Individual articles from the Fall 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.
Since 2012, Madison Street Church of Riverside, California, has partnered with MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) to host young adults from around the world and to engage them in the life and mission of the church. The congregation’s mission statement reads: “Becoming a community of believers intent on experiencing and sharing the renewing life and love of Jesus.” Living and working alongside IVEP participants have furthered the church’s mission within the local community while expanding and strengthening connections with Christ’s work in the broader world.
About ten years ago, a small group of Madison Street friends began to consider partnering with IVEP. The church had always been supportive of MCC, but we had never considered hosting an IVEPer. Reviewing IVEP’s goals alongside our congregational mission, we warmed to IVEP’s objectives of promoting international peace, goodwill, understanding, friendship and reconciliation, of strengthening connections with global Jesus-followers and of broadening horizons/views and correcting stereotypes and misconceptions about the Other. We wanted to help young people gain vocational skills for service in their home communities. We familiarized ourselves with information about IVEP and requested a process of church-wide discernment. Within a few months, the church approved funding and gave the green light to invite an IVEPer. Our pastor was enthusiastic about supervising an IVEPer, a couple from our church family agreed to open their home as hosts and an IVEP support team formed.
In August 2012, we welcomed our first IVEPer, a young Bangladeshi man, into our church family. Since that first wonderful year, we have invited an IVEPer every year, hosting young persons from Laos, South Korea, Bangladesh and Brazil.
As the church’s mission statement reads, we are “becoming a community of believers.” Our experience with IVEP has positively impacted our understanding and experience of community. Our IVEPers have helped us see ourselves as part of a global community of people who are different in many ways—in culture, language, ethnicity and worldview—and yet who are brothers and sisters who share our commitment to Jesus and from whom we have much to learn. As we have befriended, listened to and learned from them, IVEPers have expanded our understandings of what it means to believe in and follow Jesus. Sharing stories about their own churches, communities and cultures, they have led us to question our assumptions about church and to consider that there are other (and often better!) ways of participating in God’s kingdom than those with which we have become comfortable. When their term with us is up, we send them home with sadness that is comforted by a shared sense that they will always be a part of our church family and that we will continue to share in mission and love despite the miles that separate us. And, for all time now, whenever we hear a news report about Bangladesh, Laos, South Korea or Brazil, we listen with rapt attention, for now we have “family” there.
The church’s mission statement reflects our intention to “experience and share the renewing life and love of Jesus.” Our IVEPers remind us that Jesus is at the center of the life and love that we experience and share. In our community, where they have worked to serve low income families, Middle Eastern refugees and homeless individuals and families, IVEPers remind us that it is Jesus’ life and love that energize our participation in God’s kingdom work of hospitality, peace-building, reconciliation and compassion. In our current societal climate, in which persons from outside our nation’s borders are viewed with suspicion and even contempt, God has engendered in us missional attitudes of respect, curiosity and openness to engagement through our IVEP experience. By their very presence, our IVEPers remind us that Jesus breaks down barriers that divide humans. They have unique insights into the plight of the disenfranchised because they see situations from perspectives other than ours. (In particular, they have empathy for newcomers in our community who struggle, as they do, to gain proficiency with English.) Through our IVEPers, Jesus has opened us to share his life and love in bonds of friendship that have lasted well beyond the eventual end-of-term separation: several of us have visited our former IVEPers in their home countries after their IVEP term with us and one IVEPer named his firstborn son after his host “father.”
In Matthew 13:31-33, Jesus tells of a tiny seed that grows into a huge plant in which birds come to nest, symbolizing God’s kingdom home for people from every nation. He follows with a story of a little yeast leavening a lot of dough, symbolizing small kingdom efforts that shape the future of all. This kingdom pattern—of small things producing big results—has been replicated in our IVEP experience. We host one IVEPer at a time, one young person with limited English and little experience, status or influence. He or she stays with us for about a year and then heads back home. This seems like a small thing. But through IVEP, we participate in God’s amazing work of growing understanding, goodwill and friendship across global and cultural boundaries. The experience changes us. It broadens horizons and views and it challenges and corrects stereotypes and misconceptions about other people. We are changed interiorly and opened to love—to love of the Other, to love the stranger who in turn becomes our friend. We learn from one another, we build relationships and God uses the experience to transform lives. We come to a deeper sense of our involvement and responsibility in a world of interconnected people. We gain another sister or brother in our church family, we help them gain skills for their service back home and we develop a broader understanding of our connectedness across the miles and for all time as followers of Jesus. Small things lead to amazing results and, grateful for the opportunity, we look forward to welcoming our next IVEPer.
Julie Weatherford attends Madison Street Church in Riverside, California.
Sharing gifts within the global church: the Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN)
Since the 1950s, many young people from different countries have had the chance to spend one year in the United States and Canada through MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP). Former participants highly value their IVEP experiences. Over the years many IVEP alumni have moved into leadership roles in their churches. As it administered IVEP, MCC received feedback affirming IVEP as an intercultural service experience while also calling for the creation of service opportunities similar to IVEP but in other continents, that is, for a program that could, for example, place young people from Latin America in intercultural service assignments in Africa.
MCC supported this idea but felt that a world-wide exchange program should not be organized by an organization from Canada and the U.S. MCC approached Mennonite World Conference (MWC) with the request to create such a program. MWC supported the vision but did not have the funds and staff to start the program. Through mutual conversations in the late 1990s and early 2000s, MWC and MCC agreed to develop the idea together, deciding that MCC would fund the program, while MWC would develop the exchange. This was the start of YAMEN.
MWC, as a global network of churches, with connections to churches and organizations around the world, was an excellent starting point for the development of the program. MWC took time to visit churches and organizations in different countries, listening to their hopes and experiences. From the very beginning there was support from Anabaptist churches and agencies for the developing network. Anabaptist exchange programs in different parts of the world gave counsel, shared experiences and made suggestions on what this new program could look like.
One hope expressed repeatedly by churches was that this program would give young people the chance to develop skills that they would share with their churches and communities when they returned from the exchange. Another hope was to develop future leaders for the church and community.
This input formed the foundation for the development of the exchange program that came to be known as YAMEN.
In the beginning stage of this new exchange program, it became clear that starting “from scratch” is not easy. MWC’s gift to the program was its connection to churches and its understanding of the gifts and needs of churches around the world. What MWC did not have was the administrative structure to run the program that MCC had. After a three-year development period, MWC and MCC agreed to shift the administration of the program to MCC and its Global Service Learning department that also administered IVEP.
Today the Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) is a one-year exchange program for young adults, operating as a joint program between Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Central Committee. The program prioritizes connecting with Anabaptist churches in different parts of the world. Participants either come from an Anabaptist church or serve in an Anabaptist church or organization (and sometimes both!). YAMEN connects people and places that otherwise would not have an opportunity to come together and learn from each other, such as Indonesians serving in Colombia, Peruvians in Indonesia and Costa Ricans in Cambodia.
YAMEN promotes a theology of service, provides opportunities to learn intercultural skills, fosters spiritual growth, instills appreciation of Anabaptist values and promotes involvement in the local and global church. Since the first exchange in 2004, 204 participants from over 40 countries have served in 35 countries. Many gifts and stories have been shared since then.
Did the YAMEN vision of intercultural sharing across the Anabaptist world become reality? Testimony from YAMEN alumni suggests yes. Yoweri Murungi from Uganda served in an assignment in Lusaka, Zambia. His many new experiences included leading praise and worship services, Bible study classes and youth ministries at the Chilenje Brethren in Christ church in Lusaka. “These experiences helped me gain leadership skills and grow in my faith in Christ,” says Murungi. “I learned to love my neighbours, to serve the Lord Jesus, to serve the community without thinking about a reward in monetary terms,” shares Felizarda Atanásia Filimone from Mozambique, who served as a youth worker with Creciendo Juntos at Monte Horeb Mennonite Church, Soacha, Colombia. Diana Martínez from Colombia, meanwhile, was impressed with the hospitality she experienced in Nicaragua as an educational assistant at Casa Hogar Belén, a children’s home in Managua. “When we are able to give as well as value what others can contribute, without worrying about cultural backgrounds, nationalities, race or language,” Martínez reflected, “then we are making real the notion of being one body with Christ as the head.”
Does YAMEN have room to grow? Indeed! As we see former YAMEN participants take up leadership as pastors, program officers and administrators in the global church, we witness the impact of YAMEN. MWC is excited to continue partnership with MCC is this venture.
Liesa Unger directed the YAMEN program from 2001 to 2004 and since 2012 has served as chief international events officer for Mennonite World Conference.
Responsibility “both to those within and those without”: MCC, mutual aid and humanitarianism
Throughout its century-long history, MCC has exercised a two-fold ministry: offering mutual aid within the church and reaching out to help all in need. In MCC’s early decades, MCC leaders often cited Paul’s call to the Galatians to “work for the good of all, and especially for those in the family of faith” (Gal. 6:10, NRSV), as the basis for special attention to the needs of fellow Mennonites, even as MCC’s relief interventions provided extensive assistance to non-Mennonites. This two-fold ministry has at times generated productive tension within MCC, tension between a commitment to extend mutual aid within the global church and the humanitarian principle of making decisions about who receives assistance solely on the basis of need.
The modern humanitarian movement traces its origins to the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Switzerland in 1863. The principles of non-discrimination and impartiality in the provision of assistance have been fundamental to modern humanitarianism since its inception. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, for example, highlights as part of its core principles that humanitarian assistance will be “guided solely by the . . . needs” of suffering individuals, giving “priority to the most urgent cases of distress” and with “no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions.” Other organizations engaged in humanitarian relief—whether secular, like Save the Children, or religious, like World Vision, Islamic Relief and MCC—similarly uphold these principles of non-discrimination and impartiality, enshrined in inter-NGO compacts such as the Sphere Standards and the Core Humanitarian Standard.
In its formative years, MCC reflected both a Mennonite desire to join in this progressive humanitarian movement as a proactive witness for peace and a commitment to offering mutual aid within the Mennonite family of faith. Alongside the death and destruction of the First World War emerged a renewed passion for and heightened prominence of humanitarian relief, with the ICRC receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917. This humanitarian spirit of service to suffering humanity animated Mennonites in the United States. In his MCC service application, Clayton Kratz wrote about his desire to serve people in need “because this great world catastrophe [WWI] has not caused me any inconvenience.” In a 1929 book commemorating MCC’s relief efforts in the early 1920s in what had become the Soviet Union, P.C. Hiebert and Orie Miller noted that for Mennonites in the United States after World War I there “was little satisfaction in just maintaining a negative position toward war”—Mennonites were seeking “an opportunity to disprove the charges of cowardice and selfishness made against the conscientious objectors, and to express in a positive, concrete way the principles of peace and good-will in which they believed.” The call for help from southern Russia (present-day Ukraine) offered the chance to express Mennonite peace convictions in a positive way: “The need there was great, little was being done, and there was the added incentive of being able to help and to work with and through those of our own household of faith,” wrote Miller and Hiebert. While relief response to southern Russia was driven in large measure by this desire to assist those in the “household of faith,” the feeding stations MCC set up in what became the Soviet Union did not only feed Mennonites, but also other starving people.
MCC continued to hold commitment to humanitarian principles and to mutual aid within the church together over the coming decades. In the early 1940s, prior to the U.S. entry into the Second World War, MCC chairman Orie O. Miller wrote in a letter to MCC representative in Germany M.C. Lehman, that “Our work, as you know, is entirely nonpartisan—relief to be extended without preference as to race, nationality, or otherwise, with particular attention to relief needs among war suffering women and children.” Miller continued: “In case, of course, that there should be relief needs among the Mennonite folks of Europe, these should also receive prior consideration.” For Miller, being “entirely nonpartisan” and giving “prior consideration” to “the Mennonite folks of Europe” were perfectly congruent.
Writing in the 1940s, Mennonite sociologist and one-time professor at Bethel College J. Winfield Fretz described MCC “as a glorious demonstration” of “mutual aid in a new day,” a collaborative venture “that is much more complex than a barn raising or a husking but nevertheless a number of people working together to achieve a common goal,” with the goal being “to feed our brothers across the sea.” MCC had a dual responsibility, explained MCC board chairman and Brethren in Christ leader C.N. Hostetter at the MCC annual meeting in 1944, a responsibility “both to those within and those without.” “Within the world-wide fellowship of our Mennonite brotherhood, our duty seems clear to minister to the relief of human suffering,” noted Hostetter. Yet, he stressed, “Our responsibility does not stop with those within the Mennonite brotherhood. As disciples of Christ, we must concern ourselves about human suffering wherever it is within the range of our possibility to help. True disciples of Christ must always remain sensitive and stand ready to minister and serve.”
Robert Kreider, who helped direct MCC’s relief efforts in Europe following World War II, reflected during his service on this tension between mutual aid to the “household” or “family” of faith and humanitarian response based on need. “Our concern is that no cause of critical need among our people goes unmet,” Kreider wrote in 1947. At the same time, he continued, “Because a person has the label ‘Mennonite’ does not automatically entitle him to MCC relief aid. The Mennonite relief representatives work under the guiding principle that they must verify need before aid is given.” Kreider emphasized that “a program which is exclusively concerned with the household of faith does that household a disservice.” He explained: “If we pumped all our supplies into the pantries of [German] Mennonites they would love it. . . . But the Mennonites would come out of the war despised by their neighbors, selfish and a pretty dim Christian witness. Our strategy to get the German Mennonites to organize themselves to help their needy cases and also to help others in need—is a more ennobling experience for them.”
In 1963, MCC executive secretary William Snyder described MCC as having broadened its vision over the decades. “At times we were criticized for being too much concerned about our own people and not enough with the rest of the world,” he observed, with MCC witness “restricted primarily to the brotherhood.” While Snyder insisted that “there was always a concern for the welfare of the neighbor” in MCC’s prior relief efforts, he granted that this concern for doing good to all people had expanded over the past couple decades: “our people’s vision increased as the modes of communication improved, as they grew more prosperous, and as they become more aware of human need on the national and international level. Now we are ministering to the needs of people of almost every race and creed and we are known around the world for our ministry of compassion.”
Over the ensuing decades up to the present, MCC has remained committed to partnership with churches around the world, both Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist. Many of these partnerships represent a form of mutual aid, as MCC supports churches in meeting the basic needs of their most vulnerable members. Yet in all its partnerships with churches, MCC also encourages and accompanies churches to reach out beyond themselves to serve the broader community, with need driving the planning and implementation of MCC’s humanitarian response. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, MCC partners with Congolese Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches as they respond to the emergency and livelihoods needs of both Congolese Anabaptists and other Congolese displaced by the fighting in DR Congo’s Kasai region. In Syria, meanwhile, MCC accompanies Syrian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches as they distribute emergency assistance not only to Syrian Christians uprooted by the country’s nine-year civil war, but to Syrian Muslims as well. The dual commitment to mutual aid within the church and humanitarian response to all in need can generate tension, as MCC’s church partners sometimes press to keep MCC assistance within the “family of faith.” That said, MCC’s church partners typically embrace the vision that an essential element of witnessing to God’s love is to each out to all in their communities who are in need, viewing mutual aid and doing good to all people through humanitarian outreach not as opposing principles but as complementary, mutually reinforcing actions.
Alain Epp Weaver directs strategic planning for MCC and previously worked for MCC in Palestine and Israel.
Core Humanitarian Standard. Available at https://corehumanitarianstandard.org/the-standard.
Fretz, J. Winfield. Christian Mutual Aid: A Handbook of Brotherhood Economics. Akron, PA: MCC, 1947.
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “The Seven Fundamental Principles.” Available at https://www.ifrc.org/en/who-we-are/vision-and-mission/the-seven-fundamental-principles/.
Sphere Standards. https://spherestandards.org/
Weaver, Alain Epp. Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation: A Missiological History of Mennonite Central Committee. North Newton, KS: Bethel College, forthcoming 2021.