Reflections from Pax (1951-1976)

[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

“Being caught in East Berlin without passports, handing out Christmas bundles to the ‘less fortunate,’ living with and learning to know European Mennonite students, eating goat meat with an Arab Sheikh, and seeing the new year in with prayer under the light of Greek stars: this is Pax, this is your experience, this is mine.”
—Pax Newsletter, January 20, 1959

All workers who have spent two or more years working in an area of need and with a people in a different land and culture will not return the same as they went. To many of them, this is a school of ‘hard knocks.’ …Out of this school there cannot help but come some well-tempered and tried man whom the Church may look to for leadership in the future.

Harry Martens

Inaugurated in 1951, MCC’s Pax program provided varied service opportunities for hundreds of young men (and some young women) in many contexts around the world, including post-World War II relief and reconstruction projects in Europe, humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, the construction of a highway through Paraguay’s Chaco region and community development work in Greece, Bolivia and Congo. The last Pax workers concluded their service in 1976. For most Pax workers, participation in Pax fulfilled alternative service obligations through the United States’ I-W program. Yet MCC sought for the Pax program to be not only an alternative to military service, a program for “conscripted Christians,” but a proactive form of Christian peace witness staffed by “willing second-milers.” The excerpts from Pax reports, newsletters and conference proceedings below offer windows into the joys, challenges and motivations of the men and women who served with Pax. These excerpted reflections and reports show Pax workers assessing their efforts as Christian witness, as a proactive form of nonresistance, as an alternative form of service to the United States and as a contribution to anti-Communist efforts. Pax “matrons,” who made homes away from home for Pax “boys,” reflect on how their work of cooking, cleaning and mending clothes offered a Christian witness, even as these Pax women also pushed beyond gendered expectations of service. Finally, these reflections show Pax workers understanding their service as a form of transformative education, a “school of hard knocks” that opened up new understandings of and passions for Christian service.

Pax as Christian service

The Pax man “is a Christian pacifist worker for others in the name of Christ. …At his best, he forgets self, thinking only of others.… The Pax man does not build bridges of understanding and goodwill between peoples and communions by lecturing or preaching but through practical demonstration,through hard physical labor.”
—Peter Dyck, “Pax Bridge Builders,” Euro-Pax News, August 1959

“Our men, like St. Francis, are preaching many sermons as they ‘walk’ among the villagers, thereby winning their way into the hearts and confidence of the people. If we were competent in all the technical skills and in all the principles of community development, and failed to reach the Greeks as we have, we could not consider our program a success.”
—William Snyder, “Executive Evaluates Greece Program”

“Since being in Pax I feel that my growth and development as a Christian has been greatly increased, through fellowshipping with young fellows of the same faith and by discussing the Bible with them. Through these discussions we learn to know our Lord better. May the Lord bless us as each one of us labors in His vineyards.”
—Richard Lambright, “Activity Report,” Tsakones, Greece, March 7, 1956

“To me Pax was the ultimate in service. Of course, it meant sacrifice, in name at least, such as losing two years’ income, selling a sharp ’41 Ford, and leaving friends and family. But I knew it would be worth it. The opportunities for adventure, learning new languages and learning about peoples of other culture, and seeing the historic ‘Old World’ were privileges that even the leaders of the program recognized and granted us. So, why not go?… But there was still a deeper reason why I chose Pax, a very basic motive… This was the desire to return God’s love by doing something constructive for someone else. Pax provided just this opportunity.”
—David Burkholder, “Why a Man Goes Pax,” Youth’s Christian Companion, September 16, 1962

“PAX men should be impregnated with the truth that they are in the first place Voluntary Service people. They are not ‘drafted Christians’, but rather ‘willing second-milers.’ . . . . PAX should not be two years to get over with, but two years packed with opportunities and challenging work. The PAX fellow should grow inwardly and contribute positively during these two years.”
— “Pax Operation Suggestions”

Pax as alternative service to country

“To be a patriot means to contribute the best we can to the welfare of our nation, and this is our active peace position rather than taking up arms.” —Omar Lapp, Backnang, Germany, August 13, 1955

Pax man, LeFever, works at a housing project in Bielefeld, Germany in 1957. The MCC Pax program functioned primarily as an alternative service option for conscientious objectors drafted into U.S. military service from 1951 to 1975. A few men from Canada also participated, even though Canada had no draft. (MCC photo)

“[The Europeans] realize that we are here to help them have a better living, but at the same time realize that we are here instead of being in a branch of the armed forces. We might do well to ask ourselves whether we would be doing this type of service if it were not part of our requirement towards the United States government.”
—Robert Beyeler to Robert Good, “Activity Report,” May 28, 1960

“These small mountain villages [in Greece] have always been a breeding ground and a no-man’s land for factions participating in the civil war. Communist rebels found security in the mountains above the villages and continued to receive reinforcements from Communist sympathizers located across the border of Yugoslavia less than 10 miles away. The Communist ideology received followers from the ranks of the poor refugee farmers because of their low standard of living. The need for removing the causes of Communism is one of the greatest challenges confronting Christianity today. Removing the causes for war presents a great opportunity for our Peace witness.”
—Dwight Wiebe, “Status of Pax Greece 1955”

“I believe that this is the time for the Christian World to demonstrate the Love of God in contrast to Communist fear. This is a real opportunity for us as a Mennonite Church to help meet the needs of our fellowman physically, but minister also to his spiritual need by witnessing of the love of Christ.”
—Arthur Driedger at a home for Hungarian refugees in Klosterneuburg-Weidling, Austria

Pax as peace witness

“We speak glibly of the love of God. We print, ‘In God we trust’ on our coins. But we don’t trust God. We trust machine guns, ballistic missiles and H bombs. We trust in the $40 billion we give each year for defense. We believe that if it weren’t for our armies, evil forces would overtake major portions of the world. So we pay our taxes and hide behind the flimsy protection they can buy. . . . I am a Paxman because I believe that Christ was telling the truth when he proposed that loving your enemies and blessing them that curse you was the way of God. I believe that the love of Christ is practical. Not only can this love work miracles within the heart of an individual. It is the answer to suspicion, fear and mistrust which usually ends in violence.”
—Jim Juhnke, “A Paxer’s Testimony,” May 11, 1959

I am a Paxman because I believe that Christ was telling the truth when he proposed that loving your enemies and blessing them that curse you was the way of God. I believe that the love of Christ is practical. Not only can this love work miracles within the heart of an individual. It is the answer to suspicion, fear and mistrust which usually ends in violence.

—jim juhnke

“What is the Christian’s role and responsibility in this rather confusing business of peacemaking? One thing should be clear: to the Christian peacemaking is not a business but Christian living. It is not a movement but obedience, not a strategy but discipleship, not a position but a Person. Pax is not merely another movement or demonstration for peace. Pax men are living examples for peace, demonstrating the love of God in heart and life. A Christian service program such as Pax is a natural response to God’s love in the face of human need. We are peacemakers because we are His children.”
—Roy Kauffman, “Pax Men as Peacemakers”

“We are still thinking that it is a miracle that bridges are being built over our wreckage and ruins from one land to another, and that we can clasp hands. And these hands are not empty, but filled; the people are helping each other and the difficult and wicked past is being slowly forgotten. We are especially happy to find that the children, who have suffered more than the older people, are being given special consideration by the American friends—another token of a new and sincere human relationship.”
—Letter from the Mayor of Wedel, Germany, to the MCC office in Frankfurt/Main, January 4, 1955

Women in Pax

Breathes there a PAX man
with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
Matrons are made in Heaven!

"A tribute to Our Matrons," anonymous Pax man

“The boys like lots of variety in their meals and are surprisingly adventurous in their eating. They like a clean house, but also one that is livable… Realizing that the matron will never be able to fit into their mothers’ shoes they still want a home away from home. I hope that I was able to give them one.”
—Joyce Shutt, matron in Enkenbach, Germany, “Reflections of a PAX Matron”

Paxman J. Lester Yoder, of Belleville, Pennsylvania, is showing a hog to a Greek farmer in 1962. MCC’s agriculture program introduced purebred hogs to farmers in Greece in the late 1950s, and Pax workers provided training and guidance in hog husbandry. Program participants were required to construct a hog house and sturdy enclosure to qualify for the program. (MCC photo/V. Cross)

“At night I retire to my room and ponder over the day’s happenings. Yes, I have been busy. Not many minutes have been wasted. However, I do not feel satisfied and can’t help wondering: is there really a purpose to my being here? True enough, the fellows like to come in for a substantial meal after a day of hard work. But is making meals and scrubbing floors my sole purpose for being here? I like to think not. Should such be the case, these two years would be wasted time and effort. Then my thoughts turn away from my day’s work and I begin to the think of the fellows They are here because they believe the wrong in this world can never be made right by force and bloodshed. They are here not merely because they don’t believe in war, but because they believe in peace. They are here because they know a Savior who teaches us to love all men and do good unto them. Then I ask myself ask: What is my purpose for being here? My thoughts become more settled and I begin to see and understand the purpose. I am here because I believe as the fellows do. Then if I can do anything to strengthen that belief, to make their stay more pleasant, to help them in their effort to build a bit of the kingdom of heaven here on earth, I shall feel that my time has been profitably spent.”
—Anne Driedger, Pax matron in Bechterdissen bei Bielefeld, “This is Not a Dream!” European Relief Notes, January 1956

“I must master the art of saying pleasant things, I must not expect too much from my fellowman, must make my work congenial and pleasant, I must help the miserable, sympathize with the sorrowful, and never forget that a kind word, a smile or a loving deed costs little but are treasures to others. It is not only my duty, but rather my privilege to be and do these things thereby revealing to others that non-resistance is meaningful to me and with God’s help I live it daily.”
—Tina Warkentin, “What Non-Resistance Means to Me,” February 10, 1959

MCC Voluntary Service in Korea involves “some glamour, some broadening of experience, some new learning, and a lot of dedication and hard work.” —Lydia Schlabach, nurse in Seoul, Korea, 1962

“Our fellows do wonderful work on construction of new houses, but haven’t you heard of the MCC girls who help village girls construct and mend their clothing? Pax farmers help village farmers mix feeds and make silos, while lady Paxers acquaint village housewives with new recipes. As men discuss personal problems with men, so women discuss personal concerns with the women.”
—Lois Martin, Pax matron in Greece, 1962

Pax as a transformative school

“It goes without saying that all workers who have spent two or more years working in an area of need and with a people in a different land and culture will not return the same as they went. To many of them this is a school of ‘hard knocks.’ They are away from comfortable homes, a land of plenty and now living under very modest circumstances and day after day see human need and despair. . . . Out of this school there cannot help but come some well-tempered and tried man whom the Church may look to for leadership in the future.”
—Harry Martens, “You Are My Witnesses”

“Mr. Paxman returns home with a hatred for materialism and a passion for peace and social action. He feels he has a gleam of truth that daren’t be lost, and he will try to put it across every chance he gets.”
—By the Editor, “Paxman Come Home,” Youth’s Christian Companion, September 16, 1962

Compiled by Alain Epp Weaver (director of MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department), together with Frank Peachey and Lori Wise (MCC U.S. Records manager and assistant, respectively).

Pax MCC.

Redekop, Calvin W. The European Mennonite Voluntary Service: Youth Idealism in Post-World War II Europe. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2010.

Redekop, Calvin. The Pax Story: Service in the Name of Christ, 1951-1976. Telford, PA: Pandora Press, 2001.

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