Top photo: Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator at MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office, prepares signs in advance of the Walk for Reconciliation on May 31, 2015, in connection with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa, Ontario. MCC photo/Alison Ralph (2015)
For many Canadians connected with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Esther Epp-Tiessen is a name strongly associated with the work of advocacy and peace. As part of the 100 Stories collection, she looks back at her time with MCC and reflects on her legacy as a peacebuilder and champion for those whose voices were silenced or otherwise ignored.
Epp-Tiessen’s first role with MCC was as the MCC representative for the Philippines, with her husband Dan Epp-Tiessen, from 1982–86. Then from 1992–98, she worked at MCC Ontario in women's concerns as well as peace and social concerns. Following that, she became MCC Canada’s peace program coordinator for a decade, before her final five years saw her as the MCC Ottawa Office’s public engagement coordinator. She retired from MCC in 2018.
You're quite known within MCC as a big name in the field of advocacy, is that fair to say?
That has certainly been my passion. Depending on how you define advocacy, much of my work in peace and social concerns in Ontario and the peace program with MCC Canada was directed toward constituents. It was trying to nurture a commitment to peace theology and peace action within the churches. I was advocating to the churches, not so much advocating to the government as we often understand it within MCC, but I would see that as advocacy in the broader sense. “Advocacy for peace and justice” is certainly how I would describe a lot of my work with MCC over the years.
You recently wrote in MCC’s Intersections publication about how within MCC it hasn’t always been clear whether advocacy is "to" the churches or "on behalf of" the churches. Can you speak more to that uncertainty?
When MCC Canada was created, I understood that peace and social concerns was a significant part of the work of MCC in Canada. And yet, it couldn't be assumed that the churches that supported MCC were necessarily on board with that kind of work. So, a big portion of the work of the peace program in those early decades was trying to nurture understandings of and commitments to peace within the churches. A number of the people who were my predecessors in the role talked to me about the importance of that work. Travelling, speaking in churches, doing workshops, providing resources that would encourage deeper understandings of and commitments to peace within the churches.
That was a big part of the work, even while MCC was doing peace work in its ministry, in its work internationally and its work domestically. But there was always that dynamic—is the peace program work something we do for the churches? Or is it something that we encourage within the churches? And my feeling was that you need to do both. You need to do both to have integrity, and you need to do both to be effective. It's an ongoing dynamic that I encountered in my years with MCC.
Why is advocacy something you've pursued so intentionally?
It was modelled in my family. My parents were big on these kinds of issues. I'm getting on in years, so I remember the Vietnam War, and I remember the protests against U.S. involvement in the war through the '60s and many of those protests also happened in Canada, and I remember my parents taking me to some of those. That was very formative.
I also remember our family taking in a number of U.S. draft dodgers who had come to Canada seeking asylum as it were. Because they opposed the war and yet would have to serve otherwise if they stayed in the U.S. I remember taking them into our home and that was, for a young person, pretty profound—hearing their stories of why they couldn't participate in the war or some of them who had already done a term of service but who had then gone AWOL [absent without leave]. So it was shaped by my family growing up, the idea that you try to prevent wars or stop wars at a systems level.
My first term with MCC in the Philippines was also really significant. It was the mid-‘80s and the reality was that the economic system was structured so as to benefit a small, local elite and also foreign land owners and foreign corporations. We noticed in the province where we lived that less and less food was being grown by small farmers and more and more of the land was being taken over by corporations. Dole and Del Monte, two large multinational [companies] had huge tracts of land, and the best land, growing pineapples for export. And in our province, so many of the small farmers, the ones who are actually producing food for the people, were growing food on a hillside where the rains come along and wash away all the topsoil and so on.
It was a situation of tremendous disparity, of wealth and inequity, and it was a system that was being held in place by massive U.S. military aid. This was the era of Ferdinand Marcos and there was massive U.S. military aid to keep him and to keep this economic system in place. And it was also a reality that international agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were saying to the Philippines, “Yes we'll give you loans, but in order for you to receive loans to help your economic situation, you have to cut back on what you're spending on education and healthcare and social services. You need to cut back on those things and you need to export more food and more products.”
"Teach a person to fish and you feed her for a lifetime. But what Filipinos were saying was actually, we know how to fish, the problem is that we don't have access to the sea. In a metaphorical sense, they were saying it's not that we don't have the smarts and the know-how, we do know, but we need help in dismantling the systems that keep us oppressed."
– Esther Epp-Tiessen
The advice the Philippines was getting was exactly not what the poor needed, it was increasing the disparity of wealth, increasing the inequity. So as we were getting ready to come home after our four years, we asked our friends what we should do. They said you go home, and you work for justice. You go home and you help to end this kind of madness—what was called the structural adjustment system that just inflicts tremendous economic suffering on the poor around the world.
So that experience was really, really profound. Understanding the suffering of people was rooted in these international systems—yes there were local factors of course—that ensured that the poor continued to be poor and the rich continued to be rich. That experience and the counsel of our friends and our partners as we returned home was also something that really convicted me of the importance of advocacy. And we used to hear this proverb that went around in those days: give a person a fish and you feed her for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed her for a lifetime. But what Filipinos were saying was actually, we know how to fish, the problem is that we don't have access to the sea. In a metaphorical sense, they were saying it's not that we don't have the smarts and the know-how, we do know, but we need help in dismantling the systems that keep us oppressed.
Are there aspects of your faith that have informed your passion for advocacy?
Well sure, I'm a follower of Jesus. I try to live according to the way of Jesus. Jesus said blessed are those who hunger for justice, they will be filled in the Beatitudes. In that sense, he's likely referring to victims of injustice, people who have experienced injustice directly and who long for justice [to be served]. But I believe it also speaks to people whose hearts break for the victim and who act to help make justice happen, so I believe it's also “blessed are those who advocate for justice.”
Jesus tells the story of the persistent widow, who's been the victim of injustice, and she goes to this unjust judge over and over and over again until he finally relents and grants her justice. The fact that he tells the story of this widow, I think, is a very profound example of how he sees advocacy taking place and how that is something that followers of Jesus do. The Bible is full of stories of people who were advocates. Moses, the prophets, Esther, there's so many biblical examples of people who were advocates, I think it’s part of what we do as Christians. Sometimes we give, sometimes we offer the handout, but a lot of times I think we get involved in doing the challenging and long-haul work of advocacy for justice.
"I think to have real integrity, your advocacy is rooted in a relationship with real people and it arises out of that. You listen to the people; you listen very carefully and you seek to strengthen their voice and support their voice for change."
– Esther Epp-Tiessen
What does a biblical peace theology look like to you?
Oh, man. That's like asking me to give you a book. I think it’s a commitment to act non-violently in all situations. I think—and obviously you can understand violence and non-violence in many ways—I think traditionally, a huge marker for Anabaptists has been ”Do we go to war or do we not go to war?” Our tradition and many of our church confessions continue to say that we do not go to war. But that has not been tested for decades. Here in Canada we have not had a draft since the Second World War and we know that even when there was a draft in the Second World War, many Mennonites did actually enlist in the military, in military service, rather than choosing to be conscientious objectors, which was an option for them.
So that commitment to not go to war has not been tested for decades and I wonder what would happen if Canada were to go to war and were to implement a draft—Canada was at war in Afghanistan for over 10 years, there was no draft. Many served, many volunteered, but there was no draft, so again it wasn't really something we really had to grapple with. I wonder about that. I wonder what would be the situation. I have a sense that many Mennonites would sign up, they would go. I don't know that we're particularly strong on our peace theology anymore. I worry about that.
But at the same time, certainly, peacemaking is much more than refusing to go to war. It's much broader than that and there's many opportunities to be peacemakers and doers of justice now. Certainly the whole area of Indigenous-settler relations is a huge one, I think it's one of the biggest challenges for Canadians right now and I think for Canadian Mennonites, for Canadian Anabaptists, we really need to be grappling with how are we people of peace and reconciliation in the context of Indigenous-settler relations today. And when I say peace, I want you to understand that I don't mean peace where everything's nice and harmonious. I think sometimes peacemaking requires conflict, it requires us to deal with conflict, to face conflict, to confront conflict, but to do so non-violently. I think sometimes the word “peace” is used in a way that conveys just the idea of being nice and that's not what I mean.
"I think sometimes peacemaking requires conflict, it requires us to deal with conflict, to face conflict, to confront conflict, but to do so non-violently. I think sometimes the word 'peace' is used in a way that conveys just the idea of being nice and that's not what I mean."
– Esther Epp-Tiessen
What was the first cause you took up that you saw as your own?
Certainly coming home from the Philippines, we felt really convicted to speak out against the structural adjustment policies that were being imposed on countries like the Philippines by international aid agencies. We wrote to our members of Parliament, we did some media interviews, we got on board some international campaigns that were highlighting structural adjustment, we supported the Jubilee Initiative of 2000—that was something that I got quite involved in. And one of the big pushes of the Jubilee Initiative was to cancel the debt of most impoverished countries with the recognition that debts meant more loans, but loans imposed more debts and it was just a vicious cycle that was driving many countries into a great abyss. I was quite involved with that.
Another thing was, in 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq and there was a lot of pressure on Canada to join in. The U.S. really wanted Canada to join this coalition. I was working for MCC at the time, and we did a lot of work to urge the Canadian government to not get involved in that war. We provided letters to constituents, we sent out a public letter that people from churches could sign onto and sent it to the prime minister urging him not to take action, not to join the war. There were several thousand of our constituents across the country that signed onto that public letter. We joined with other organizations and we put a large ad in the Globe and Mail, I believe, urging Canada to stay out of that war. And eventually, prime minister Chrétien decided against Canada joining that war—now Canada had joined the Afghanistan war—but chose not to join the U.S. coalition fighting in Iraq. There were some small involvements, but as a fighting force, Canada did not join. Later on, a Lutheran bishop told me he had a close relationship with the prime minister and this bishop told me that the prime minister had said to him that the influence and advocacy of the churches, because there was a united voice among the churches saying, “Canada should not join this war,” that had been a significant factor in his decision. That was pretty profound. I'm very grateful we could be part of a larger movement that had that kind of response from the prime minister.
Something we also did—and it was calling for no war, period, calling on the U.S. not to join—was we started a fast for women. We invited women to fast on Wednesdays of each week for a period of, I think about 10 weeks, and to pray while fasting and also to communicate with government leaders that the U.S. should not invade Iraq. And we did this via the internet. I think it was one of the first times MCC had used its website in an interactive way like this. We put out a call inviting women, and men if they were interested, to join this fast and the names and email addresses just flowed in and within a short time we had over 1,000 people participating from around the world. Each week we would send out a little update and some biblical reflection, a prayer, and we would invite people to use that as they were fasting on Wednesday. In that case, the U.S. did invade Iraq, but it was a very powerful experience nonetheless being part of this kind of virtual witness.
Of all the organizations that work in advocacy and peace, what about MCC made it where you wanted to be to work on those things?
I felt as a young adult that MCC was my organization. I very much identified with a lot of the work MCC was doing in the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was a young person. I wanted to be a part of that, and MCC was starting to do more advocacy at that time and I really appreciated that. And that conviction only increased as I became involved in MCC in Canada. People would often ask me, “why are you doing [advocacy]?” and first and foremost, in addition to the faith question, is it’s because our partners are asking for it.
The longer I worked with MCC, the more I heard this over and over, that people would say "thank you for the help with material resources or community development, but what we really need is for you to advocate to change some systems." We heard that coming from Vietnam. MCC was doing all kinds of relief and community development, literacy, refugee support and so on, within Vietnam for years. But increasingly, people within Vietnam, our partners, were saying "Well, actually, we need you to stop this war. We need you to get your government to stop killing us." That message has been there over and over. We heard it in Syria, people saying, “Thank you for the material resources and the food aid, but we really need you to help stop the war. We need you to support a diplomatic effort that will end the war.”
"If we listen carefully to partners, we hear this call to address systems of injustice. So that's why MCC does it and should be doing it."
– Esther Epp-Tiessen
Certainly in MCC's work in Palestine and Israel, that's been an ongoing refrain since the 1960s—“Thank you for the Christmas bundles and the relief kits, the help with community development, irrigation, all those kinds of things—but what we really need is for you to help end the occupation, it's killing us.” I was in Guatemala in 2010 and we were visiting a community that MCC had become involved in because of a major hurricane and landslide, so there was reconstruction happening. MCC had helped with reconstructing homes, and then after that got involved in helping the community re-establish economically so there was a fishpond and a co-operative that MCC supported. But people there too said, “We're really concerned about this Canadian mining company that's working in the next town, they've already established a huge mine that's already been a huge disaster for the people and for the environment and that company is starting to take soil samples in our county. So can you do something about that?” If we listen carefully to partners, we hear this call to address systems of injustice. So that's why MCC does it and should be doing it.
What does advocacy look like for you now that you're retired from MCC?
Through my local church, I just completed a role. I was our mission coordinator for a number of years and through that work I got involved in some Indigenous-settler relations work here in our community and within our congregation. You know, trying to build bridges with Indigenous folks in our neighbourhood and beyond. Trying to build supports for the journey of reconciliation. That's one aspect.
I got involved with the Make Poverty History coalition, this is a coalition that is addressing poverty in Winnipeg and Manitoba through advocacy for changing policy, so I'm involved in that. One of the projects I worked on in my last years at MCC was a project called A Cry For Home, which was an advocacy project related to Palestine and Israel. Although I'm not directly involved anymore, I have joined Mennonite Church Manitoba's working group on Palestine and Israel and we're doing similar kinds of solidarity and advocacy work through that working group. Those are some of the ways I continue to do this work.
Are there any specific challenges to advocacy now?
I'd mentioned listening to and hearing from partners earlier, asking us to address systems, and sometimes, if we listen really, really carefully, we hear partners saying to us, “Hey, you need to change. You are part of the problem.” And that's hard for us white, middle-class folks to hear often, that we're part of the problem. We like to see ourselves as part of the solution, we like to donate money and give to good causes, but sometimes, we are part of the problem. So we need to listen to that, we need to deal with that [when we hear it].
"I think they stemmed from a recognition that we are not immune to racism, we live in a society that is racist and those of us who are white are often very blind to that, but we need to be aware of how simply by participating in that, we are part of the problem."
– Esther Epp-Tiessen
I'm thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement, that has gained so much momentum over the last months and the identification of systemic racism as a problem that needs to be dealt with. And really, we've heard from partners that MCC is part of systemic racism, so what does that mean for us? What kinds of changes are necessary? That's another piece of advocacy, looking closely at what ways might we be part of the problem, what ways might we be creating some of the obstacles that need to be dismantled in order for other people to flourish. That's certainly not easy. It's sensitive work, but certainly when I was at MCC, I participated in quite a few anti-racism training sessions, which were really, really important for us to do. I think they stemmed from a recognition that we are not immune to racism, we live in a society that is racist and those of us who are white are often very blind to that, but we need to be aware of how simply by participating in that, we are part of the problem. Jesus said take the plank out of your own eye before you remove the speck from someone else's and that goes for the work that we do, that way we seek to bring positive change to society. There's always that plank in our eye, right? How might we help to remove the plank in our own eye?
If a pastor or someone else came to you and said, "I want to get more involved in advocating for peace, where do I start?" what advice or direction would you give them?
I actually helped to put together a toolkit, an advocacy toolkit, which has some thoughts collected in it on this. Usually, advocacy arises out of a relationship. I believe that you don't just get involved with a cause because you think it’s cool or it’s trendy or what everyone else is doing. I think to have real integrity, your advocacy is rooted in a relationship with real people and it arises out of that. You listen to the people; you listen very carefully and you seek to strengthen their voice and support their voice for change.
At Home Street [Mennonite Church], where I attend, some of the work we've been doing on advocacy for Indigenous rights arises out of the fact that we have Indigenous people that are part of our community and are our friends. And we've heard their stories and their experiences and that's what moves us to take on this work. If a pastor asked about this—I would be grateful that a church would be considering this, but I would hope that that work would be rooted in real relationships with people. I think it's always good to work with others. One of the beautiful things about the Make Poverty History work is that it’s a great coalition of all kinds of groups across Manitoba. Faith groups, but also health groups, social service groups, labour groups, newcomers, Indigenous groups, all coming together to advocate for certain kinds of changes. There's power in that, right? There's power in working together for systemic change and certainly if you do it on your own, you usually don't get very far—unless you're advocating for an individual person who needs some kind of action taken for them—but if you're looking for system change, policy change, it’s always good to look for others, for allies, for partners to work together with.