In 1975, the seed for Mennonite Conciliation Service was planted. MCC had a well-respected reputation for responding to basic human needs, such as the provision of food and shelter. Yet those carrying out these responses realized more could be done—something was missing. There were needs not being met, and this missing piece impacted the success of the material responses.
This need for a Mennonite Conciliation Service (MCS) parallel to Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) was a need for an organization that would address conflicts and crises before they become violent. Such an MCS would also advocate for justice. This ministry would be collaborative with other Anabaptist organizations and with other Christians active in the work of conciliation, mediation and conflict transformation. In this article, I offer my reflections as a former MCS staff person on the challenges MCS faced, the successes it experienced and learnings from the MCS story.
I joined MCS in July 1999. Having never lived east of the Mississippi, I experienced culture shock upon moving to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to work for MCC. I had lived in Dallas, Texas, for close to 20 years, working as an insurance claims examiner. In many ways, being an insurance claims examiner stimulated my interest in resolving conflict. During my off-work time, I trained with and volunteered for many years at the Dallas Mediation Center. When I received the call to join MCS, I was on a personal journey to determine how I could make my avocation my vocation. I therefore accepted the offer, moved to Lancaster and took on the position of associate on urban peacemaking. I eventually became MCS' director and then later co-directed the Office on Justice and Peacebuilding with Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz when MCS merged with MCC U.S.' Office on Crime and Justice. I continued in that position until 2011, when I left MCC to pastor (and then later rejoin MCC as executive director for MCC Central States, the position I hold today).
“MCS named, from the beginning, that addressing conflict or harm without acknowledging systemic oppression is hypocritical.”
- Michelle Armster
MCS certainly faced challenges throughout its history. The earliest documents outlining the origins of MCS make for fascinating reading. From the beginning, MCS’s creators were mindful of two challenges that would be ongoing concerns for MCS: first, the theological, historical and cultural approaches to conflict among traditional Anabaptist groups and, secondly, racism. In a 1976 study on the possibility and parameters of MCS, William Keeney placed MCS within a history of MCC peace witness: “Mennonites have often expressed their opposition to violence and war by the refusal to participate. We have offered alternative service as a demonstration of our positive contributions to society. Mennonite Conciliation Services would seem to be another positive contribution we could make by minimizing the consequences of evil conflict and violence.”
In the beginning of his study, Keeney acknowledged that the realities of violence to and in African American, Latinx and Indigenous communities related to “discrimination” and being “excluded from the benefits of American Society.” Keeney did not use the same language for people of color I use here (that is my translation to the contemporary vernacular), but Keeney clearly understood that ongoing racism was a primary source of violence. If MCS was to take seriously the mandate to address and respond to conflict and harm before it turns to violence, Keeney recognized, then it must contend with the “social disasters” leading to it.
MCC photo/Nancy Witmer
Ron Kraybill’s report to the MCC Peace Section regarding the proposal to establish a Mennonite Conciliation Service was more forthright and explicit about the challenges. Informed by discussions with non-white Mennonites, Kraybill found affirmation for the MCS proposal, yet also heard strong caveats, including from Mennonites of color. These caveats included the following points:
- People of color must be included in the effort to establish MCS;
- Emphasis should be placed on mobilizing local resources, rather than on maintaining a “flying squad of intervenors;”
- MCC needed to ask if Mennonites were ready to take on questions of justice as it sought to establish MCS;
- Involvement in conflicts should be contemplated only in those situations where Mennonites have “earned the right” to speak;
- Mennonites have a lot of “in-house” conflicts that need to be addressed;
- To be credible, MCS would need to develop slowly: MCC would need to be committed to the MCS venture for at least five years before judging it as a success or failure.
I arrived at MCS 23 years after these preliminary discussions. During my tenure with MCS, the issues identified at MCS’s inception continued to come up in our internal discussions. We knew that naming, addressing and acknowledging concerns around justice and racism were always at the core of the work as we continued to resource, train, mediate, facilitate and participate in conciliation efforts.
“To be credible, MCS would need to develop slowly: MCC would need to be committed to the MCS venture for at least five years before judging it as a success or failure.”
- Ron Kraybill
As a woman of African descent whose chosen faith expression has been in the Anabaptist tradition, it was important for my credibility and sanity to keep these challenges in the forefront of our work.
Although MCS faced persistent challenges, we also had many poignant successes. For me, to work with people who were called to be peacemakers was a gift. The people who worked for and collaborated with MCS were committed to mediating, educating, practicing and growing. Together, we were committed to work at our internal conflicts just as we worked with others beyond our doors. We acknowledged injustice and advocated for justice. And we knew our limits: we did not think every case or referral could be addressed by MCS. However, we maintained relationships with others to whom we could refer cases. We were constantly challenging our work and the conciliation field to be anti-racist and anti-sexist in our approaches to conflict and harm.
The most laudable success MCS experienced was the production of conflict resolution resources—books, training manuals, videos and periodicals—that became widely used within the conflict resolution, mediation and restorative justice fields. Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, while MCS director, joined Lawrence Ressler in editing Making Peace with Conflict, a seminal book for churches to understand conflict as neither good nor bad, a resource that encouraged Mennonites (and other Christians) to face and learn from conflict.
MCC photo/Howard Zehr
Schrock-Shenk was also responsible for a video, also directed at churches, called Conflict and the Church. MCS published four editions of its Mediation and Facilitation Training Manual, a resource used as a core text in many colleges and universities. The fifth version of the manual (Conflict Transformation and Restorative Justice Manual), produced jointly with the Office of Crime and Justice, was similarly widely used. And, for 23 years, MCS published a periodical called Conciliation Quarterly that highlighted learnings and grappled with challenges from the conflict mediation and restorative justice fields. Although MCS, the Office of Crime and Justice and the Office of Justice and Peacebuilding no longer exist at MCC, their contributions continue to be respected across the conflict transformation and restorative justice fields.
MCS spurred Anabaptist communities in the U.S. to expand their understandings and theologies of nonviolence and nonresistance. MCS encouraged churches and communities to develop new understandings of and healthier approaches to conflict. MCS named, from the beginning, that addressing conflict or harm without acknowledging systemic oppression is hypocritical. MCS provided a space and opportunity for the non-dominant voices to be heard in venues such as the MCS-produced manual and in Conciliation Quarterly. It has been an honor and blessing to be part of MCS’s legacy: my hope for MCC is that it will find creative ways to extend MCS’s legacy of creatively addressing conflicts in ways that take questions of justice and racism seriously.
Michelle Armster is executive director of MCC Central States.
Amstuz, Lorraine Stutzman and Michelle Armster. Eds. Conflict Transformation and Restorative Justice Manual: Foundations and Skills for Mediation and Facilitation. Fifth edition. Akron, PA: MCC Office on Justice and Peacebuilding, 2008.
Schrock-Shenk, Carolyn. Ed. Mediation and Facilitation Training Manual: Foundations and Skills for Constructive Conflict Transformation. Fourth edition. Akron, PA: Mennonite Conciliation Service, 2000.