West Knoxville's Mennonite Church Helps Third-World Artisans

Part of a Series: Scene & Heard: Holiday Edition '09

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: North, South, East, and West

What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. And while they may exist far apart, sometimes in very different circumstances, these places collectively make up the Knoxville experience. In this second edition of our ongoing series, we visit different parts of Knoxville to simply record what we see, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

WEST: Concord Mennonite Church Craft Sale

Modest, a single story of clean white clapboard, a simple cross over the door, the Concord Mennonite Church stands out like a beacon.

It's way far west Knoxville, on Dutchtown off of 40W, just past billboards for the Katch One Lounge and Krystal. Take a right on exit 374, away from Turkey Creek and towards the Adult Superstore, and a hand-lettered sign points to "Craft Sale." But first there's the turn at the eight-pump Pilot Travel Center, and a one-block drive past three lots of scrub and a fenced-in warehouse, Advanced Drainage Systems, with its coil upon coil of giant black tubing out front.

Next to that is the church's tiny graveyard, some of the headstones more than a century old, with an iron rail fence. Pleasant, tidy, just like the short stairway leading to its basement entrance from the 20-car parking lot. The single door eases open to reveal a white-bearded man at a table, and a vibrant, sensory display of wares from around the world. He smiles and nods, gesturing to the tables with handmade reed baskets, the room of woven goods from Guatemala with bronze-faced bead Santa ornaments strung from the wall. Towards the back, a smiling boy and an earnest, red-bearded young man who looks almost like a young Amish farmer (only in a T-shirt) play a game with five dice, keeping score on notebook paper, as they preside over fried pies and pumpkin bread. This is the basis of the "Craft Sale," which CMC holds each November in association with the nonprofit Ten Thousand Villages. They bring handcrafted items made by third-world artisans to North American markets; all proceeds go to providing a fair income to the artisans, many of them women, in bare-sustenance countries.

"Look around if you like," says the man. There is just one customer right now, me, though the sign-up sheet for the sale and church newsletter indicates there have been others. Yet the people in the room are at ease; a woman in a purple woven cap and flowing purple pants and tunic chats comfortably with a bearded man about the lures of the Laurel Theater and its dancing groups as they sit on a long wooden pew. "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme," a woodwind, instrumental-only version plays softly in the background; another woman with a soft cap of gray hair, with corduroy slacks and glasses, talks to the desk worker about goat cheese. "I'm talking raw goat cheese, you can get it at Earth Fare..." she trails off.

The More-With-Less Cookbook: Suggestions By Mennonites on How to Eat Better and Consume Less of the World's Limited Food Resources is for sale. It is carefully opened to a pumpkin bread recipe, presumably the same used for the mini-loaves in aluminum pans, $2.50 each. On adjoining tables there are more items artfully arranged, works of art and craft, small windows on a less-privileged, but still creative and talented, hard-working world. Tiny knit animal fingers puppets are from Peru, giraffes, mice, sheep. It's just happenstance that there are two of each, except the spotted dog—not an Ark, but sold singly for $4. Next to them are cloth dolls, with a sign urging browsers to "give twice. Every doll purchased, one is given to a child from an AIDS/HIV family in Zimbabwe."

On the walls above the puppets are paper placards, each with a photograph of Mennonites who have gone to "serve as church planters," in Thailand, says one, in rural North Carolina, says another. Each "planter," or, in one case, smiling family of planters, request prayers. The way it works is explained by a middle-aged woman with short, wavy hair, wearing jeans and a dark, long-sleeved shirt. Mennonites are not required to do missionary work, she explains, but rather might feel a call to a certain area to help; they and the church try to make that calling possible. She's here in Knoxville visiting her daughter, and is entranced by the tiny church, built in 1889. "It was just a wide open space, farmland back then," she says, and pleasantly takes her leave.

According to its website, which also has a simple, understated design, the Concord Mennonite Church holds as its mission to, "be a community bound together by faith in Jesus Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit; bringing the Good News (freedom, liberty, and the Gospel) to the oppressed, afflicted, and poor; caring and loving to all people; willing to take risks while remaining true to our beliefs and heritage; with an obvious devotion to God and His purposes."

On its wall, the church adds these thoughts, encapsulated on two posters: "May peace prevail on earth," and "There is no justice in war."

At checkout, I strike up a conversation with the goat-cheese woman, Tayna Baysinger. She laughs at the idea that Mennonite women would be wearing dresses and little net caps. "We've changed a lot over the years," she says with a smile.

She gives another smile when asked whether all local Mennonites are born into the faith. "I wasn't," she says simply, then adds, "We've been here more than 100 years, so a lot are." Then she moves off to check a price on the Guatemalan aprons, spread out in a separate room along with colorful woven placemats, woven scarves, small round mirrors rimmed with handmade, 1-inch, "worry" dolls, and a black woven jacket with Nehru collar. She loves aprons, she says, but you can have too many. "I keep mine along pegs on the back of my pantry door. I only really need one when I'm opening a pomegranate."

This is Saturday, the second day of the sale. Friday's sales totalled about $500—not so good, at least not for her, explains the woman in the purple cap, who turns out to represent MayaWorks, an outlet for Mayan products that focuses on fair income and the economic development of women who otherwise have limited ways to provide for their families. "Probably people were working," says Baysinger sympathetically.

"This Guy's In Love With You," is playing, Herb Alpert version, but you can't hear it any more when the door to the parking lot closes. To the left, a banner next to a green-roofed, tan-walled monstrosity proclaims, "Truckers Welcome." On closer inspection, its signage says, GuestHouse International Inn & Suites.

The same three lots of brown and lemon green scrub are there on the drive out. But this time, in the middle of the first one, there's purple chicory blooming.