Mennonite Church USA – integral part of MCC from the beginning
Top photo: Pax participants work on the construction site of the first house at a housing project in Salzburg, Austria in 1961. The housing was for the Volksdeutsch Nazarene refugees from Yugoslavia. MCC developed the Pax Project to help rebuild post-World War II Europe and serve as a voluntary service option for conscientious objectors. By the time the program stopped sending volunteers in 1973, about 1,180 men served in over 40 countries around the world, many of whom were from General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church congregations.
MCC is grateful for the active participation and support of all its sponsoring denominations. This article focuses on MCC and Mennonite Church USA.
“‘Are you treating any Viet Cong (VC) in your hospitals?’” A U.S. ambassador to Vietnam pressed Paul Leatherman, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker, for an answer.
It was Thursday, September 14, 1967. Leatherman, who served as executive director of Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS), was at the U.S. embassy in Vietnam with peers from several other organizations. The Vietnam War, or the American War as it is named in Vietnam, was raging. Leatherman wanted to discuss some matters with the ambassador; but the ambassador had questions about VNCS.
“I replied that we did not ask patients for their ID cards,” Leatherman recalled. “If they were sick and needed hospital care they were admitted.”
“‘Are you feeding children of the VC?’” asked the ambassador.
“I answered again … that we do not check ID cards of the persons in our feeding program. If they are hungry and starving we feed them.” ‘You know the VC are the enemy. If you are feeding the VC and treating them in your hospitals, this is treason and you know the penalty for treason.’
“The Spirit gave me words to speak … ‘Mr. Ambassador, VNCS is here doing the work of the church. We follow a book that … commands us to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, and to clothe the naked. I know what the penalty is if we do not do that.’”1
“The work of the church”: Since its founding 100 years ago, MCC has sought to be an expression of the church’s compassion in the world. Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) and the denominations that merged in 2002 to become MC USA ‒ the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church ‒ have been vital to the existence of MCC from the start. Leatherman, a member of Akron (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church at the time of his service in Vietnam, was one of many MCC service workers through the years from congregations in these denominations.
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). The first feeding operations began on March 16, 1922, at Khortitsa. MCC sent a shipment of 25 tractors and plows to southern Russia in June 1922.
Through the years, sharing God’s love and compassion has taken a variety of forms and has often involved the Mennonite Church USA community.
Harrowing treatment by the U.S. government of young men during World War I who were conscientiously opposed to killing and military service prodded Mennonite, Brethren and Friends leaders to seek a state-recognized alternative. On behalf of the church, MCC administered the eventual Civilian Public Service (CPS) program, where “work of national importance” was performed by nearly 12,000 Anabaptist and other conscientious objectors between 1941 and 1947.
Some food for the CPS camps was home-canned by members of MCC’s supporting churches. In the mid-1940s, Mennonites in Kansas and Virginia experimented with ways to provide such food elsewhere in the world. In 1946, Mennonites built the first long-distance mobile cannery in Hesston, Kansas. South Central Mennonite Conference of the Mennonite Church operated the cannery until gifting it to MCC in 1952. By early 2019, 21,546,491 cans, or 38,429,432 pounds, of meat, broth and lard had been produced and shared where needed.
The first MCC Thrift shop opened in Altona, Manitoba, Canada in 1972. The initial shop in the U.S. got going in 1974 in Bluffton, Ohio, with much of the effort carried out by the Fellowship Guild of First Mennonite Church of Bluffton. Today, MCC Thrift shops raise millions of dollars annually for the work of MCC. They also provide a sense of community for some of the 12,000-plus volunteers from MC USA congregations and elsewhere.
In 2002, MCC and Mennonite Church USA worked closely with other groups to voice concern to the U.S. government about a potential U.S. attack on Iraq, and encouraged others to similarly make their voices known.
Mennonite Church USA and MCC continue to partner today. Mennonite Mission Network and MCC are two sponsors of Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute (NARPI), based in South Korea. NARPI provides peacebuilding training and works to establish networks across cultural lines in northeast Asia. “I’m excited to collaborate with Mennonite Mission Network to strengthen the peacemaking capacity of our global church partners,” said Ruth Keidel Clemens, MCC U.S. director of international program.
MCC’s Summer Service is a short-term program that supports young people of color in their development of leadership skills as they work with their local churches and communities. In 2019, Jessica Ice worked at her church, Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship in Boise, Idaho, as a pastoral intern, and served each week at a homeless shelter. At the church, she preached, led worship, joined business meetings and more. “I feel grateful to Hyde Park Mennonite for the ways they have empowered me to grow in my gifts by giving me opportunities to lead,” she said.
MCC, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College collaborate on the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions, which provides leadership in the Anabaptist world to address climate change.
West Coast MCC helped to set up an Oct. 19-20, 2019, visit by members of MC USA’s Constituency Leadership Council to Tucson, Arizona, focusing on immigration. MCC U.S. Washington Office provides updates on governmental policy changes and ideas for individual and corporate action regarding people on the move and other issues.
“We thank God for past and present members of MC USA churches and denominational leaders who have been integrally involved in MCC,” said J Ron Byler, MCC U.S. executive director. “Service workers, board members, volunteers at relief sales and material resources centers, staff, people who pray, donors – all have played key roles in the work of MCC. Most importantly, we are grateful to God for the past 100 years of ministry together, and we seek God’s leading and blessing in our future ministry together.”
Read more church denomination stories from the MCC at 100 collection:
- LMC and MCC – 100-year partners in practical compassion
- CMC – a passion for service
- Brethren in Christ U.S. – partners with MCC for 70 years
- Mennonite Brethren – a pillar of MCC
Visit mcc.org/centennial(link is external) to learn more about MCC’s year-long centennial celebration.
1 All quotations above from Luke S. Martin, A Vietnam Presence: Mennonites in Vietnam During the American War, Morgantown, PA: Masthof Press, 2016, pp. 274, 275.