Shifting discourses about service

[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The notion of service has stood at the heart of MCC’s self-identity for decades. Yet, at the same time, the meaning of service has shifted over MCC’s nearly century-long history. Or, perhaps better put, the nature of service has been an ongoing point of contestation within MCC. In this article, I trace shifting meanings of service across MCC’s history, examining how MCC workers have critiqued and reimagined service.

Service in MCC’s early decades had two primary meanings. Service represented first and foremost an act of discipleship, a lived response to Jesus’ command to his disciples to give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty (Matthew 25:31-46). Service, from this vantage point, is roughly synonymous with relief efforts to meet basic human needs. For
many supporters of MCC today, this approach to service shapes their understanding of MCC’s mission—and, indeed, through the distribution of comforters, relief kits, canned meat and more, a vital part of MCC service is a reaching out to the Christ whom we encounter in those who hunger and thirst.

A second primary meaning of service in MCC’s first half-century was service a Christian alternative to military service through programs such as Civilian Public Service (CPS), Pax and the Teachers Abroad Program (TAP). Such alternative service was often understood as a different way of contributing to the good of one’s country. So, for example, MCC’s executive committee declared in a September 16, 1943, statement that CPS work “has meaning to the men who perform it as an expression of loyalty and love to their country, and of their desire to make a contribution to its welfare.”

The 1950s saw the emergence of a preoccupation that has reverberated up to the present, namely, a worry that MCC service runs the risk of becoming decoupled from Christian witness. At a 1958 consultation about MCC’s work attended by Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ mission agencies, Brethren in Christ church leader and chair of the MCC board C.N. Hostetter asked, “In the light of MCC’s function as a relief
organization and not as a church, is there no danger of an overemphasis on purely social service? Such danger does exist. It is important that our relief ministry ‘In the Name of Christ’ be more than a nominal cliché. . . . Unless our workers know Christ, give themselves to Christ as they give themselves for others and witness positively for Christ, our program falls short as Christian relief.”

Was MCC concerned with the need of Anabaptists from Canada and the U.S. to serve, or with the self-identified priorities of churches and communities in the countries where MCC operated?”

This concern about the potential separation of “word and deed” has surfaced repeatedly over the ensuing decades, with an insistence that MCC service is carried out in the name of Christ. In an influential article in 1970 on the occasion of MCC’s fiftieth anniversary, Peter Dyck articulated a “theology of service” that would resist a “fragmented approach” that assigned “Christian mission” exclusively to Anabaptist mission boards. Authentic Christian service, argued Dyck, was “eschatological hope made visible,” a testimony within a fallen world to God’s redemptive love. In a slightly different vein, long-time MCC worker in Central America Susan Classen argued in 2003 that “If MCC is to continue into the future, we will need to root ourselves in a spirituality of service.” Service, Classen continued, “is not finally a ‘should’ so much as a ‘therefore,’ a response to God’s prior
work in our lives.”

Even as service in MCC’s early decades was viewed as a one-way response of discipleship from the United States and Canada to the rest of the world, narratives within MCC complicated this unidirectional picture. Writing in 1970, former MCC administrator and long-time Mennonite church leader Robert Kreider described MCC as a “continuing education” program for North American Mennonites, reflecting on the fact that MCC workers testified to how much more they had learned and received during their service terms than they had given or taught. In the 1990s, MCC executive director Ron Mathies expanded Kreider’s argument by conceptualizing Christian service as transformative education and portraying MCC as an “educational institution.”

The 1970s also saw the start of creative ferment and rethinking within MCC about the nature of service. In 1976, for example, Urbane Peachey, then MCC’s Peace Section executive secretary and Middle East director, penned a provocative article for MCC’s internal publication, Intercom, entitled “Service—Who Needs It?” “We’ve really done our best to send skilled personnel who could make a needed contribution,” Peachey wrote, “but now there are a number of countries which are interested in our aid but not our personnel.” MCC should ask itself: “Who is asking for the relationship? With whose needs are we primarily concerned?” Was MCC concerned with the need of Anabaptists from Canada and the U.S. to serve, or with the self-identified priorities of churches and communities in the countries where MCC operated (which might not include the placement of North American workers)? Such questions about what role, if any, service workers from Canada and the U.S. might fruitfully play internationally became more
pressing as countries around the world gained greater independence from former colonial powers and with the rise of a professional class and the growth and development of civil society organizations in those countries. These types of questions also gained in intensity as MCC moved from direct implementation of program to greater partnership with and accompaniment of local churches and civil society organizations.

During this period, service started to be redefined as learning. Responding to Peachey’s 1976 Intercom article, Atlee Beechy, a member of MCC’s executive committee, wondered if “perhaps it is time to redefine the meaning of service, to recognize more fully the two-way dimension of service, including the notion that learning from others is an act of service.” Such pondering was accompanied by active debates within MCC over the following decades about colonial and racialized assumptions about who is serving whom and where, with some visions of service critiqued for their implicit assumptions of service as a unidirectional initiative of white Mennonites of European heritage to the rest of the world. Reflecting back on these debates in the late 1990s, Judy Zimmerman Herr summarized these concerns in the form of questions: “Does being in a giving posture demean those we send our help to? . . . Is our service really an expression of power? How do we prevent our service from becoming an attitude of self-righteousness?”

The redefinition of service as learning was crystallized in a 1986 review of MCC Africa’s work led by Tim Lind. “Africans have suffered under centuries of words and theories of change/development coming from the North,” Lind observed. “It is in this context that servanthood for us today means abandoning all of the good and useful things we have to say in Africa in favor of a listening stance.” MCC workers from Canada and the U.S., Lind argued, needed to take a “back seat” and adopt a “waiting” posture. Revisioning service as listening and learning, Lind recognized, “may seem to some less than exciting and creative, particularly as it involves a shift in our thinking about ourselves as initiators and planners of activities and responses to need. However,” he continued, “we feel that this posture is in fact highly creative as it allows space and visibility to approaches to service and development which are different from our Western approaches, and which can mix with our own approaches in new and exciting ways.”

This reconceptualization in the seventies and eighties of service as a multidirectional
movement of listening, learning and sharing has shaped MCC service programs up to the present. This new understanding of service was reflected in the name adopted by MCC when it inaugurated an eleven-month service program for young adults from Canada and the U.S. to the rest of the world: Serving and Learning Together, or SALT. [MCC Canada had also earlier operated a voluntary service program inside Canada under
the SALT name.] In later years, the Serving with Appalachian Peoples (SWAP) program changed its name to Sharing with Appalachian Peoples. Meanwhile, MCC service programs have expanded understandings of who is engaged in service and where. MCC U.S.’s Summer Service program and MCC Canada’s Summerbridge program have provided opportunities for young adults of color to serve in their local communities. The Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN), operated in partnership with Mennonite World Conference, offers eleven-month service opportunities for young adults outside of Canada and the U.S. to other parts of the Majority World, opportunities through which the global church shares gifts of service with one another. And the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), initially established in 1950 to provide European Mennonites with one-year service opportunities in the United States and
Canada, now includes participants from over 25 countries.

The broader contexts within which MCC service takes place are ever evolving. Increased restrictions on visas by many countries, including Canada and the U.S., present barriers to intercultural service programs like those operated by MCC. Organizations receiving service workers have greater expectations of those workers bringing professional and even specialized skills. The meanings of service within MCC will undoubtedly continue changing as MCC enters its second century and as MCCers engage in vigorous discernment about what constitutes service in the name of Christ.

Alain Epp Weaver is co-director of MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department.

Learn more

Classen, Susan. “A Spirituality of Service: Freely Give, Freely Receive.” MCC Occasional Paper, No. 29. January 2003.

Dyck, Peter J. “A Theology of Service.” Mennonite Quarterly Review. 44/3 (July 1970): 262–280.

Fountain, Philip Michael. “Translating Service: An Ethnography of the Mennonite
Central Committee.” Ph.D. dissertation, Australian National University, 2011.

Koontz, Ted. “Commitments and Complications in Doing Good.” In Unity amidst Diversity: Mennonite Central Committee at 75. Akron, PA: MCC, 1996.

Kreider, Robert. “The Impact of Service on American Mennonites.” Mennonite
Quarterly Review. 44/3 (July 1970): 245–261.

Lind, Tim and Pakisa Tshimika. Sharing Gifts in the Global Family of Faith: One Church’s Experiment. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003.

Malkki, Liisa. The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

Mathies, Ronald J.R. “Service as (Trans)formation : MCC As Educational Institution.” In Unity amidst Diversity: Mennonite Central Committee at 75, 69-81. Akron, PA: MCC, 1996.

Schlabach, Gerald. To Bless All Peoples: Serving with Abraham and Jesus. Scottdale, PA: 1991.

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