In 1920, two Mennonite women from Milverton and Markham in Southern Ontario wrote letters to the Mennonite Central Committee, a brand-new organization based in Pennsylvania. They were concerned
about the suffering of fellow Mennonites in Russia and
wanted to send clothing, quilts and money. Mennonite
communities in Russia had been hit hard by the First
World War, the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing
tyranny of the Soviet government. Canadian Mennonites
wanted to help.
Although the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)
originated in the United States, Canadian Mennonite and
Brethren in Christ groups co-operated with the MCC and
also formed their own organizations to co-ordinate relief
efforts and help refugees from the crisis settle in Canada.
Thus began the long history of involvement by Canadian Mennonites and Brethren in overseas relief and
development work, which Esther Epp-Thiessen unveils in
her new book Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A
History (CMU Press, 2013).
In the decades to come, Mennonites, including many
Russian Mennonite immigrants and their children, rolled
up their sleeves to help those in need around the world.
During the Second World War, John Coffman from
Vineland, Ont., suggested the MCC sew the phrase “In
the Name of Christ” into clothing it handed out to those
affected by war. Soon refugee children in war-ravaged
Europe were receiving blankets, clothes and toys “in the
name of Christ.”
The work continued after the war. Eventually in 1963
Canadian Mennonites and Brethren in Christ came togeth-
er at a meeting in Winnipeg and decided to form a Can-
adian branch of the MCC. MCC Canada was instrumental
in forming the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an organiza-
tion that has worked to relieve global hunger since 1983.
Likewise, Canadian MCC supporters were enthusiastically involved in MCC programs originating in the
United States. One of these programs. SelfHelp, sold
handicrafts made by people in places like Haiti and India
as a meaningful way to help poor artisans and their families. SelfHelp was the beginning of the North American
Helping in the name
to Russia with love and back again. the
rich history of the Mennonite Central
Committee in Canada.
“fair trade” movement. Today it is known as Ten Thousand Villages.
While MCC’s mission seemed simple – to help in the
name of Christ – actually carrying out that mission was
not. Like any large multilevel organization, the MCC experienced tensions over the decades between the various
provincial, national and international MCC bodies over
things like decision making and the equitable sharing of
funds. At times, even sharp disputes arose between MCC
leaders (reminiscent of the split between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15: 36–40).
The organization’s supporters, who typically wanted
MCC Canada to focus on disaster relief and related projects, sometimes had different priorities than the organization’s leaders, who tended to envision a broader role
including things like relationship building with Canada’s
indigenous communities and peace activism rooted in the
Mennonite belief in nonviolence.
Like many Christian churches and ministry organizations, the MCC has also wrestled in recent decades with
how to respond to emerging cultural and ideological
trends such as feminism, the environmental movement,
the gay rights movement, postcolonialism and so on.
Which of these movements had something valuable to
say to Christians, and what elements had to be rejected
from a biblical perspective?
In short, Epp-Thiessen’s book reveals that running a
major aid and development organization, especially one
that tries to bring together many different people and
churches, is a messy business. Helping “in the name of
Christ” is complicated, and not at all for the faint of heart.
Yet such work – including the work of building and stewarding institutions that can carry on a mission across generations – is both necessary and rewarding.
In the 16th century Menno Simons, an early Anabap-
tist leader and founder of the Mennonite tradition, had
this to say:
True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it can-
not lie dormant, but manifests itself in all righteous-
ness and works of love…. [It] clothes the naked, it
feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shel-
ters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it re-
turns good for evil; it serves those who harm it; it
prays for those who persecute it…. [It] binds up that
which is wounded. FT
KEvIn FlATT is assistant professor of history at
Redeemer university College in Hamilton, ont.
Historylesson n BY KEVIN FlAtt