Review of Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation: A Missiological History of Mennonite Central Committee by Alain Epp Weaver (C.H. Wedel Series, Bethel College, 2020)
It was a simple beginning. Mennonite Central Committee was created in 1920 for North American Mennonites to aid sisters and brothers in the faith suffering from famine, revolution and violent social upheaval in Russia. In the 101 years since then, and particularly since World War II, MCC has discovered that meeting human need “in the name of Christ” isn’t quite so simple, certainly in practice but especially in principle. In his new book, Alain Epp Weaver examines the evolution of some of the theological underpinnings that have propelled and continue to propel MCC’s work.
The result is new and important understandings of the most influential and arguably best-known North American Mennonite organization. While the book’s topic may seem esoteric, Weaver fills its pages with real-life accounts that keep it from becoming hifalutin.
For instance, what does it mean to serve in a colonial setting, where white interlopers have assumed a superior role over the local indigenous population, who are people of color? Weaver notes MCC’s acquiescence at times to a racist colonial system. He cites as one example the MCC-directed settling of the Paraguayan Chaco by Russia Mennonite refugees in the 1920s and ’30s. A 1945 MCC booklet celebrated that the refugees accomplished what many thought impossible: “that white men can live and make a living in the interior of the Chaco,” triumphing over many threats, including “unfriendly Indians.”
As the Chaco account illustrates, Weaver, who served in with MCC in the West Bank and Gaza and is now the agency’s director of strategic planning, based at MCC headquarters in Akron, Pa., doesn’t hesitate to criticize his own organization. But he also cites efforts more consistent with MCC’s peace and justice mores.
Weaver recounts his and his wife’s experiences as MCC workers. “MCC administrators instructed us,” he writes, “that Christian service is less about classes to teach or reports to write and more about presence, about sitting under our landlord’s fig tree to drink cup after cup of sage-flavored tea and slowly learning to communicate in Arabic.” This ministry of presence, which emphasized MCC workers’ responsibilities as listener rather than doer, led to a shift in the agency’s programming, including increasingly turning to in-country nationals, rather than sending foreigners, to carry out programs and partnering with local organizations instead of implementing top-down, unilateral initiatives.
Another historical point of contention within MCC has been determining who is to receive aid. The agency was founded to help other Mennonites, and an early guideline was Galatians 6:9-10, which calls believers to “work for the good of all, and especially for those of the household of faith.” In the 1980s, MCC wanted to respond to food needs in Nicaragua and decided to send its aid through a Nicaraguan Protestant ecumenical organization, rather than through the country’s Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches because they were primarily concerned with helping fellow church members. The Mennonite and BIC church members were not happy with MCC’s decision, particularly since they also had fellow members who were also hungry. An MCC administrator acknowledged the dilemma. “What is more important, the family or the overall needs?” he asked. It is a tension not easily resolved.
Weaver’s reporting of MCC’s continual willingness to challenge itself underscores that there is more to relief, development and peace work than sending workers to needy places. In doing so, he – and publisher Bethel College – make a welcome contribution to the body of work that already exists on MCC history, covering territory unaddressed by the legion of books and journal articles on MCC history that already exist.
Therein lies the greatest shortcoming of Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation. For all the books and journal articles published about MCC, noticeably absent is a comprehensive history of the organization. The only book that took a broad approach was In the Name of Christ: A History of the Mennonite Central Committee by John D. Unruh, but it was published in 1952 and so obviously needs updating. Otherwise, writers have focused on narrower subjects, such as on work in various geographic regions or on specific programs. Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation is yet another piecemeal approach to MCC history. Weaver’s missiological approach even lends itself to a broader history. He notes Civilian Public Service, mental health care, Mennonite Disaster Service and Ten Thousand Village – all of which have intricate links to MCC – but more in-depth scholarship is warranted.
It is an admittedly unfair criticism. The book, only about 130 pages long, is based on Weaver’s 2019 Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel, and lectures are, out of necessity, sharply focused. An expansive history of MCC would have simply been beyond the lectures’ scope. Furthermore, Weaver acknowledges the problem, particularly in a footnote that covers three-fourths of a page. And it does nothing to diminish the value of Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation.