Service grounded in biblical mission

Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation: A Missiological History of Mennonite Central Committee by Alain Epp Weaver; Bethel College (C.H. Wedel Historical Series), 2020 Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation: A Missiological History of Mennonite Central Committee by Alain Epp Weaver; Bethel College (C.H. Wedel Historical Series), 2020.

On the occasion of the centenary of Mennonite Central Committee, it is a gift to have a concise and accessible historical overview of the agency that has shaped Mennonite image and engagement around the world. Alain Epp Weaver, with lifelong involvements in MCC programs and in his current assignment directing strategic planning for MCC, is the ideal person to offer us this gift.

Some readers may find the word “missiological” in the title surprising. But Epp Weaver is intent on grounding the story in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 — the message and ministry of God’s reconciling work in Christ — chosen by MCC as its focus scripture for the centennial.

A broader definition of the many aspects associated with missiology as a discipline in academic and practitioner circles — evangelism, Bible translation, peace work, community development, church planting, leadership training — is never fully developed in this account.

Rather, Epp Weaver focuses on service and reconciliation ministries as the particular callings and specific missiological activities that have most characterized MCC’s work since 1920.

Readers are carried along with a narrative missiology peppered with story snippets and more than 50 photos. Part of an institution’s centennial is celebration, says Epp Weaver, and part is self-critique, lament and repentance. He engages in some of each.

To celebrate, there are highlights featuring the faithful work of Pax volunteers, Teachers Abroad, the International Volunteer Exchange and SALT programs, the thousands of people who have packed school kits and canned meat, children who have collected nickels and dimes through My Coins Count, hands-on work projects unifying diverse Mennonite-Anabaptist groups in common cause, and authors who have produced resources such as the More-with-Less Cookbook which, with more than a million copies sold, makes it “arguably the most effective outreach tool and most potent work of theology produced by 20th-century Mennonites.”

But serving Christ through relief, development and peacebuilding efforts is complicated, says Epp Weaver, “sometimes messy and ambiguous and sometimes deeply flawed and marked by failure.” Considerable portions of this volume are dedicated to times and ways in which MCC participated in colonializing or racialized patterns of behavior, “with a white, resource-rich, and advanced Christian West going out to serve among Indigenous, black and brown peoples in the global South marked by need and portrayed as less advanced at best and as primitive or savage at worst.”

Other challenges for MCC have been its institutional identity as a relief agency with inclinations toward “expert” unilateral and mono-directional solutions to local realities, rather than postures of listening, incarnational presence, mutual sharing and multi-directional relationship building.

Not unrelated to this has been the largely unresolved task of determining to whom the agency is ultimately responsible: the church, Mennonites in particular; or the people most in need, regardless of nationality, race, class, politics or religion.

The biblical text most cited in this book is Galatians 6:9-10, in which believers are urged to “work for the good of all, and especially for those of the household of faith.” MCC is still discerning what this means and will likely continue to do so for years to come.

Reading this important work, I was intrigued by two omissions. First, there is virtually no specific reference to other Mennonite mission and service agencies — in some instances older than MCC — at work around the world. MCC has partnered in robust ways with virtually all of them and meets annually to discuss common vision at the North American Council of International Anabaptist Ministries. How have these agencies helped to shape MCC over the years? For the moment, these partners remain largely absent from the story.

Second, for all of the commitment to mutual transformation in MCC policies, no voices from international partners or North American Mennonite communities of color within MCC constituent denominations are included to reflect on the agency’s story in this volume. More than 70 voices are heard in the main body of the text, all North American white folk from traditional Anabaptist communities of European origin. More voices would make this already rich story even richer.

James R. Krabill served as a mission worker in West Africa and senior executive for global ministries for Mennonite Mission Network. He lives in Elkhart, Ind., and is a core adjunct professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

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