by Mary Mello
MONTPELIER — Pop quiz: “MS” is the abbreviation for which state? If you answered Minnesota, you’re only about 1,000 miles off.
Missouri? Wrong, again. “MS” belongs to Mississippi, a region so unfamiliar to most Vermonters that the Petal, MS, sign on the bus parked outside the Union Elementary School in Montpelier arouses curiosity. Inside the school, five men are conferring in soft southern accents as they mull over the best way to put up shelves for the the school’s art teacher. They’re members of a group we call the “church people,” and, unlike most visitors to our area, they’re not here to see Ben and Jerry’s or take selfies in front of the statehouse.
Every summer they arrive at the front door of Union Elementary School, ready to clean, saw or hammer, whatever the maintenance crew at our almost 80-year-old school needs. But they arrive when most staff members, like myself, have taken down the posters, put away the books and filed the last report card. We don’t know too much about this group aside from the fact that they sport blue T-shirts and tend to smile a lot even while washing baseboards or restoring the battered wall in the gym.
Who are the church people and how did they end up in Montpelier, Vermont, almost 1,500 miles from home?
Their journey began in 2014, when Austin and Ashlea Smith arrived here with their young family to start a church in Montpelier. In the tradition of their church, they were offered help from established churches back home, including the one in Petal, Mississippi, where Austin had family. Teams were ready to travel north to assist with building and fixing — whatever the new church needed. The Smiths, however, had a daughter at Union Elementary School and wanted to support their new community. They met with principal Chris Hennessey and head custodian, Todd Keller, offering help.
And help was needed. Cleaning an elementary school isn’t quite the same as cleaning the offices at Morgan Stanley. In spite of the best intentions, milk gets spilled, paint is spattered and play sand is scattered. After the last child has burst through the doors of school yelling summer goodbyes to teachers and friends, Keller and his crew are left with a mountain of work.
Enter the church people. “They didn’t know quite what to make of us at first,” says church member James Farley. He and his friends decided to cook up a batch of jambalaya for the custodial staff. The shared luncheon eased some of the strangeness and the group from Petal is now welcomed back every year. The faces change from time to time, but the willingness to work doesn’t. They paint, clean and repair classrooms and halls, any space that needs their attention. Sometimes they work at Union Elementary School, sometimes at other Montpelier schools. Keller is full of praise for the group, “I have never had the opportunity to work for such an unselfish, hardworking group in my life,” said Keller, who is no stranger to hard work himself. He seems to enjoy the sociability of the group as much as their help. After the jambalaya meal the first year, there were barbecues and other special lunches whenever they came.
Why have they come back every year since 2014? “We’ve been blessed,” says Jim Bridges, “and we want to give back.” The group members are longtime friends as members of the Harvey Church in Petal, but Jim adds, “We get to know each other better on the trip up. We have a great time seeing other parts of the country.” And then there’s the Vermont weather. “You think 85 degrees is tough,” he laughs. “We think that’s a real nice day.”
He credits his British-born wife, Rosemary, with prodding him toward getting out and meeting people. “It’s rewarding to help,” he adds. Rosemary met and married Jim when he was stationed in England as a member of the Air Force. She remembers her arrival in Mississippi. “I had always lived in London. It was like landing on another planet.” “But now,” she gestures toward the group working in the next room, “I have my friends. They’ve been my friends for decades.”
Corey Smith is a claims adjuster back home, but he jumped right into putting together a classroom bookcase. “I enjoy the sense of accomplishment,” he says. “I like getting out and doing things; seeing something through from start to finish.”
He enjoys Vermont, too. “No billboards. I wish other states would pass laws like that. You do have Walmart, but I just look the other way when I see one of them.”
Jan Erwin is a retired schoolteacher and the wife of church member David Erwin. When I ask which of the Davids this is (there are at least two), she shouts across the room, “David, stand up and let the lady see who you are!” David rises and makes semaphore-like gestures with his hands. The room erupts in laughter.
But this outgoing southern lady admits to being fearful the first time she arrived. “I thought that when people saw our bus with the Mississippi sign on it, they would start thinking about stereotypes of what they thought people from Mississippi would be like.” She adds that she, too, had her own preconceived ideas. “You hear that people from this area might be a little … aloof, but I’ve found them to be very friendly.”
If the church people are positive about Vermont, they are definitely proud of their home. They speak of the strong sense of community and the fact that Petal has a high property tax rate, an expense that reflects their feelings about the importance of education.
Why the name “Petal?” Everyone in the group seems to know the story of the town’s name. In 1903, Petal was newly incorporated but still unnamed. The postmaster’s infant daughter died suddenly of diphtheria and, at the mother’s request, the town was named after the little girl. It is now the only city or town named Petal in the United States.
Petal, like its namesake, has known tragedy. In 2005, Katrina slammed through the area. Corey Smith remembers, “In some places it was as if a giant hand moved in and pushed everything aside. People across the country traveled south to help.” I don’t think there was a state that didn’t send volunteers. Do people in Petal feel themselves more strongly drawn to community service because of Katrina? “I’m sure of it,” says Corey. “When people come to help you, you have to do the same.”
So they do. Thanks to the organizing efforts of Austin and Ashlea, other churches have offered help to schools in Montpelier, but the church from Petal has made it a ritual. They speak of the joy of giving and the joy of getting to know other parts of the country.
What if we all had this opportunity, at least once in our lives? What if we all could travel with a group of friends to places we’ve never been; to get to know the people a little better, maybe to get to know each other a little better; to offer help, not in a patronizing way, but more like a neighbor who lends a lawn mower, knowing the favor can be repaid? In 2017, when there seems to be so little understanding among us and even less willingness to understand, it’s a comforting image.
“I know there are differences,” says Jim Bridges, with a shrug, “But people are people, no matter where you go.”