The United Nations was established 70 years ago to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Although the U.N. has not banished war, it has provided a platform where 193 nations can engage in dialogue. The Mennonite Central Committee U.N. Office reaches out to diplomats from countries our nation labels enemies. We provide a neutral space where people assumed to be enemies can meet to talk. These mandates evolve from our Anabaptist commitment to love, to separate religion from the state, and to worship a God who is bigger than any nation.
Our work can be highly visible, but more often it is quiet. Several years ago, I arranged for three New York rabbis to meet with the Iranian ambassador to the U. N. At the end of an engaging and positive meeting, the ambassador asked the rabbis if they could arrange a meeting for him with the leaders of the major Jewish organizations in New York. The rabbis sorrowfully said they could not possibly do it. If word got out, they would lose their jobs.
U.N. diplomats from countries that do not have formal relations with the U.S. are restricted in travel to 25 miles from Columbus Circle in Manhattan, unless they get specific State Department authorization. For more than two years, colleagues in the MCC U.S. Washington Office tried to obtain State Department approval for U.N. diplomats from North Korea to visit MCC headquarters in Pennsylvania. Four years ago, during a brief exploration of rapprochement between the U.S. and North Korea, the State Department granted permission for a North Korean visit.
The two-day visit to MCC, and to Amish and Mennonite families in Lancaster County, along with the seven hours together driving, had a profound effect on all of us. Rather than the “professional” relationship that diplomats usually maintain with staff of nongovernmental organizations at the U.N., we actually became friends.
A year or so afterward, I learned that South Korean Christian leaders had lost contact with Christian leaders in the North, while planning for the World Council of Churches assembly in Busan, South Korea, later that year. Leaders of South Korea’s National Council of Churches in Korea explained they had always communicated by fax with the leaders of the Korean Christian Federation in North Korea, but about six months earlier, responses to their faxes suddenly ceased. I said that I met regularly with North Koreans at the U.N. concerning MCC work in North Korea, and if leaders from the National Council of Churches in Korea could come to New York, I would try to arrange a meeting with North Korean diplomats.
A small delegation of NCCK leaders arrived from South Korea a month later. I arranged a lunch meeting, and within minutes one of the NCCK leaders and one of the North Korean diplomats discovered they had been in the same meeting in North Korea more than a decade earlier. They explained why communication with the Korean Christian Federation had suddenly stopped: The priest who headed the KCF had died in the past year. The diplomats promised to work to establish communication with the new leader. Within two weeks, they were in contact. Shortly thereafter, Christian leaders from South and North Korea were able to meet in China to develop a joint strategy to work for peace in the Koreas.
At the MCC U.N. Office we explore the transforming power of Jesus’ call to love, especially those designated as enemies.
Doug Hostetter directs the Mennonite Central Committee U.N. Office.