Top photo: Trainee Program participant Eckard Klien from Backnang, Germany, picks corn on the Melvin Swartzentruber farm near Fredericktown, Ohio, in 1960. MCC’s Trainee Program was a nonacademic exchange program for young people to live and work for one year in Canada or the U.S. Hosts like Swartzentruber, a member of CMC congregation Johnsville Mennonite Church, helped further international understanding, broaden horizons and advance Christian unity. The Trainee Program later developed into MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP). MCC photo/Emma Schlichting
MCC is grateful for the active participation and support of all its sponsoring denominations. This article focuses on MCC and CMC churches.
Shortly after midnight on December 23, 1972, a nightmare descended on Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua. A series of powerful earthquakes began an unrelenting assault on the city of 325,000 people. For two and a half hours, the earth continued to shake as buildings crumpled and fires broke out.
By morning, more than 10,000 people had died, at least 40,000 were injured and almost two-thirds of the population was left homeless.1 Emergency response organizations prepared to give aid to and help Managua begin the long process of rebuilding. Among the early responders were 16 CMC members who had already been serving in Nicaragua since before the earthquake. They were agriculture trainers, literacy teachers and health care workers through the voluntary service (VS) program of Rosedale Mennonite Missions (now Rosedale International). They had never imagined a crisis of this scale, but they stood ready to assist however they could.
Local evangelical churches formed Consejo Evangélico Pro-Ayuda a los Damnificados (CEPAD; Evangelical Committee for Helping the Victims). Christian service and mission workers came alongside the committee to help in a variety of ways. Some VSers served as community promoters to help with child feeding and public health programs. Others were kept busy dividing and distributing food shipments from evangelical groups in Costa Rica, according to participant Barbara Bontrager.2
“CMC has always displayed an abiding passion for mission and service, in the U.S. and around the world. For 80 years, their partnership with us has challenged and encouraged MCC to remain tireless in seeking the most effective ways to serve people in need through Christ."
- J Ron Byler, MCC U.S. executive director
Soon relief workers from MCC came to support CEPAD alongside the VSers. An MCC news release described one way Christian workers across denominations and nationalities were making an impact: “Eight hundred Nicaraguan children were fed breakfast of cereal and milk, January 22, when the first child feeding center sponsored by the evangelical committee for helping earthquake victims (CEPAD) was opened.”3
The Managua earthquake relief effort is one story of many throughout CMC and MCC’s 80-year history of serving together in the name of Christ.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was formed when representatives of various Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren groups met in July 1920 in Elkhart, Indiana, and pledged to aid hungry people, including Mennonites in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine).
CMC and MCC’s formal partnership began in 1941, when CMC first appointed a representative to MCC. But this was not the first CMC-related connection to MCC.
For example, Maple Glen Mennonite Church in Grantsville, Maryland, followed the early development of MCC in 1921 and 1922 through the activities of one of MCC’s earliest workers, Alvin J. Miller. Miller was tasked with gaining access to southern Russia. It took nine months of meetings and negotiations. While Miller was a member at nearby Springs Mennonite Church, he never lost touch with family and friends at Maple Glen. Miller was buried at Maple Glen in 1981. Maple Glen hosted a historical meeting remembering Alvin J. Miller in 2019. A second part is planned for fall 2020.
In addition, some CMC churches supported MCC’s work in southern Russia through the Mennonite Commission for Relief to War Sufferers (MCRWS). The CMC publication at the time, Herold der Wahrheit, actively promoted MCC’s work in southern Russia.
After the destruction of World War II left many Europeans homeless, CMC members saw a clear opportunity to serve overseas. The first CMC workers to serve internationally chose to do so with MCC. The earliest records of CMC members serving with MCC are from 1948 and list “the Joseph Roths” and Joseph Overholt serving in Poland.4
CMC’s representative for MCC, Elmer G. Swartzendruber of Upper Deer Creek Mennonite Church in Wellman, Iowa, viewed these workers’ service as possible preparation for CMC to carry out international service independently in the future. While he acknowledged that CMC was mostly focused on U.S. service at that time, he believed “investigation of foreign areas could and should go on.”5
And go on it did. Young men from CMC traveled to Europe to help with post-World War II relief and reconstruction efforts through MCC’s Pax program. In addition, John Gingerich, a young CMC man from Maple Grove Mennonite Church in Hartville, Ohio, joined an MCC voluntary service unit in Espelkamp, Germany. His reports on the German refugee relief and resettlement program at that location brought conference-wide attention to the work there.
In 1950, CMC proposed taking responsibility for the work at Espelkamp under its mission board, the Conservative Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (CMBMC). Ownership of the Espelkamp project was transferred to CMC on October 1 of that year, marking the official beginning of CMC’s overseas relief work.6
Meanwhile, CMC and MCC were working together in the U.S. as well. Just as young conscientious objector men had fulfilled their alternative service duty through MCC’s Pax program in Europe, others had done the same through Civilian Public Service (CPS) at home. A high number of draft-age CMC men (76.3 percent) served in CPS units working in agriculture, conservation, mental hospitals and more.7 Later, CMC members including Elmer Jantzi of Riverside Mennonite Church in Au Gres, Michigan,8and Bart Mennonite Church pastor Urbane Peachey of Strasburg, Pennsylvania, provided leadership to MCC’s alternative service work through the I-W Service office.9
Through CPS, young men and women serving in U.S. mental hospitals shed light on the plight of patients living in unhygienic, inhumane conditions at many facilities. MCC and its Mennonite constituent groups began seeking ways to enter the field of mental health to provide improved care. CMC was represented on the Mennonite Mental Health Services (MMHS) board formed by MCC to guide the operation of new Mennonite-run mental health facilities that began to open in the late 1940s.
This started a legacy of compassionate mental health care in CMC circles. In a 1967 MMHS report, the board makes note of a CMC voluntary service program in Louisville, Kentucky, that served people with profound mental disabilities.10 Over 20 years later, CMC was continuing to seek innovative avenues for helping those with mental illness; a 1988 MCC newsletter reports on a support group for affected people and their families started by CMC in New York.11
In Central America, the 1972 Managua earthquake was one of several factors that escalated the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1978-1990, a time of deep political unrest that broke out into violence. The churches CMC had planted in Nicaragua, Convención de las Iglesia Evangélicas Menonitas de Nicaragua (CIEMN; Conference of Evangelical Mennonite Churches in Nicaragua), wished to learn the Anabaptist position on peace. MCC workers were involved in peace theology retreats and seminars for local pastors.
MCC also petitioned the U.S. government to end its confrontational stance toward Nicaragua when it was discovered that covert CIA activity was attempting to destabilize the country. A 1982 MCC news release reported that tensions had grown to the point that a CMC health team of U.S. citizens had to leave the country.12
In the early 1980s, CIEMN formed a Peace Commission with two other Nicaraguan Mennonite conferences to begin a voluntary service program and petition the government to recognize conscientious objectors, among other things. MCC workers including Moses Beachy served as resource persons for the commission. Alfredo Lumbi, coordinator of the Peace Commission and pastor of a CMC-founded church, said, “We have a group that is ready to take on nonviolence because it has experienced violence.”13
Throughout the subsequent decades, CIEMN and MCC became partners in relief work throughout Nicaragua. Through Comisión de Asistencia de Emergencia (CAE; Emergency Assistance Commission), an emergency assistance group run by national Anabaptist conferences, CIEMN and MCC helped respond to emergencies anywhere in the country with volunteers and humanitarian assistance. CIEMN also partnered with MCC’s humanitarian assistance program by helping with planning and distribution.
Additionally, CIEMN and MCC were partners in community development and education. MCC worked with and helped sponsor CIEMN’s Comisión de Asistencia Social (CAS; Social Assistance Commission), which supported community development in rural areas through agriculture and farming projects. MCC also helped sponsor specific CAS projects, such as the HIV/AIDS prevention and education program in 2009-2011. Meanwhile, numerous young adults from CIEMN churches were enabled to receive university education through MCC’s education grants. A number of the grant recipients have served key roles in local churches.14Elsewhere, in 2016, the Pacific coast of northern Ecuador was struck by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. MCC partnered with CMC international affiliate Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Ecuatoriana (IEME) in Manabi Province to construct 15 earthquake-resistant homes for the most socio-economically vulnerable church members.
CMC and MCC partnered again in 2018 to provide disaster relief after severe monsoon flooding in India’s Kerala state killed 500 people and displaced 540,000. In partnership with Gilgal Mission Trust (GMT) in India, CMC and MCC helped provide essential supplies to about 2,500 people displaced by the flooding. The groups worked together to raise money for the project.15
Over the years, CMC members have diligently served within the U.S. to provide vital support to MCC’s work. This continues today. CMC congregations and individuals have generously given time, money and effort to create health and hygiene kits and comforters to be sent to those in need around the world. Each year, they help raise thousands for international service by donating items to and coordinating relief sales. CMC members are also among the 30,000 annual volunteers who participate in canning meat for undernourished people. Finally, CMC individuals have long served on MCC U.S. and regional boards, helping guide the direction of relief, development and peace work throughout the globe.
“CMC has always displayed an abiding passion for mission and service, in the U.S. and around the world,” said J Ron Byler, MCC U.S. executive director. “For 80 years, their partnership with us has challenged and encouraged MCC to remain tireless in seeking the most effective ways to serve people in need through Christ. CMC has been a vital influence that has shaped MCC for close to a century, and we pray that our relationship may continue for many years to come.”
Read more church denomination stories from the MCC at 100 collection:
- Mennonite Church USA – integral part of MCC from the beginning
- Brethren in Christ U.S. – partners with MCC for 70 years
- Mennonite Brethren – a pillar of MCC
- LMC and MCC – 100-year partners in practical compassion
Visit mcc.org/centennial(link is external) to learn more about MCC’s year-long centennial celebration.
Emily Jones is a freelance writer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
1 “Thousands Dead as Quakes Strike Nicaraguan City,” New York Times. Dec. 24, 1972, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/12/24/archives/thousands-dead-as-quakes-strike-nicaraguan-city-capital-battered.html.
2 Ivan J. Miller, History of the Conservative Mennonite Conference (Grantsville, Maryland: self-published, 1985), p. 273.
3 Ibid., pp. 272-3.
4 Ibid., p. 255.
5 Ibid., p. 256.
6 Ibid., pp. 257-8.
7John A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church: Pilgrims and Pioneers, (Hillsboro,Kansas, Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1975), pp. 350-51.
8 MCC Executive Committee, Sept. 19-20 meeting minutes, 1958, Chicago, Illinois.
9 MCC News Service, I-W Coordinating Board Begins Functioning, 1960.
10 Mennonite Mental Health Services report, 1967.
11 MCC annual report, 1987, p. 11.
12 MCC News Service, MCC Appeals Against “Confrontational” U.S. Stance Toward Nicaragua, 1982.
13 MCC News Service, Nicaraguan Mennonites Eager to Learn, Apply Anabaptist Peace Teachings, 1981.
14 Rachel Bergen, “MCC partners to rebuild 15 homes following Ecuador earthquake,” mcc.org. November 11, 2016, https://mcc.org/stories/mcc-partners-rebuild-15-homes-following-ecuador-earthquake.
15Julie Bell, “Displaced by flooding,” mcc.org. September 14, 2018, https://mcc.org/stories/displaced-flooding.