February 4, 2012 10:00:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
On the day when much of the world was in a lather over social media behemoth Facebook going public, 800 people gathered for a pancake supper in Noxubee County.
As they have done for the previous 29 Februarys, Mennonites, locals and even people from nearby Columbus and Aliceville, Ala., braved the rain ("It seems to rain every time we do this," one pancake regular said.) Friday to travel to Magnolia Christian Mennonite school east of Macon for this annual fundraiser.
"This is where you meet people you haven't seen all year," said Thelma Bontranger, a bright-eyed woman of about 70, who just before 4:30 was studying a laminated recipe on a kitchen counter. Shortly thereafter Bontranger and Elmina Lee, began mixing the first of countless bowls of pancake batter.
Volunteers began filling crockpots with hamburger and sausage gravies and bowls with cream cheese, blueberry and cherry toppings. Sweet tea, ice water, hot chocolate and coffee, with and without caffeine were readied. Diners could choose between regular and whole wheat pancakes, plain or with chocolate chips or pecans. Provision was made for sausage and a station where pigs-in-a-blanket would be made.
Husbands worked with wives while beautiful blonde children played together noiselessly. Everyone performed their assigned tasks without much fuss or fanfare. A happy efficiency seemed to be the order of the day, that and the excitement that comes with the anticipation of seeing old friends.
I struck up a conversation with Miguel Martinez, whose job was to be on standby for any spills or unforeseen needs. Martinez, as one would gather from the name, was not raised in the Mennonite church. Growing up in Macon, Martinez attended Macon Central, East Mississippi Community College at Scooba and Mississippi State University.
"In college we partied a good bit," he said "I was headed down the wrong road and needed a change."
Martinez began attending Magnolia Mennonite Church where he said he was attracted to the group's "modest and plain lifestyle."
During his final semester at State, Martinez joined the church. He now works as a carpenter building playsets and playhouses in Brooksville with another Mennonite craftsman.
Near the entrance to the gym, greeters Rosetta and Daniel Petre readied themselves for the trickle of diners that would quickly swell into a stream. At the Petres' table patrons could make a donation for the pancakes, purchase one of several cookbooks and order sausage freshly made by Phillip Knepp for the night's event.
The place was soon full of animated diners; the line for pancakes stretched the length of the gym. Those who had eaten stood and talked; the older children drifted outside. As Dennis Miller had said earlier, "This is an evening of fellowship. People love to visit."
Geneva Nightengale and Marilyn Johnson, two lively women in their mid-70s, sat together. Nightengale, who started Brooksville's Ole Country Bakery 30 years ago, said she had just sold the business and is now "relaxing and taking it easy."
"Delicious," declared Nightengale of the pancakes, adding, "Most of Macon turns out for this."
The event resembled a family reunion. And, in a way, I suppose it was.
"This is better than going to any bar, about 6,000 times better," a world-wise young woman who motored down for the event from Columbus said afterward.
Before leaving I stood at one end of the gym and took in the scene. Closing my eyes, I listened to the happy hum of the room. There had been an ineffable sweetness about the evening. In almost four hours I'd not heard one harsh word, the first snippet of gossip or a raised voice. I had heard no complaints about the president or the Republicans or the state of the economy. Nobody had said anything about Facebook or bragged on the miraculous things their iPhone could do. Just family and friends together with good food.
In our overly complicated world, these good people on this rainy night made a convincing argument for their modest and plain lifestyle.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.