When Kevin King answered the phone in Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) constituency ministries department one day in the early ‘90s, he heard a surprising pronouncement.
“We’re the Thomas brothers, and we want to give our farm to the Mennonites,” King recalled hearing. “I just about fell off my chair.”
When King asked Art and Kermit Thomas how they chose to donate their farm to MCC, they cited the disaster recovery work carried out by Mennonites in Johnstown, Pa., two decades earlier.
In the wake of a devastating storm in the 1970s, the brothers saw volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) clearing river banks and cleaning strangers’ flooded homes.
At the time, MDS was a department within MCC. Today, the two organizations are separate entities. MDS organizes disaster response in Canada and the U.S., while MCC organizes international disaster responses. The organizations work together to determine how each can help the other in responding.
The Thomas brothers told King that, while watching the recovery effort, they had seen a volunteer suffer a minor injury, seek medical attention and return to work.
“They said they looked at each other and decided someday they were going to give their farm to the Mennonites,” said King, who is now executive director of MDS.
Under the leadership of Pennsylvania Relief Sale board chair Al Carr, board members of the sale, who plan several annual events benefiting MCC, pledged to help maintain the brothers’ Ebensburg, Pa., farm on MCC’s behalf.
Mike Martin and his spouse Kim lived on the farm as MCC service workers from 1996 to 1998. They helped to maintain the property and care for the farm’s animals.
Martin recalled that the brothers wished their farm to remain operational after they could no longer work. Because of many Mennonite communities’ historic ties to agriculture, “I think they saw Mennonites as a natural fit to help continue farming,” he said.
Not long after the Martins left the farm, Art Thomas moved into a nursing home. He died in 2003.
Between 1999 and 2012, Pennsylvania Relief Sale board member Amos Sensenig made the 184-mile trip from his home in Lancaster County, Pa., to the farm at least once each month. He helped to maintain the farm and manage the brothers’ relationship with MCC.
“The Lord blessed me,” said Sensenig, recalling his service on the farm. “That was where I wanted to be.”
When Kermit Thomas died in 2012, Pennsylvania Relief Sale board members prepared the property to be sold. The following summer, a group of 45 Amish youth from Lancaster County joined board members for a work day on the farm.
In the fall of 2013, the farm sold for $525,000 at a public auction.
The Pennsylvania Relief Sale board, under the leadership of board chair Ken Martin, decided to honor the spirit of the brothers’ gift by donating the sale’s proceeds to both MCC and MDS.
In keeping with the brothers’ wishes, the buyer will continue to farm the land.
“The gift of the Thomas farm provides a tremendous blessing to the ministries of MCC and MDS,” said Ken Sensenig, MCC East Coast assistant executive director. “The Pennsylvania Relief Sale board made this gift possible by reciprocating the brothers’ generosity and caring for the farm for many years. People around the world who never knew these generous brothers will benefit from their gift.”