Avant bids a fond farewell to Bill and Betty Mast

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

AVANT -- When you're advocating for the well-being of a low-income community of about 300 people, many of them elderly, sympathy doesn't go very far. You need someone willing to take action.

Just ask Nona Roach of Avant, who persistently works to address the needs of her hometown. Ask her what Bill Mast of the Mennonite Disaster Service has meant to Avant since he began working there in August 2019 to address damage to the local housing stock caused by May 2019 flooding.

The flooding, which was severe and made it necessary for some residents to evacuate by boat, has been described as a 500-year flood.

"He's just shown the hands and feet of God," Roach said.

So many people will tell you to call on them if you need help, but she said Bill Mast gets directly involved. "He gets in there and does it."

"When I grow up, I think I'll be a Mennonite," Roach says with a smile. The remark is playful on the surface, but there's a point.

Sunday, about 14 months after he arrived, Mast and his wife, Betty, bade farewell to Avant. Local residents planned a going-away event for them, complete with prayers, gifts and prepared food.

For Bill Mast, the Avant project has turned out to be much more extended and much different than he anticipated.

Mast arrived in August 2019 to spend eight weeks and train a team of volunteers. He and others repaired a damaged Avant house known as "the Teacherage" that belonged to the local public school and had served as a home for the superintendent. Flooding rendered it uninhabitable.

The Mennonite Disaster Service, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania, agreed with the school to renovate the Teacherage in return for being able to use it as a rent-free base of operations, and the MDS planned to hold an eight-week training operation in Avant to prepare volunteers for leadership roles in construction projects elsewhere.

The Mennonite Disaster Service is a volunteer network of Anabaptist Churches that acts on the basis of the principle of Christian love.

"It was supposed to be an eight-week training program," Mast recalled Sunday. He explained that he was to train volunteers, and the idea was for them to build a house. Funding for the house project lagged, so Mast led the volunteers in handling other projects in the Avant community.

The house project was eventually tackled, as well. Then the virus shut things down. Since resuming work in Avant, Mast has found himself in a new role -- that of teaching and leading local homeowners as they respond to their housing problems. He said he had never previously worked in a location where so many residents became directly involved.

Roach, who noted in August 2019 that the school had no money with which to pay someone to renovate the Teacherage, explained that Mast ended up providing assistance to people throughout the community.

"Everywhere. Anybody who needed anything," Roach said of the scope of Bill Mast's activity in Avant.

She said Mast explained this was the first time he had been engaged in a disaster relief ministry activity that put him right in the middle of a community, so that he became part of that community. He regularly attended services at local churches -- the Baptist, the Methodist and the Avant House of Prayer. There were also six weeks or so when he was unable to provide any assistance because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Immediately after the 11 a.m. worship hour Sunday, Avant residents brought food to the Teacherage to feed Bill and Betty, as well as the guests they would likely have throughout the afternoon, as folks dropped by to wish them well. There were also parting gifts and prayers.

"For all that they have poured out, we pray you would pour back unto them," Methodist pastor Shelli Pleasant said, in part, as she prayed for Bill and Betty.

Mast described his experience in Avant as "a wild ride." He said that he felt at times as though he was on the rear of a tandem bicycle and God was on the front, taking him in unexpected directions and telling him to "shut up and pedal." Upon departing Avant, Bill and Betty were bound home to the Midwest City area.

Roach said it is hoped a new nonprofit foundation that has been established in Avant will be able to address some of the housing needs in the area.