The MCC Story: Engaging the World amidst Suffering and Hope
Dr. Ron Matthies
A few years ago when I was last departing the Abbotsford airport, I watched a woman just ahead of me going through a security check. The officer was gently insistent. The woman became more and more agitated and annoyed. What was at stake was a small pair of scissors. The officer was determined that they would not go on the aircraft. The woman was just as determined that they would go with her. After much shouting, in a final effort to appease her, the officer said, "Well you know, we give all these confiscated items to the MCC thrift shop!"
Ah, ha. Obviously MCC is well known here.
Two months ago I met a woman in Ontario who lives in the Fraser Valley. I had not met her before. With great enthusiasm she talked at length about the various ways she was involved with her church in activities supporting MCC.
The last time I was in Abbotsford I went into the thrift shop down the road and watched John Peters, in his 90s I think, carefully recycling copper wire. John Wittenberg was recycling cardboard, and when I asked why he was doing this he replied "It's payback time". Helping others the way his family had been helped decades ago.
A few years ago I received a letter from a woman in Ohio who said her mother was turning 100, and since her last birthday had made 97 comforter tops for MCC!
On the occasion of MCC's 75th anniversary some 12 years ago, Robert Kreider, former president of Bluffton College, wrote that "MCC receives gifts of ordinary people doing ordinary things".(1) Indeed!
However, ordinary people, doing ordinary things, have extraordinary consequences. A few months ago in Asia, I heard the story of a former local MCC employee who was disgruntled because his assignment had ended. He had considered taking MCC to court (which was very common there) but he said that two experiences had stopped him. The one was that he had received training from MCC in conflict resolution and had learned better ways to resolve disagreements. The second reason was that he had visited North America with MCC, and seen women and men working hard at thrift stores and material resource centres. These experiences kept him from going to litigation.
Ordinary, local stories, with global consequences.
Robert Kreider also wrote that "MCC was born and is reborn in the valleys of tragedy". Some of your stories, like that of my grandmothers and parents, have their origin in the Ukraine and Russia in the 1920s when MCC was birthed. Perhaps, like David Berg (of Abbotsford), you can say that "I owe my life to MCC. If it were not for MCC, I would not be here!"(2) Others of you connect with the stories coming out of the migrations to South America, others with being refugees in post WWII Europe (as is the case with my wife and her family). Still others of you may associate with the 1980s-90s wars in south east Asia, Central America or Africa, that brought you or your families or friends to Canada.
A few months ago in Asia I listened to the stories of MCC being reborn again and again amidst the tragedies of poverty in Bangladesh, tsunami trauma in Indonesia, and the killing fields in Cambodia. Indeed, the 87 year history of MCC is filled with suffering and sorrow, but also faithfulness and hope.
Tonight I want to focus on just two questions. First, how do others view the MCC story? And second, what are current and future challenges facing MCC? And then I'll conclude with showing a few pictures of MCC's involvement in Sudan.
2. How do others view the MCC story?
a) Multiple Meanings
Some years ago a former MCC colleague started collecting the names of "other" MCC's (i.e. other than Mennonite Central Committee). I'm not sure how many he gathered, but I recently did a Google search on my computer, and in 5/100ths of a second came up with 16,700,000 "hits" about MCC. These other "MCC's" included colleges, churches, medical councils, cricket clubs, motorcycle clubs, multi-cultural centers, computing companies, conference centres and much more. Many different "MCC's". Multiple meanings.
During my years at the MCC office in Akron PA I was sure that the United States postal officials were sometimes totally confused as to our identity. One package arrived addressed to the "Men of Light Central Committee". (I suppose that is better than "men of night" central committee!) One day a letter arrived from California, in just 3 days, with no other postmarks on the letter, with the name and the address simply: "God and his son Jesus, Heaven". How did that letter arrive in Akron? And in only 3 days???
But many others around the world have a very clear opinion of the identity and work of MCC. Permit me something tonight that I've never done before, something very un-Mennonite, and share with you some of the accolades that MCC has received in the last few years.
As you look at the quotes, analyze them for their meaning.
-from Howard Dyck, on CBC radio Sunday morning choral concert (2006): after playing two pieces of the "highly acclaimed West Coast Mennonite Choir" he said the proceeds of the sale of this choir CD were for MCC, which he described as the "greatly respected international relief and development organization".
-from consultants Thomas Jeavons and Rebekah Burch Basinger, in their book Growing Givers Hearts: "MCC is widely recognized as one of the best Christian international development agencies, both in terms of the work it does and in terms of the witness it makes and the opportunities it creates for Christians through service. It has maintained its remarkable focus, quality of service, and spiritual vitality, at least in part because it has maintained such strong, intimate relationship with the denomination it represents."(3)
-from Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale Seminary and University, former president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, on a recent TV program: "justice is at the heart of the gospel. Evangelical Christians have made a big mistake by not recognizing this. Christians need to give themselves in service to others. For example, people like [MCCO worker] Eileen Henderson and the circles of support program working with pedophiles."
-from theologians Mark Noll and Ronald Thiemann, writing about evangelicalism:(4) "but at its best, evangelicalism is William Wilberforce, who for the sake of the kingdom of Christ devoted his life to the destruction of slavery….at its best evangelicalism is the tireless, unpretentious, but absolutely stunning social achievements of the Salvation Army and the MCC."
-from former minister of foreign affairs, and now president of the University of Winnipeg, Lloyd Ax worthy:(5) "MCC was chosen for its work in creating a more just society, for their defense of truth and justice, for their understanding that seeds of peace are sown not with clenched fists but with open hands. …in my work as Canada's minister of foreign affairs, I found myself in many desperate situations in remote and war-torn corners of our world, and more often than not, there before other relief or government agencies would be an MCC worker."
-former first lady Rosalynn Carter, congratulating MCC for receiving the St. Boniface Hospital and Research Foundation International Award (2000) which she had been awarded some years earlier: "the international award recognizes those who have made significant contributions to humankind, and I can think of no one more deserving of this important tribute than you. Through your compassion, strength and determination, you have made the world a better place for us all. I applaud your service to people in need …"
-university professors Susan Dicklitch and Heather Rice:(6) "it remains the most effective, efficient, accountable, and grassroots-responsive way of dealing with development issues…MCC is successful in its contribution to development and empowerment in 20 African countries because of its philosophical and programmatic focus on accountability, its holistic approach to basic rights, and a "listen and learn" approach which embraces empowerment and social justice."
-from Brian Steward at CBC, one of Canada's leading journalists, a comment about Christian agencies, and thus indirectly about MCC:(7) "I've found there is no movement, or force, closer to the raw truth of war, famines, crises, and the vast human predicament, than organized Christianity in action. And there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, ordained and lay members, when mobilized for a common good. It is these Christians who are right "on the front lines" of committed humanity today, and when I want to find that front, I follow their trail".
-from a donor walking into an MCC office with a large cheque after the tsunami: "I know you people help others"
-from a Canadian aboriginal woman, on a flight to Frankfurt, observing that I was reading a German newspaper: "You must be Mennonite. I've met a several Mennonites who speak German. The Mennonites were very helpful to us in our time of need."
-from Ayatollah Mizpah, a leading conservative religious leader in Iran, welcoming MCC workers Gary & Lydia Harder: "you are the first Christian clerics in the 14 century history of Qom to be invited by and hosted by a Muslim institute".
-from a Chinese government official, explaining to a Muslim Imam, who my MCC colleague and I were: "they are believers in God, and followers of Jesus".
Well, what do all of these mean?
But there are not only accolades. There has always been strong critique of MCC as well, usually from within the church constituency. Over a 3 year period that I monitored the critique that came to my desk, these messages averaged 1-2 a month. A few years ago, Time magazine carried an article on Christian workers in Iraq, and MCC was one of the agencies featured. At that time I received 24 letters in about 2 months -- half of them with strong critique of MCC, half strongly commending MCC for, as one BC Mennonite leader said, "The best missiology I have heard in years".
Criticism would often focus on perceptions that MCC was "too political" (or perhaps the "wrong" politics) on the Middle East, or was wrong in helping Iraq ("anti-American, un-Christian"; one Mennonite said that he supported MCC strongly, but not when "helping the enemy - - that is going over the top"), or too critical of North American governments.
There was concern that working with other faith groups (like Muslims) meant that MCC was pluralist, not clear in our Christian witness. Others disagreed with ethical stances that were taken or discussed, such as issues of gender or sexuality, pacifism and violence.
These compliments and criticisms, I suggest, are to be expected when one is engaging the world amidst suffering and hope.
3. Let me offer 5 ongoing challenges that MCC faces now and will in the future as we engage the world amidst suffering and hope
1st Challenge: the state of the world
The 20th century has been called the most violent in history, with as many deaths caused by war/violence as the previous 19 combined. The 21st century has begun as an "age of terrorism". One Harvard historian suggests that our age of "globalization" could collapse as did the 1st age of globalization at the beginning of the 20th century because we have similar conditions: unstable international monetary system; technology to kill large numbers of people; fragility of both the U.S. and Chinese financial systems; rogue regimes and revolutionary terrorism.
When I was in Asia a few months ago, I asked MCC workers and partners what evidence of conflict and violence they experienced in their countries. The lists were long and overwhelming: family, community, national and international conflict. The day I left for Asia, North Korea exploded its nuclear test. As I was returning to Canada, there was rioting on the streets of Bangladesh.
A few years ago the Carnegie Institute for Ethics in International Affairs asked MCC (along with other organizations) to submit what we thought were the 5 most important ethical issues of our decade. What would be on your list? Here are the ones we submitted along with the moral issues involved.
(a) Economic globalization: will the gap between the rich and poor be bridged or continue to grow wider?
(b) Human rights abuses: how will we handle religious, ideological, ethnic, racial and other conflict?
(c) Environmental degradation: will we learn how to stop desecrating God's creation?
(d) HIV/AIDS: will the growing number of deaths, especially in Africa, be halted?
(e) Militarization of society: can we even imagine a world without the presence or threat of war?
2nd Challenge: changes within the MCC supporting constituency
Structural changes within the largest denominations of MCC and the renaming of one of the smaller denominations (Evangelical Mennonite Church in the USA to Fellowship of Evangelical Churches) not only require a tremendous amount of attention and energy, they can often result in changes not anticipated. Will these denominations want to continue to focus on inter-Mennonite efforts? Will the smaller groups feel sidelined by the larger groups? What will be the impact of polarization on ethical/theological/missiological issues in our larger faith community? Someone has said that the "marriage of political ideology and theology are not always bad marriages, but their offspring are always blind".
Over the last decade, there has been an increasingly close relationship built between MCC and the Mennonite World Conference (MWC). We've shared joint projects, received and given counsel, and are talking about issues of governance. Will this relationship continue to grow, remain the same, or decrease? How will the North American Anabaptist constituency see this relationship?
What about our understanding of mission and MCC's part in this? Mennonite missiologist Allan Kreider says that there are three periods of mission: pre-Christendom; Christendom; and post Christendom. He thinks we haven't yet recognized that we are in the last of these ages. Wilbert Shenk, writing in the last issue of the MWC Courier, says we've sometimes used inappropriate methods in mission (proselytism, conquest, spiritual escape).(8) Will we continue to work together in mission?
3rd Challenge: what international program focus?
Currently MCC has three international program foci: emergency relief, community development, and peace building. Should there be more? Fewer? What balance? How should program direction be decided, by the North American constituency or the international partners? Should there be a strategic planning process, or should MCC just bless anything that Mennonites want to do? Which countries should MCC be in? Iraq, Iran and North Korea? (The axis of evil) Philippines, Burma Myanmar, South Korea? (I heard about these in my recent trip in Asia.)
Does MCC and the supporting constituency advocate passionately enough in Ottawa, Washington and New York on behalf of our suffering partners? We carry a huge responsibility, having walked with those who are suffering.
4th Challenge: how much security is needed for MCC personnel?
In my last month in the Akron office I saw an application of a prospective MCCer that had in it the question "can you guarantee my safety?" The answer is easy -- no. Over the last decade MCC has temporarily relocated personnel in a number of countries because of safety concerns: Colombia, Guatemala, Jamaica; Congo, Rwanda, Lesotho; Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand; Iraq, Lebanon.
Nonetheless, I find it nothing short of miraculous that in the 87 year history of MCC, only 3 workers have been killed in violent conflict: Clayton Kratz in Ukraine in the 1920s, Marie Fast on the Mediterranean during WWII; Daniel Gerber in Vietnam during the "American war" there. An additional 35 workers have died in service, almost evenly divided between the causes of illnesses and accidents, largely unrelated to the direct assignments.
At what stage is there "danger" in too much focus on "safety"? Will our constituency continue to take kingdom risks?
5th Challenge: resource allocation
Given that the needs of a suffering world outstrip MCC's resources, where and how should they be applied? What location: provincial, national or international programs? Which resources: material, financial or human? Which programs: relief, development or peace? All of the resources could be used at any one of these locations or in any one of these programs.
Should MCC accept more or less government funding, more or fewer donors outside the church constituency? Does the amazing outpouring of compassion for victims of the tsunami indicate a new understanding of global solidarity?
4. Compliments, Criticism & Challenges: engaging the world amidst suffering & hope
Desmond Tutu, former Anglican Archbishop of South Africa, said that we must engage the suffering of the world because "Christians are prisoners of hope". President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic has said "Hope is not a feeling. It is doing what makes sense."
Someone has said: "Hope is the ability to hear and feel the music of the future. Faith is the courage and passion to dance to that music."
1 Robert Kreider. "The Multiple Visions of MCC's 75 Years". Kreider, R.S. & R.J.R. Mathies (Eds.). Unity Amidst Diversity: MCC at 75. Akron, PA.: MCC. 1996. p.2.
2 Bill Thiessen. "I owe my life to MCC: the memories of David Berg". MB Herald. April 9, 2004. p.27.
3 Growing Givers Hearts: Treating Fundraising as Ministry. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000. p.175.
4 Where Shall My Wond'ring Soul Begin? The Landscape of Evangelical Piety and Thought. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2000. p.21.
5 Awarding MCC the University of Winnipeg's Global Citizenship Award, 2004.
6 "The MCC and Faith-Based NGO Aid to Africa". Development in Practice. V.14, No.5. August 2004.
7 Graduation Address, Knox College, University of Toronto, 2004.
8 Wilbert R. Shenk. "Forming disciples who think and act like Jesus". Courier. 2006/4. p.4.