Alain Epp Weaver directs strategic planning for MCC. This reflection is adapted from his book, Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation: A Missiological History of Mennonite Central Committee, which was published in 2020 by Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas. (Top photo: This image was taken in the West Bank city of Hebron during an MCC learning tour in 2019. Photo/Viviane Eyer)
One way to think about MCC’s first century is to reflect on the landscapes that have shaped MCC service in the name of Christ, the places where that service has unfolded. For example, I wrote these words in MCC’s office in Akron, Pennsylvania. In recent years, MCC has opened meetings at its Akron office with a land acknowledgment, a formal act of remembering that the MCC campus sits on the traditional land of Indigenous nations. In the 1600s and 1700s, land in the area around Akron was home to the Susquehannock, Shawnee, Nanticoke, Piscataway and Lenape. Earlier, Algonquin people lived in the region. These land acknowledgments include a time of silence, a time for recollecting with sorrow the suffering of those who once had thriving villages in this land, recognizing the ongoing Indigenous presence in the land, and remembering with gratitude the care shown by Indigenous nations for the land on which MCC’s office now stands.
MCC photo/Elisabeth Kvernen
Beginning a reflection on the role of place in MCC’s 100 years of Christian service with a land acknowledgment is appropriate, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of places where MCC serves are parts of landscapes shaped by ongoing legacies of colonization.
Scripture embodies a tension about how land and place are (or are not) bound up with our faith. The temple in Jerusalem was a fixed location for the people of Israel’s worship—but before that, the ark of the covenant travelled with the people, God’s presence not tied down to a particular place, but on the move. Scripture has stories of specific places being memorialized for the great deeds God had done, as when the prophet Samuel erects a stone of help, or an Ebenezer, between Mizpah and Shen, to commemorate God’s help to the people in a victory over the Philistines (I Samuel 7). But when, in the face of Jesus’ dazzling transfiguration, Peter blurts out that they should build dwellings atop the high mountain for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, he is ignored (Luke 9:28-36). Instead, Jesus sends his disciples out into the world as a pilgrim people, to encounter God amongst the nations to which they are sent (Matthew 28:16-20).
Whatever the tension within Scripture about how place and faith are interconnected, it seems undeniable that MCC understandings of Christian service have been inextricably intertwined with specific places. MCC’s beginnings are tied up with places like the porch of the P.C. Hiebert home in Hillsboro, Kansas, where five men gathered to discuss how Mennonites in the U.S. might respond to the desperate plea for help from Mennonites in what was then southern Russia (present-day Ukraine), or Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, where a larger group gathered on July 27, 1920, and took action to create MCC. At a porch in Hillsboro and a church in Elkhart, God’s Spirit moved to forge inter-Mennonite commitment to collaborative service in Christ’s name.
The MCC vision for global service in Christ’s name may have initially coalesced in places like Hillsboro and Elkhart, but over the ensuing months, years and decades, it took concrete shape in thousands upon thousands of places and landscapes across the U.S., Canada and around the world. In landscapes scarred by war, legacies of colonialism and racism, MCC workers grappled with what it meant to serve in the name of Christ and to offer a proactive witness for peace.
MCC understandings of Christian service have been shaped in countless places:
In Huson, Montana during World War II
Men in the Civilian Public Service (CPS) unit performed an alternative to military service while also conducting work, in the words of the U.S. government, of “national importance,” serving as smoke jumpers to fight forest fires.
At the Rhode Island State Hospital for Mental Diseases
Groups of Mennonite women also worked in CPS units during the war, leaving this service convinced of the need for more humane treatment of those with mental illness.
In Backnang, Germany
Young men in MCC’s Pax program performed alternative service and built homes for 100 Mennonite refugee families following the war.
In the Ein es-Sultan camp outside Jericho
MCC workers like Geraldine Ebersole in the early 1950s set up a relief unit to provide humanitarian aid like layettes for newborns to Palestinian refugees.
In Atlanta, Georgia
Vincent and Rosemarie Harding led an MCC service unit that placed young Mennonites with civil rights organizations in the early 1960s, organizations that confronted the U.S. legacy of racism, a history that remains all-too-present and real today.
Participants in MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program (TAP) like Ron Mathies taught the future leaders of a newly independent nation emerging from the control of British imperialism.
Photo courtesy of Earl Martin
In the city of Saigon
Starting in the mid-1950s, MCC provided humanitarian assistance to the Vietnamese people and offered a witness for peace during the U.S.-led war in Vietnam. After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam in April 1975, when almost all U.S. civilians left as well, four MCC workers — Max Ediger, James Klassen, Earl Martin and Yoshihiro Ichikawa — maintained an MCC presence in the country.
In Haiti’s Artibonite Valley
MCC worker Jean-Remy Azor sought to find ways to promote community development during repressive military rule in Haiti in the 1980s, when any popular mobilization, including for agricultural development, could lead to imprisonment or even death.
MCC photo/Silas Crews
Among the displaced community members of Mampuján in Colombia
Mampuján’s former residents sought justice and compensation after a massacre in the village in 2002 led to the village’s abandonment.
Brad Leitch photo/Rebel Sky Media
On the hill known as Opwashemoe Chakatinaw, or Stoney Knoll, in Saskatchewan
MCC staff have accompanied Mennonite and Lutheran settlers over more than a decade as they have met with members of the Young Chippewayan First Nation who were forced off their land by the Canadian government, land on which the Mennonites and Lutherans then settled, discussing what justice in the land might look like.
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
And in the city of Aleppo today
MCC works with Syrian church leaders like the Presbyterian pastor Ibrahim Nseir who mobilize their congregations to reach out to help internally displaced Syrians who have fled to the city.
In these and a vast number of additional places, MCC workers have had their idealistic visions of Christian service tested and challenged, learning slowly and sometimes painfully what neighbour-love, the struggle for justice and accompaniment of the church look like in practice.
My MCC landscape
Thousands upon thousands of people across the globe have their own individual landscapes of MCC, places that have shaped their understandings of Christian service. Over the next few paragraphs, I share my own personal MCC geography, charting how specific landscapes have shaped my understanding of Anabaptists and Christian service. I do this not because my individual MCC landscapes are broadly representative or comprehensively descriptive of MCC. Quite the opposite: I share here about my personal MCC landscapes precisely because of their fragmentary, individual character, to highlight that there is not simply one story of MCC service in the name of Christ, but thousands of MCC service stories along with thousands of landscapes where MCC service has taken place and where MCC service has been shaped.
My first remembered encounter with MCC was as a child in the basement of my family’s home in Lincoln, Nebraska, playing with the musical instruments my parents had brought back with them from an MCC service term as newlyweds in the mid-1960s in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was also in this basement that my parents occasionally set up the Kodak projector to present slide shows depicting the two years they spent in the 1960s teaching Congolese high school students through MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program in a school founded by Swedish Protestant missionaries in the village of Sundi-Lutete.
Photo courtesy of Dianne Epp
These slideshows simultaneously evoked in me a nostalgia for a past I did not personally experience and provoked a restless yearning to see a very different world beyond my white, middle-class Lincoln neighbourhood, these projected images of Congolese people and landscapes nurturing a sense of service as adventure. Years later, I also wondered if these slideshows unwittingly fostered a racialized understanding of Christian service as something carried out by white Christians from the West to and for Black and Brown peoples around the globe.
A few years later in late grade school or early junior high, I stood in an exhibition hall at the county fairgrounds in Aurora, Nebraska, on the weekend of the Nebraska Mennonite Relief Sale, one of many relief sales across the U.S. and Canada that support MCC’s global efforts.
I watched my uncle successfully bid on a commemorative MCC belt buckle. I ate my fill of the pierogi-like verenike and farmer’s sausage that were the culinary staples of my father’s extended German-Russian family centred in Henderson. My father explained that the sale was operated not just by Mennonites from the General Conference Mennonite Church of my parents’ families, but also by members of the Mennonite Brethren church in Henderson and the (Old) Mennonite church in Milford. This relief sale day reinforced my ethnic and religious identity. Yet my time at the relief sale also broadened my map of the Mennonite landscape, introducing exotic new names and places for that map such as “Mennonite Brethren,” “Old Mennonite” and “Milford.” At this Nebraska MCC relief sale, service united people across divides of doctrine and practice, creating new maps of ecumenical collaboration.
Around this time, I began weekly volunteering at Helping Hands Handicrafts, a new fair-trade venture in Lincoln that sold products from MCC’s SELFHELP Crafts venture. SELFHELP Crafts had grown out of the initiative of Edna Ruth Byler in the 1950s to organize trunk shows in church basements of handicrafts from Puerto Rico and the West Bank. Helping Hands later became an MCC Ten Thousand Villages store. Unpacking and selling soapstone dishes, jute basket hangers and olive wood nativities connected me to artisans in Kenya, India and the West Bank and to a vision of service as the promotion of global trade that pays producers a fair and living wage.
MCC photo/Joe Haines
A few years later, I sat in my family’s living room, reading through a copy of the Washington Office Memo, published by MCC’s office in Washington, D.C., searching for material to use in high school debate and extemporaneous speech competitions. My mental map of MCC, Mennonites and service expanded to include public policy advocacy in the halls of government power.
Several years later, my spouse, Sonia, and I began our lives as newlyweds in an apartment above a garage in Kansas. For suppers, we cooked through the pages of the More-with-Less Cookbook, compiled by MCC worker Doris Janzen Longacre and first published by MCC and Herald Press in 1976. These culinary explorations, connecting us to thousands of households across the U.S., Canada, and beyond, were also inspired by Janzen Longacre’s vision of Christian service as bound up with domestic decisions, such as what and how to cook. It was a vision that linked Mennonite kitchens to global challenges of hunger, the just sharing of resources and care for the environment.
The More-with-Less Cookbook has now sold more than a million copies around the world over more than 40 years, arguably the most effective outreach tool Mennonites have ever produced. A decade later, my spouse encountered a group of Israeli Jewish homeschooling mothers in Jerusalem who enthusiastically sang the praises of More-with-Less.
A year after college, Sonia and I moved to the small village of Zababdeh in the north of the occupied West Bank to teach English at a Catholic school. This initial three-year MCC assignment eventually expanded into a total of 11 years of work with Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Sent by MCC to the olive-tree covered hills of the northern West Bank and the cramped cinder block homes of Gaza’s refugee camps, our MCC administrators instructed us that Christian service was less about classes to teach or reports to write, and more about presence, about sitting under our landlord’s fig tree to drink cup after cup of sage-flavoured tea and slowly learning to communicate in Arabic.
Photo courtesy of Alain Epp Weaver
Over the course of a decade drinking countless cups of tea and coffee with neighbours, co-workers, and friends in a context of military occupation, our landscape of Christian service expanded and became more complex, as we learned that Christian service as peacebuilding demanded ecumenical and interfaith collaboration as well as advocacy for unpopular causes.
Finally, a little over a decade ago, we moved to Lancaster County in southeastern Pennsylvania, where I began an administrative job with MCC at its headquarters in the quiet township of Akron. Selected as the location for MCC’s main office thanks to it being the site of the shoe factory partially owned by Orie Miller, one of MCC’s first leaders, Akron occupies a place on the Mennonite world map much, much larger than its actual size.
Over the past decade, I have welcomed long-time MCC workers and partners from countries like Nigeria, Zambia, India and Indonesia, who were coming for meetings to Akron for the first time. They often express surprise that Akron, which in some Mennonite mental landscapes functions as the Vatican of the global Mennonite world, is simply a sleepy, quiet township of a few thousand people. It's not a bustling urban center like Jos, Nigeria, or Lusaka, Zambia, but a hamlet where one awakens to the clip-clop of horses on the street pulling Amish buggies. From the vantage point of an administrator in Akron, my mapping of the MCC world produces less of the command-and-control organizational chart of a modern corporation, with Akron in the center or at the top — but more of a rhizome-like network in which MCC keeps expanding outward in increasingly complex ways from multiple nodes.
These are all parts of my highly personal MCC geography, places where my understandings of service and the church have been challenged, deepened, nurtured and expanded. What places have shaped how you understand MCC and what it means to serve in the name of Christ? Who are the people and what are the sounds, smells, sights and textures that you associate with those landscapes?
As MCC embarks on a second century of serving in the name of Christ, may thousands upon thousands more people continue discovering the meaning of Christian service within ever-changing landscapes. We invite you to share your story of the MCC landscapes that have shaped you and your commitment to Christian service.