Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)'s Pax program provided conscientious objectors in the U.S. an alternative to military service and, in post-war Europe, helped to rebuild war-torn areas. Almost all participants were men, but a handful of women (often called “matrons”) also volunteered in Pax locations. By the time the program stopped sending volunteers in 1976, about 1,180 men and women served in nearly forty countries around the world. Learn more about the program from one of the co-founders, Cal Redekop, who currently lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Top photo: Winifred Friesen hangs up Pax t-shirts in Algeria in 1965. She and her husband Alvin Friesen, of Dinuba, California, were MCC relief workers from 1962-1965. (MCC photo/Bruce Leatherman)
On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. The implications of this had already been discussed in the early 1950s by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) staff in Europe, especially the Selective Service implications. Paul Peachey and I were returning to Frankfurt from a youth conference and wondered how this might affect American draft age young men. We recounted the relative dissatisfaction with the World War II CPS experience, because it had often been “make work.”
Almost simultaneously we wondered whether the draftees might not come to Europe and receive U.S. Selective Service credit for building homes for refugees. We proceeded to conceptualize our vision and submitted it to the executive committee of MCC and on December 5, 1950, the idea was approved. Orie O. Miller, executive director of MCC, began promoting the idea, now named the Pax program.
The preparations were handled by several senior MCC leaders including C.F. Klassen and C.L. Graber. They worked to solve the complicated issues of getting all the legal paperwork prepared and the confused relationship between the provisional German government in the American Zone of the U.S. military. I reported directly to Klassen, a member of the MCC executive committee stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. And of course, constantly consulted with Paul Peachey, sitting a meter from my desk, who was very helpful because of his familiarity with many persons, offices, and organizations. A model boss, he never expressed any displeasure or disapproval. Our friendship lasted until his death.
A more complicated and confused situation can hardly be imagined with the creation of Pax. Fortunately, the Pax program emerged easily from the already existing work camp program. But the speed with which the idea was accepted, and the time Pax arrived in Europe seems beyond belief. On June 6, 1951, less than a year later, the first group of Pax workers arrived in Espelkamp, Germany, to begin the first batch of refugee houses mainly by hand labor. Resettlement soon followed at Backnang and Neuwied, two other towns in Germany.
The construction immediately provided significant interaction between the refugees living and waiting for housing in the area, who could watch their future homes being built by American young men fulfilling their alternative service for Selective Service. They invited the “boys” into their temporary quarters to share meals and tragic experiences. Friendships were formed which lasted until death separated them.
Both refugees and Pax workers welcomed a visit from the U.S. director of Selective Service system, General Lewis B. Hershey, who came to Europe in June 1951 to investigate the authenticity of the program. He also visited the work camp in Mainz, Germany, to analyze the voluntary service program which had helped envision Pax. Upon leaving he heartily approved the Pax program calling them “my boys.” One Pax worker retorted, “I am not your boy. I am a Canadian.”
Even though the Pax program originated as an American Mennonite project, the mutual benefit of the “Pax boys” for the European Mennonites and the refugees soon became very obvious. It seemed every person, every pastor, every congregation, every conference, every organization, and every national Mennonite group knew and supported the program with finances, material, and volunteer service.
In retrospect this amazing cooperation may be without equal in Mennonite history—both groups were givers and receivers by sharing experiences, working together, and worshipping together, with many bonding for life. There are still American tour groups visiting the families in refugee settlements while some of the ex-refugees are still visiting “Pax boys” in America.
The mutual benefit from the global Pax program, “helping and being helped,” was and is attested to by almost every Pax worker– “it opened my life to the world.” The refugee recipients of Pax service around the world will never forget the friendship and help they received from the “Pax boys.”
For more information, read Calvin Redekop’s book, The Pax Story: Service in the Name of Christ, 1951-1976 (2001).
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