, an MCC activity center in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and the MCC Central States Material Resources Center in North Newton, Kansas—ended up hosting three weeks of canning each. Volunteers traveled from surrounding communities, and sometimes surrounding states, to make sure canning could continue.
In Chambersburg, even before it was clear that canning could happen, the local churches that take up offerings for the effort each year were making donations, says Diane Brockman, director of the Cumberland Valley Relief Center.
“I think in a year when we could do so little, everybody was happy to rally around something positive we could help with,” she says.
The tradition of canning meat for MCC is woven into the fabric of this region. The canning committee, in fact, raised funds to build the activity center, which opened in 2003, because members were eager for a dedicated space for MCC meat canning, Brockman says.This year, knowing that their facility had space to spread volunteers out where many did not, canning committee members committed to moving forward despite uncertainties
“I think in a year when we could do so little, everybody was happy to rally around something positive we could help with.”
“The final response from everybody was, ‘We will do whatever we can to can meat this year. People need the meat. We’re doing it in the name of Christ,’” she recalls. “We just thought we’d dig our heels in and keep going.”
In the end, the 2020-2021 canning season yielded some 320,000 cans, or 480,000 pounds, of meat. It’s about half of the total produced in a normal year, but given the restrictions, Hillegass was delighted.
“It really exemplifies coming together. Together we can,” Hillegass says, echoing a canning slogan embraced by volunteers and canners.
“We were making decisions at the last minute. It really took everybody having a lot of grace and understanding. Not just the volunteers. But the meat suppliers, the can suppliers.
“Somebody said the theme for the year was, ‘Blessed are the flexible.’ That pretty much sums it up,” he says.
MCC photo/Heidi Huber
“Even looking back on it, it’s almost hard to believe we were able to bring all of these different things together and make it work. That’s the miracle. We see God working in these amazing ways and doing things we couldn’t do ourselves.”
Hillegass, who served on the canning crew from 2004 to 2007 and then as MCC canning and trucking manager from 2010 through June 2021, has seen firsthand the difference that canned meat can make—whether in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake or in Puerto Rican communities reeling from the toll of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
And today, families in places from Ukraine to Syria continue to share just how much MCC canned meat has touched their lives.
In Tartous, a city on the coast of Syria, a father of six tells how his family fled from rocket fire in Aleppo. Uprooted from home, he struggled to earn enough to support his family and eventually took two daughters out of school so they could work.
“Our goal is to get bread, basic materials and some beans,” he says, “but regarding meat or chicken and fish, my children forgot their taste a long time ago, and they became pictures that they only see on restaurant signs.”
His eyes fill with tears as he meets with FMEEC staff.
“Thank you from the depth of the heart for giving us the cans of cooked chicken,” he says. “We have been able to cook them in many ways, you have brought joy to the hearts of children.... Look at them, how happy they are!”
Marla Pierson Lester is managing editor of A Common Place magazine.
Together we can! MCC is seeking a canning manager and canners. Learn more at mcc.org/canning