Climate change adaptation and mitigation: What is MCC’s role?

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[Individual articles from the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Climate change has already wrought significant adverse impacts on people and the environment, including increasing the risk of climate-related disasters. Communities, governments and non-governmental organizations employ adaptation and mitigation strategies to respond to climate change risks, seeking to limit future negative impacts and to enable communities to cope with adverse effects. What is the responsibility of relief, development and peacebuilding agencies like MCC that work in climate change-affected communities to respond to climate change through adaptation and mitigation?

The intersecting concepts of disaster risk, hazards and vulnerability are key in understanding the broader approaches of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Hazards in this case refer to natural adverse events such as droughts, extreme temperatures, landslides or hurricanes. Vulnerability is a term used to describe the characteristics or circumstances of a community that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard, including exposure to the hazard and ability to cope or adapt to its effects. Vulnerability is influenced by a variety of factors, including gender, age, inequalities in the distribution of resources, access to technology and information, employment patterns and governance structures. Disaster risk is based on the occurrence of hazards and vulnerability to those hazards. Not only is climate change increasing the frequency and severity of many natural hazards, but climate change impacts are increasing vulnerability by diminishing the capacity of communities to cope with these adverse events because of greater unpredictability of climatic events, increased displacement, land degradation and other impacts.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation are two complementary strategies to reduce and manage the risk associated with climate change. Mitigation involves reducing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit future climate change. Mitigation strategies include switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, improving energy and transportation efficiency and increasing carbon “sinks” through reforestation. Adaptation is the process of adjusting to actual or expected climate change and its effects. Within communities, adaptation means avoiding or diminishing harm from climate impacts or exploiting beneficial opportunities associated with climate change. Adaptation includes a variety of activities to reduce vulnerability, including income and livelihood diversification, soil and water conservation, natural resource management and the provision of social safety nets. In addition, disaster risk reduction is a key strategy for reducing risk through efforts to analyze and manage the factors causing disaster situations, including reducing the exposure to hazards, lessening vulnerability of people and property and improving preparedness for disaster events.

MCC is primarily involved in climate change adaptation activities by supporting communities currently affected by climate change. Adaptation activities aim to reduce disaster risk by addressing different aspects of vulnerability within communities and building resilience to resist, absorb, accommodate and recover from the effects of climate-related hazards. MCC’s adaptation work includes training for farmers in conservation agriculture, construction of shelter resistant to hazards and providing improved access to safe water.

MCC is also involved in mitigation work, including advocating for government policies that address climate change, encouraging supporters to live simply, expanding efforts to implement sustainability initiatives within MCC operations in Canada and the U.S. and partnering with Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College in the founding of the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions to advance thinking and action within faith communities on mitigation. Internationally, some of MCC’s programming includes mitigation efforts such as reforestation and education on climate change and environmental sustainability.

Climate change is undermining the efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the development sector as they work towards poverty reduction, food security, improved access to clean water and other development goals. Development NGOs are recognizing the importance of adaptation strategies in programming as they experience the impact of climate change on vulnerability and disaster risk. While adaptation is key in reducing risk associated with climate change impacts, it does not address the root cause of climate change. Both mitigation and adaptation are essential to a comprehensive climate risk reduction strategy.

Considering the importance of limiting future climate change impacts to support sustainable development, what role should NGOs play in mitigation efforts? As a ministry of churches in Canada and the United States, MCC represents congregations in countries that contribute significantly to climate change and is itself a contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. To what extent is MCC responsible for mitigation, both with regards to its internal operations and its constituents located in Canada and the U.S.?

While MCC’s responsibility for climate change adaptation is inherent within its priorities of disaster relief and sustainable community development, MCC continues to explore its role in mitigation and opportunities for greater engagement on climate change matters. Even as MCC undertakes a number of initiatives to green its operations, MCC must discern how to balance an emphasis on internal mitigation efforts with a desire to implement program effectively and allocate resources efficiently. MCC asks itself how it can best partner with other like-minded organizations to engage and mobilize congregations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. As recent conversations convened by the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions suggest, MCC has the opportunity to join other organizations to advocate on policies that address climate change, to mobilize its supporters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to use its international adaptation work as a platform to propel climate action by connecting North American supporters with climate change-affected communities.

MCC’s work is increasingly connected to the impact of climate change on hazards and vulnerability within communities around the world. To be faithful in its mission of relief, development and peacebuilding in the name of Christ, MCC must carefully consider how best to respond to climate change risks, while also assessing its role in adaptation and mitigation efforts.

Amy Martens is research associate in MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department.

Learn more

Fay, Marianne, et al. Decarbonizing Development: Three Steps to a Zero-Carbon Future. Climate Change and Development Series. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2015. Available for download at https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/21842.

Martens, Amy. MCC and Climate Change: Responding to Climate Change Risks. MCC, 2016. Available at https://mccintersections.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/mcc-and-climate-change-working-paper-june-20171.pdf.

Hallegatte, Stephane, et al. Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty. Climate Change and Development Series. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2016. Available at https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/22787/9781464806735.pdf.

Hallegatte, Stephane, et al. Unbreakable: Building the Resilience of the Poor in the Face of Natural Disasters. Climate Change and Development Series. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2017. Available for download at https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/25335.

Lavell, A., Oppenheimer, M., Diop, C., Hess, J., Lempert, R., Li, J., Muir-Wood, R., and Myeong, S. “Climate Change: New Dimensions in Disaster Risk, Exposure, Vulnerability and Resilience.” In Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2012. Available at http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/report/report-graphics/ch1-figures/.

UNISDR. Terminology. 2009. Available online at https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/terminology.

 

Responding to climate change (Summer 2017)

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[Individual articles from the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Over the past three decades, scientists have observed unprecedented warming of the earth’s surface as a result of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The impacts of climate change, including changes in weather patterns, more frequent or severe natural hazards and altered water systems, are devastating vulnerable communities in which MCC works by exacerbating food insecurity and population displacement and increasing risk of disaster. Climate change is challenging MCC’s efforts to build healthy communities, respond to disasters, provide clean water, create sustainable livelihoods and promote peace.

The articles in this issue of Intersections span the globe, representing voices from Myanmar, Ethiopia, Latin America and North America. Contributors grapple with how to respond to climate change within their contexts while exploring innovative strategies that both benefit the environment and enable vulnerable communities to adapt. Sandra Reisinger and Van Lizar discuss how an MCC partner in Myanmar is addressing this challenge by empowering women to serve as disaster managers. Frew Beriso discusses how climate-smart agriculture practices improved food security and contributed to building resilience to drought in rural Ethiopia. Finally, Darrin Yoder examines how MCC partners in Latin America and the Caribbean are sharing their climate-change related challenges with one another while calling upon MCC to support their efforts not only in strengthening climate-resilient agricultural livelihoods, but also in using MCC’s voice and influence to advocate on policies that affect communities’ natural resources and ability to adapt to climate change.

What is the responsibility of relief, development and peacebuilding agencies in the global North like MCC to mobilize their supporters in responding to the threats posed by climate change through public policy advocacy and efforts to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Public policy advocacy around climate change is rarely straightforward, as Tammy Alexander explains in her article about the complexities of advocacy related to the Green Climate Fund. Meanwhile, Jennifer Halteman Schrock argues that Christians in Canada and the United States can play a key role in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. Schrock explores the common traits of congregations engaged in creation care and offers suggestions for what is needed to mobilize other churches. While diverse and varied, the voices in this issue emphasize that by caring for the environment, we are caring for people.

Meara Dietrick Kwee is MCC learning and evaluation coordinator. Amy Martens is research associate in MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department.

Learn more

Kolbert, Elizabeth. Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Parenti, Christian. Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2012.

Agent Orange/Dioxin and the ongoing legacies of the Vietnam War

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[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) was established on January 10, 2004, uniting people living with the effects of Agent Orange (AO) exposure and those who have volunteered to support them. VAVA mobilizes domestic resources, as the government looks to VAVA for recommendations regarding policies in support of affected persons. With support from international partners, VAVA assists families affected by AO through agricultural and educational support, routine health checks and ongoing medical care and rehabilitation. VAVA also joins its international partners in advocacy for justice for people living with the effects of AO in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War ended long ago, but the war’s legacies continue to linger in Vietnam. During the conflict, the U.S. military sprayed more than 80 million liters of toxic chemicals—of which approximately 61 percent was Agent Orange, contaminated with an estimated 366 kilograms of the highly-toxic substance dioxin—over large portions of central and southern Vietnam. Intended as a chemical defoliant, AO has caused serious
environmental devastation. Meanwhile, more than 4.8 million people suffered exposure to AO and more than three million people in Vietnam have died or are suffering from serious diseases or disabilities caused by AO exposure. The children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of people directly exposed have suffered AO’s effects. Many families have three or more members who require assistance for daily living, exacerbating families’ already difficult economic situations.

During and following the war, international support from various organizations, individuals and governments have aided the Vietnamese people in physical and mental recovery from the consequences of war. The help of friends and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) is not only of material significance, but also a source of great encouragement for people affected by AO in Vietnam. Furthermore,
international partners have strengthened advocacy efforts to petition the U.S. government in cooperating with Vietnam to address the ongoing health and environmental devastation created by AO.

Through our partnership with MCC, VAVA provides medical care, physical rehabilitation and livelihoods training for people affected by AO, especially in Quang Ngai Province. We at VAVA have appreciated the dedication and professionalism of MCC’s experienced staff and its committed workers. Close friendships have been forged with MCC workers and VAVA staff through years of collaboration on projects to assist people affected by AO. Additionally, people in Quang Ngai have particularly appreciated the presence and contributions of MCC workers who have lived and worked alongside people living with the effects of AO in Duc Pho commune, accompanying them in overcoming some of their sufferings in life.

Since its inception, VAVA has grown into a nationwide organization with more than 360,000 members throughout almost every province of the country. It has mobilized more than 1.2 trillion Vietnamese dong (U.S.$60 million) to assist affected persons with housing, loans, healthcare, disaster recovery and scholarships. VAVA has also made significant strides in raising awareness in Vietnam and throughout the world about
the AO tragedy, garnering further support to aid affected people. VAVA also regularly sends delegations to meet with veterans’ peace groups in other nations as it mobilizes international support, and VAVA continues to press the U.S. government to assume responsibility for damages caused by AO.

VAVA’s accomplishments add to the collective efforts of the Vietnamese people to address this particular calamity of the war, together striving to gradually improve and stabilize the lives of people affected by AO. Coordination and cooperation with international NGOs have increased the capacity of VAVA, both in Vietnam and internationally, to respond to the ongoing needs of Vietnamese people living with the effects of AO. VAVA looks forward to continued partnership with the goal of easing the daily struggles of Vietnamese people living with the effects of AO.

Lieutenant General (retired) Nguyen Van Rinh is chairman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA).

Learn more

VAVA website: vava.org.vn/?lang=en

The Aspen Institute: Agent Orange in Vietnam Program website: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/agent-orange-in-vietnamprogram/

Martini, Edwin A. Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Rekindling MCC work in post-war Vietnam

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[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

From 1976 (a year after the war concluded) until 1989, annual MCC shipments of aid and visits of MCC delegations to Vietnam continued despite the absence of expatriate MCC workers in the country. Beginning in the early 1980s, an MCC representative based in Bangkok worked through the Vietnamese organization Aidresep to make quarterly trips to Vietnam, providing assistance to select projects. In 1990, 15 years after the American War in Vietnam, MCC was one of the first North American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to receive permission to open an office in Hanoi, with oversight from Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shortly after our arrival in Hanoi, I was shopping in the market when a vendor asked, “Are you Soviet or French?” I told her I was an American working for an aid organization. A friend called to her, wondering who
I was. “She’s repairing war damage,” was the answer. Then she said to me, “American bombs killed lots of people,” implying, with a smile, that it was appropriate that I should be helping to repair the damage. This conversation and others like it revealed to us the internal debate within Vietnam and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over how to handle foreigners and foreign NGOs. We quickly learned that for MCC, an NGO associated
with the country of the former enemy, working in a post-war era would necessitate redefining its role in the country and reconceptualizing how the organization would measure success.

In this context, MCC could not partner with local churches as it typically does. We were advised, for the security of the local church, to be very cautious in any contacts with the churches. At that time, there were no Vietnamese NGOs. All Vietnamese organizations received their mandate and support from the government, so “non-government” was a foreign concept. MCC continued to discuss with our Vietnamese government contacts our desire to partner with grassroots organizations. In the absence of that possibility, the government helped to broker relationships with several universities, local government offices, the Women’s Union, health departments and hospitals. Within these entities, we often found visionary leaders who were willing to take risks to bring about improvement in the lives of those they were serving. Some people within and outside of MCC were critical of our ties with the Vietnamese government, but this was the way we had to work if we wanted to be in Vietnam as a restorative presence in solidarity with our country’s former “enemy.”

MCC was seen as an “old friend” of Vietnam, who had not supported the American War. This often meant that we were seen as supportive of the North; it was difficult to communicate that we were pacifists, desiring to minister to human need on both sides of the conflict. MCC played three main roles during this period.

First, MCC provided financial assistance, which legitimized MCC’s presence in the eyes of the government. Beyond the tangible assistance, the money also symbolized solidarity with a suffering people and brought hope for the future. The amounts of money were relatively small, and our government contacts often pressed for more.

Second, MCC sought to strengthen human resources and provide professional opportunities. During the war years, professionals in Vietnam had been cut off from developments in their fields. We were able to link them with study tours, short courses and graduate study opportunities—particularly in Asia, but also in the West.

Third, MCC workers functioned as a bridge to North American communities, telling North Americans the stories of the Vietnamese people we had come to know and explaining to our Vietnamese partners that we represented North American Christians who wanted to help repair the harm done by the war. MCC was unique among the international NGOs operating in Vietnam at the time in having a strong constituency of people who felt ownership in the organization and supported it financially.

When we returned to Vietnam in 2012, we found a cohort of young Vietnamese who had studied development and were applying their knowledge to the situation in Vietnam. (In our early days there, such a group of people did not yet exist.) We also were able to meet with some of MCC’s early project partners who told us, “We will never forget that MCC
helped us when we were in extreme need after the war.” They referred to an old proverb: A grain of rice when you are hungry means more than a bowl of rice when you have enough.

Janet Reedy, together with her husband, Stan, served as MCC representative overseeing the (re)establishment of the Vietnam program in 1990. The Reedys continued to serve in Vietnam until 1992.

Learn more

Bush, Perry. “Vietnam and the Burden of Mennonite History.” Conrad Grebel Review 17/2 (Spring 1999): 5-27.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. London: Penguin Books, 1997.

Tensions in MCC Canada’s resettlement of Vietnamese refugees

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[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Late in 1978, Canadian Mennonites saw the crisis of the “boat people” unfold on their television screens. Images of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their country in overcrowded and decrepit boats, risking the dangers of the open seas and the threat of pirate raids, moved Mennonites to action. They began to phone MCC offices across the country, asking how to help. MCC Canada’s response to the Vietnam refugee crisis involved struggles that endure within MCC to this day—namely, a tension between compassionately resettling refugees and proactively addressing the realities that create refugees in the first place.

Following the end of the war in Vietnam, a new Canadian immigration law allowed approved groups of individuals to sponsor a refugee if the groups assumed full responsibility and financial liability for one year. In response to a directive from MCC Canada’s annual meeting in January 1979, staff began negotiations with the federal government, hoping to expedite the process of approval and settle the liability issue. These negotiations proceeded quickly and on March 9, 1979, MCC Canada signed a Master Agreement on Private Refugee Sponsorship with the government. This agreement allowed MCC to approve constituent sponsoring groups—mostly church congregations, but also groups of at least five individuals. Other national churches and church organizations subsequently signed similar agreements.

Mennonite and Brethren in Christ congregations responded enthusiastically to the invitation to privately sponsor Vietnamese refugees. Within the first two years, they had sponsored 3,769 refugees; by 1985, the number had risen to 4,651. More than half of MCC’s constituent congregations across the country became involved in refugee sponsorship; some congregations sponsored one family after another.

The reasons for their eager involvement in refugee sponsorship were many. Some Canadian Mennonites remembered their own refugee stories and could relate to the plight of the Vietnamese. (In the 1920s, 21,000 Mennonites had fled Russia for Canada, with the assistance of MCC; in the late 1940s and 50s, another 8,700 arrived via Europe or Latin America.) Some sponsors were especially eager to assist those fleeing a Communist
regime as they had. Others who had actively protested the Vietnam War saw refugee sponsorship as a peace response. Still others simply wished to extend welcome and compassion to suffering people.

MCC Canada’s refugee assistance program was not without controversy. One factor was MCC Canada’s role in the larger MCC international program. At that time, MCC Canada did not have direct supervision over international work, which was the responsibility of an entity informally known as “MCC Binational,” based in Akron, Pennsylvania. When a senior MCC Canada staff person inserted himself into the program work and pushed hard for refugee resettlement, he seriously offended MCC workers in Thailand (where MCC’s Vietnam-related work was based in the post-war years), as well as some MCC colleagues in Akron.

At a deeper level, the controversy reflected a debate over whether MCC should prioritize refugee resettlement in Canada or economic development in the post-war region. Should MCC invest significant time and financial resources in helping refugees find new homes in Canada? Or should it devote itself to supporting socio-economic development in Vietnam (and also press for the U.S. to lift its embargo on Vietnam), thereby preventing
people from experiencing a need to flee their homes in the first place?

MCC workers in Southeast Asia clearly favored the latter. They saw that many of the refugees fleeing Vietnam were among the people the country needed most—those with education and financial resources—and felt that refugee resettlement was a “brain drain.” They observed how massive refugee camps in Thailand caused resentment among the Thai people, and they wanted MCC to prioritize long-term justice and socioeconomic development work.

These tensions received a public airing in some Canadian Mennonite periodicals. The Mennonite Brethren Herald, for example, published several hard-hitting critiques by constituents regarding MCC administrators and MCC service workers in Thailand. Eventually three workers in Thailand resigned, hurt and frustrated by the lack of trust in them personally, the lack of understanding of the complexities of the context and what they perceived as the Canadian constituency’s eagerness for a “quick-fix” response rather than sustained attention to longer-term solutions. MCC sent a board member with pastoral gifts on a three-month assignment to try to re-build morale among the remaining team members.

MCC continues to face challenging decisions about how to respond to complex refugee situations. So, for example, in the face of mass displacement within and from Syria, Syrian church leaders call on MCC to support displaced Syrians in staying within the region. At the same time, however, Canadian Mennonites have eagerly mobilized to welcome Syrian refugees. To be sure, refugee resettlement should not be the only MCC
response to mass displacement. At the same time, however, Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program—birthed in the years after the Vietnam War, with significant MCC Canada involvement—remains an important way that MCC responds to refugee crises. The private refugee sponsorship program has proven to be a highly successful way of integrating newcomers into Canada, with Canadian Mennonites, supported by MCC, continuing to play a significant role in private sponsorship of refugees from around the
world.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office Public Engagement Coordinator.

Learn more

MCC Canada Refugee Resettlement website: https://mcccanada.ca/stories/refugeeresettlement

Kumin, Judith. “Orderly Departure from Vietnam: Cold War Anomaly or Humanitarian Innovation?” Refugee Survey Quarterly 27/1 (2008): 104-117.

The Vietnam Mennonite Church: laying a foundation of peace in the shadow of war

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[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Shortly after the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 to end the French Indochina War and temporarily divide Vietnam into northern and southern zones, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) came to Vietnam to support charitable work for Vietnamese people regardless of their religious affiliation, ethnicity or political ideology. The organization
worked together with the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) and The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), which had a presence in Vietnam as early as 1911. While North American Mennonites came to Vietnam to respond to basic human needs following the French Indochina War, their presence and commitment to peacemaking had a deep influence on those who would eventually form the Vietnam Mennonite Church (VMC).

MCC’s first activity in Vietnam was helping to distribute food, clothing and blankets for people migrating south, working closely with the ECVN relief team. MCC also provided medicine for C&MA leprosy camps among ethnic minorities in Buon Me Thuot City in the central highlands for many years. In 1960, MCC partnered with ECVN to build and operate a health clinic in Nha Trang City along the south-central coast. MCC maintained an office in Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). When the American War spread in Vietnam, MCC partnered with two other organizations—Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief—to collectively operate as Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS) from 1966 to 1972. VMC activities supported displaced persons in areas of central Vietnam such as Quang Ngai, Tam Ky and Hue; supported highland farmers in Di Linh and Pleiku; and, together with ECVN, also built a health clinic in Pleiku. Many additional social work projects and other health care efforts took place in and around Saigon.

Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (EMBMC—now Eastern Mennonite Missions, or EMM) first sent workers to Vietnam in 1957 to preach the gospel and to establish the church. After a period of learning Vietnamese, these new workers invited their neighbors and students to study the Bible, share their faith, organize English classes, distribute tracts and organize many other programs and social activities to help people. New believers and ECVN Christians worked together in both evangelical and social work.

Together with Vietnamese colleagues, EMBMC workers envisioned, established and operated a Mennonite center opposite a large public hospital in the center of Saigon. EMBMC purchased the 7,500 square-foot space in 1960 as a student center (sharing its location with the EMBMC office), and it hosted many activities: English classes for hundreds of students (sometimes using the story of Jesus in the curriculum), a library
and reading room for students and a fitness room. Many students signed up for Bible courses offered on weekends in addition to regular Sunday services. The first believers were baptized in 1961. A second Mennonite center opened in Gia Dinh (now Binh Thanh District), Ho Chi Minh City: this center served as a focal point for Mennonite efforts to assist economically marginalized families during the war. EMBMC also purchased a small, 120 square-meter facility in 1973 in Binh Hoa, a few blocks away from the main Gia Dinh office. Here, a childcare center helped poor families.

In 1970, Vietnam Mennonite Missions began ministry in Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta, about 170 kilometers south of Saigon. Among their activities were Bible classes, English lessons and tailoring courses for young women. ECVN university students acquired a 333 square-meter facility on Tu Duc street in February 1975 for use as a student dormitory with space for eating, studying, and worshiping God during the week

On April 30, 1975, as the war ended and Vietnam returned to a unified country, all EMBMC workers needed to leave Vietnam. Some Vietnamese Mennonites had to evacuate abroad or return to their hometowns throughout the country. Almost all church and Christian center activities were halted during the transition of government. Soon
after, the government issued an announcement requiring all churches’ and temples’ weekly activities and large-scale events to be registered with state authorities. Due to internationally dispersed leadership of the Mennonite churches, VMC could not complete all registration requirements. In June 1978 the government assumed control over Mennonite church properties.

In the ensuing years, at the direction of Pastor Nguyen Quang Trung, Mennonite church members worshiped with other, fully-registered congregations (e.g., ECVN and Grace Baptist Church), waiting for the day when they would be able to operate their own location again. Throughout this time, Pastor Trung visited and prayed with Mennonite families. Early in 1983, the executive board of the Vietnam Mennonite Church and
Pastor Trung agreed that the Lord was leading the congregation to begin worshipping together at the pastor’s home. Attendance continued to grow with faithful believers committed to following the Lord and with more than 70 people gathering for the Christmas celebrations.

VMC strives to operate in a constructive spirit of peace, always turning to peace as a guide for its activities. Specifically, during and following the war, the church called on believers to heal and build the country through peaceful methods, not with violence. In this spirit, the church established relief centers and health clinics to help people suffering in the midst of violence. Mennonite believers must assume responsibility for the people around them and unite in interacting with others in a peaceful way.

The VMC was formed amidst the tumult of war. Now, the church finds itself in a favorable position, attained in part through the support of American Mennonites. VMC will continue to build peace in Vietnam and also throughout the world. This message of peace is warmly embraced by the Christian community and is also the philosophy of life for interacting with our neighbors.

Huynh Minh Dang is General Secretary of the Vietnam Mennonite Church.

Learn more

Martin, Luke S., Nguyen Quang Trung, Nguyen Thanh Tam and Nguyen Thi Tam, “The Mennonite Church in Vietnam.” In Churches Engage Asian Traditions. Ed. C. Arnold Snyder and John A. Lapp, 315-336. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2011.

To love the “enemy”

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[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

For almost 500 years, Anabaptists have refused to participate in war. After World War I, diverse groups founded MCC as an inter-Anabaptist institution to assist victims of the Great War. Since then, MCC has continued to assist people globally, often in post-conflict situations. MCC initially worked only in areas controlled by the U.S. military and the Saigon government of South Vietnam. However, Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” called some within MCC to assist all Vietnamese people in need—including those in communities “on the other side.” In this article, drawing on my experiences working with MCC in Vietnam in the late 1960s, I examine the risks involved in acting on Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” in a conflict zone and the results that flowed from
answering that call.

In Tam Ky, Quang Nam Province, where I worked in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969, I built friendships and trust with many Vietnamese friends. Together, we developed a literacy program welcomed by parents and children on both sides of the conflict. The literacy program started in displaced person camps in Tam Ky, but soon spread to villages beyond the U.S./Saigon government perimeter. This expansion enabled me to work
and make friends with a broad spectrum of people in both Tam Ky and also communities deemed “unsafe” and “hostile” by the U.S. military. In a letter to my parents in 1968, I wrote: “Tonight Tam Ky is beautiful and peaceful. It is really kind of great to go out at night because at night I own the whole town. The GIs and CIA may use it during the day, but at night it is their enemy. But for me, it is my friend both day and night.” The same span of Vietnamese friendships that enabled me to live and work safely in both Tam Ky and with marginal communities proved threatening to the U.S. military. War is fueled by fear and hatred of the enemy, so for soldiers to see their fellow countrymen making friends and living peacefully with both sides in a combat zone is, as one U.S. official explained, “hard on the morale of the U.S. soldiers.”

The first reaction of American officials in Tam Ky was to ask the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to pressure Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS) leaders to have me transferred out of the war zone. [MCC was the lead organization of VNCS, which also included Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief.] That effort failed, after a chance meeting with a U.S. journalist led to an article in the New York Times pointing out that the U.S. government—which was destroying Vietnam—was attempting to kick out volunteers who were trying to help Vietnamese people. (A worker from International Voluntary Service was also on the list of people the U.S.military wanted removed.) The article further noted that, in a democracy, the government cannot tell non-governmental organizations (NGOs) how to deploy their staff, while the separation of church and state is supposed
to protect religious organizations from government interference.

Several months after the effort to remove me from Tam Ky backfired, a student who taught in our literacy program asked me to meet her father at her aunt’s house. Her father informed me that he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that he had been assigned to spread disinformation about me in the Tam Ky area. He explained that the CIA had informants from rural National Liberation Front (NLF) areas who would come monthly to Tam Ky and report to the CIA about local officials in their area, so that the military could attempt to kill them. The CIA plan was to tell the informants that I was a covert CIA agent. The assumption, he explained, was that when the rumor took hold, the NLF would “solve the Doug Hostetter problem” the next time they infiltrated Tam Ky. When I asked Vietnamese friends how I should respond to the warning, they advised me to pray and trust my friends. If I were to leave Tam Ky just as the rumor was spreading, they said, it would be believed, and MCC could never again send volunteers to Tam Ky. Several months later, my literacy teacher asked me to meet with her father again. He reported that the campaign had been a failure; the informants had spread the rumor, but the people did not believe it and now I was likely safe.

All of the Western NGOs in Vietnam claimed that they were there to love and assist the Vietnamese people. But most of them only assisted Vietnamese who lived in the areas controlled by the Saigon government, protected by U.S. troops. Some Mennonites and Quakers tried hard to expand our work to assist people on both sides of the conflict. In 1975, 130 international NGOs were operating in South Vietnam. When the U.S. troops withdrew, only MCC and the American Friends Service Committee remained as witnesses to a God who is bigger than the United States and who loves all Vietnamese people, regardless of where they live or whose military is in control.

Doug Hostetter is MCC’s United Nations Office director. He also served with MCC in Tam Ky, Vietnam from 1966 to 1969.

Learn more

Hostetter, Doug. The People Make the Peace. Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2015.

Martin, Earl. Reaching the Other Side. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978.