You know you’re getting older when you read a history book and you are in it.
The book is Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History by Esther Epp-Tiessen. Published by CMU Press for the 50th anniversary of MCC Canada, the book is an account of how Canadian Mennonites created their own version of MCC in 1963 and how that organization grew to become a household name across the country.
What may surprise American Mennonites — and maybe some Canadian Mennonites — is that MCC Canada was not an offshoot of MCC in the U.S. It was founded as an independent entity, designed to bring Canadian Mennonites together into one service organization.
“MCC Canada was not a child of MCC,” Epp-Tiessen noted at the launch of the book on Dec. 19 in Winnipeg, Man. “It chose to align itself with MCC.”
Even its name has a story. At the founding meeting, delegates decided to also call their new organization Mennonite Central Committee. Thinking they should check with MCC in the U.S. to be sure that was OK, they sent a telegram to get permission.
Somehow, the telegram either arrived too late or was misplaced. Either way, it never was answered. When no reply came back to Winnipeg, organizers took the silence as a yes and went ahead with the name.
Looking back, that could be seen as a metaphor for the misunderstandings that would develop between the Canadian and U.S. versions of MCC over the next five decades.
Over the years, Epp-Tiessen said, MCC Canada perceived itself as an underdog in the MCC system. It often felt it was misunderstood in MCC’s Akron office, where American MCCers were sometimes “exasperated with Canadians for always pushing for things.”
But the misunderstanding went both ways.
“Canadians also contributed to the tensions,” she said. This is something I can testify to, having authored a few (or more) of those tensions myself while working in communications for MCC Canada from 1983 to 1997.
But along with the disagreements and conflicts, there was also a magnificent degree of shared purpose and mission on behalf of people who are needy around the world.
When asked to highlight a few things that stand out for her about MCC Canada, she mentioned how it has been a force for change in Canadian society, an advocate for people on the margins, a builder of bridges between Mennonites, a keeper and shaper of peace and an incubator for new ideas and innovations.
Also a highlight for her is the “amazing generosity” shown by Canadians. In 2012-13, MCC Canada received $52 million, making it one of the larger relief and development agencies in the country. Much of that money comes from people not part of Mennonite churches — people who have come to trust the organization and see it as their vehicle for helping people in need.
As for the future of MCC Canada, Epp-Tiessen declined to speculate. Faith-based relief and development groups are under a lot of stress in Canada, with fierce competition for donations and declining denominational loyalty. At the same time, the Canadian government, which for a long time could be counted on to provide financial support, is not as dependable as it used to be.
But all that will be the subject of another book, maybe in 2063. To order a copy of the book, visit CMU Press online at cmu.ca.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.