It is in giving that we receive. — St. Francis of Assisi
They who lose their lives shall find them. — Jesus of Nazareth
While much of the Mennonite Central Committee centennial celebration is focused on the untold millions who received MCC assistance, many benefits also accrued to MCC and its constituency.
MCC helped push back old boundaries.
In 1920 the North American Mennonite constituency consisted mostly of people of European ancestry living in rural enclaves. Many were first- or second-generation immigrants. Their world was small and simple. Many still sang from German hymnals and were ministered to by devout but untrained preachers.
MCC was essentially in recess during the 1930s. It had neither a permanent staff nor a headquarters. The office moved from Scottdale, Pa., to Akron, Pa., in 1935 when Orie O. Miller was named executive secretary.
As the ’30s were coming to a close, Mennonites felt threatened by war clouds in Europe that culminated in World War II. To populate the U.S. military forces, the Selective Service System was brought into being. When its long arm reached into rural Mennonite communities, it found draft-age men who refused to go to war. They were assigned to Civilian Public Service camps, administered by MCC, scattered across Canada and the United States.
After the war, MCC’s robust feeding and resettlement programs made it an internationally known organization.
In the decades that followed, the Mennonite map was redrawn. The Mennonite population of historic rural centers declined, while the growth of urban life ushered in church plants in cities such as Indianapolis, Denver and New York.
So it was that, unintended but guided by God’s hand, MCC participated in reshaping and modernizing the North American Anabaptist world.
MCC fostered inter-Mennonite cooperation.
Yet another unintended consequence of MCC’s sudden appearance was its role in building inter-Mennonite relationships.
North American Mennonites have never been a homogenous body. The Swiss migration began in the late 1600s, followed almost 200 years later by an influx from Russia.
Both streams were attracted to good land in the Midwest, but there was little or no coordination between them. In some cases they did not even know the other existed.
In 1940 their quiet way of life was interrupted by the military draft. At first there was no provision for conscientious objectors, and the scattered Mennonite communities had no mechanism to make a united appeal.
Then someone recalled the “central committee” through which they had helped their brothers and sisters suffering in Russia. So it was that through MCC, joined by the Quakers and the Church of the Brethren, CPS was brought into existence. Administered by MCC, more than 5,000 men served their alternative service through CPS.
The miracle of MCC is that scattered members of this diverse constituency became acquainted with each other while serving side-by-side in MCC. It set the stage for more inter-Mennonite activity to follow.
MCC educated its constituency.
William T. Snyder, MCC’s longest-serving executive secretary, was fond of saying, “MCC is not a check-writing organization. Its first medium is not money; it is workers.” This philosophy made MCC programs lean on budget and rich in personnel. At its peak, MCC had more than 550 workers on assignment, most from its constituency. After serving two- or three-year terms, this stream of MCC alumni returned to enrich their home congregations.
It is a partial answer to the question some have asked: “How is that a constituency so rural has become so global in its reach and awareness?”
Thus it was that MCC service, along with other influences, played a major role in helping historically insular North American Mennonites transition to the 21st century, while adhering to their Anabaptist roots.
Jesus and St. Francis had it right. As we have shared of treasure and talent and opened ourselves to the needs of a hurting world, God has used MCC to help us reach out to a needy world while being born again ourselves. God be praised.
Edgar Stoesz served with MCC from 1954 to 1989 in administrative capacities, mostly from the Akron, Pa., headquarters. A version of this article first appeared in MennoExpressions, published by First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis.
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