Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.
Beginning with the decision by some MCC workers from the United States to remain in Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country on March 29, 1973, one form MCC’s peace witness has taken has been a witness of presence within so-called “enemy” contexts. Such peace witness included placing graduate students behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War tasked with connecting to and supporting churches in the Eastern bloc, assigning aid workers to live and work in Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion of the country in 2002, placing more graduate students at an Islamic studies center in Qom, Iran, seconding staff to work with health ministries in Afghanistan and sending agronomists to make extended program support visits to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). Below are reflections from MCC workers who were involved in such peacebuilding-as-presence initiatives on the joys and challenges they faced.—The editors.
As our plane landed in Iran about 20 years ago, my thoughts swirled with hope and fear. What will “blessed are the peacemakers” look like as our family’s daily work in a religiously and politically foreign land? My spouse, Maren, and I had just finished studying Persian, Shi’ite Islam and Women in Islam the previous months at the University of Virginia. We both had seminary degrees. Fear of the unknown swirled around our hope for maintaining and strengthening an MCC peacebuilding bridge of trust in Iran. Many MCCers had visited Iran before to lay a deep foundation of relationships with Iranian partners through earthquake relief efforts and short-term medical work. We were called to be the first MCC staff to take up residence in the country.
Entering Iran meant not only arrival into a religiously and politically different world. It also unfolded within a legacy of no diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S. and strained Canadian-Iranian relationships. Both Maren and I were bicultural, something that helped us see two worlds. When we landed in Tehran, Maren had to put on a chador (“tent” in Persian) and I had to replace my gold wedding ring with a silver one.
Our presence in Iran as the only Christians living in the religious capital of Qom was marked by hospitality: giving and receiving tea, fruit and words of honor and welcome. How do we find and create shared meaning in the presence of our supposed enemies? Respect became a learned behavior in relationships.
Near the end of one meeting, a student said that he needed to leave early for the “Down with America” rally.” The word for “Down With” or “Death To” sounds a lot like the word for “chickens” in Persian, so I responded, “Do you mean ‘Chickens for America?’ Thank you very much.” He replied with a smile, “It is our seminary’s day of the month and the rally bus is coming soon—don’t take it personally!’
As we sought to build relationships, we focused on listening and answering questions as asked. We met many who wondered, “Why did you come here?” Over time, as trust was built in some relationships, legacy traumas and deep political and religious differences came on the table beside the tea. More time to listen, more words flowed. Some conversations went on for hours. After nine previous years in Egypt and Syria, I had come to enjoy this kind of conversation.
We usually had Friday lunch with other families. Each Tuesday I joined a group studying religions at the graduate level. I taught them some dimensions of Christian history and theology. At the end of each session, I noted one act of faith that changed the world. In one session I shared about Habitat for Humanity. The course coordinator researched Habitat online and came back the next session saying: “We need a Muslim Habitat for Humanity.” Maren spent time with various women at the Women’s University. We both studied Persian in the morning.
What do Mennonites, who seek in their daily lives to live out the politics of Jesus, do when encountering Iranian Shi’ites for whom the Rule of the Jurists (religious leaders) means the merging of national politics and religious practice? Many persons practiced their English with us and my knowing some Arabic helped a lot in conducting in-depth discussions about these differences.
Other MCC couples followed us to take up residence in Iran, while scores of Mennonites from Canada and the U.S. visited Iran as part of MCC-organized delegations. MCC also worked with Mennonite colleges, universities and seminaries in the U.S. in hosting Iranian delegations and in organizing academic conferences in Iran and Canada. Many other forms of encounter emerged, with Iranian delegations going to Canada and Iranian scholars-in-residence appointed for short terms at Mennonite universities in the U.S. and Canada. These delegations and exchanges continued—until the political winds changed here and there.
As I look back 20 years later, I hold more fear than hope. There are many ways to destroy the potential for peace and I am watching it happen stage by stage with increasing fervor on both sides. The Shi’ite legacy trauma of persecution has led to increased militancy in various countries. The U.S. assertiveness in the Middle East has shifted to Iran more intensely through sanctions and threats. There were and are forces very willing to sabotage peace on both sides, those very willing to push open the gates of hell and those working to close and seal them in acts of peacebuilding. We have yet to see the outcome.
Roy Hange worked with MCC for over a decade in Egypt, Syria and Iran. Together with his spouse, Maren, he pastors Charlottesville Mennonite Church in Virginia.
Kauffman, Richard A. An American in Persia: A Pilgrimage to Iran. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2010.
Pierce, Laurie Blanton. What is Iran? A Primer on Culture, Politics, and Religion. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2009.