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.
Behind the Iron Curtain
In 1977, during our second year of marriage and study at Fuller Theological Seminary, we were invited to serve in what was portrayed as an innovative, daring, bridge-building peace witness in what was then Yugoslavia. To go behind the so-called “Iron Curtain” was the stuff of myth and spy fiction. We were among the first of what later became a sizeable group called the East Europe fraternity—a group of students who offered a Mennonite presence in at least eight Eastern European countries from 1977 to 1990. Ours was a peacebuilding venture largely comprised of on-the-ground presence and relationship building.
For people in Canada, the U.S. and western Europe, the specter of communism around the globe created widespread and often irrational fear. For Christians, including Mennonites, the fear was complicated by how political and economic threats of communism versus capitalism matched so closely with understandings of religious freedom and the persecution of the church under atheist regimes. For Mennonite church leaders in the United States and Canada to assess that our people were vulnerable to fear and manipulation was both far-sighted and sober. The way they chose to meet that danger was to send volunteers across the borders of the Iron Curtain to study at universities and spend time with real people on the ground—listening, offering friendship, assisting as invited and sharing the gospel of peace by being present and available for collaborative work when possible. We agreed to be among those volunteers, arriving in Yugoslavia in the fall of 1977.
This was truly an educational venture and we had student visas to prove it, but the education was meant to flow both ways. In the East, our message was meant to be that not all Christians see your land and your people as hated enemies. In the West, the educational thrust was to help our people see that real folks live with real challenges in socialist societies, but it is not the end of the world as we know it. A remarkable religious vitality is sustained in faith communities even though constrained by systemic and ideological challenges.
Our assignment, though sponsored by MCC and Mennonite mission agencies, was not formally missionary or relief and development work in the classic sense. An embodied presence on the ground was deemed the most strategic way to work at relational peacebuilding. Sharing the everyday life of ordinary Christian believers in a communist setting seemed to be our best hope of subverting the fears and overcoming the ignorance of our own people back home. And indeed, as we would return home for brief visits, circulating in our sponsoring communities, people had real questions and showed genuine interest. We were not planting Mennonite churches or starting programs or institutions. We were instructed to come alongside existing communities of Jesus-followers, who became our best instructors. Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics and Orthodox, as well as Muslims and Marxists, were all helpful in showing us their complex realities.
Our assignment included freedom to pursue any contacts which could help us toward our goal. We traveled extensively in several regions, engaged with churches and helped with educational efforts in several schools. In addition to relating to primarily Catholic Croatian and Orthodox Serbian contexts, we spent two years in Muslim neighborhoods of Sarajevo. We were welcomed by active Protestant leaders who quickly embraced and included us in their educational efforts. And since we were not setting up our own programs, we could selectively bolster anything that was constructive, collaborative and designed to serve purposes larger than self-interest.
There were plenty of challenges as well. While we had directors from MCC and Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (EMBMC, now EMM) to provide guidance from the distance, and the “fraternity” of our Mennonite peers in other East European settings, we didn’t have formal local partners. We observed freelance operatives from other Western parachurch and mission agencies whose work was not subject to review by any local group and became problematic. We worked hard to maintain relationships that could incorporate local accountability. There was also our own isolation as the only Mennonites in-country, including the need to negotiate what was best for our children in education, community and church life. Meanwhile, although the political ideology was explicitly egalitarian, the general culture was very patriarchal.
It seems clear, looking back more than 40 years later, that the parallel assignments across Eastern Europe accomplished significant components of the goals we set out to achieve. The practical ecumenism of cooperating with people of other faiths was strategically fruitful during the subsequent war years in the Balkans. That MCC had a presence on the ground was crucial to mobilizing tons of material aid, peacemaking responses and refugee care in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia in the wake of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Evangelical faith communities came to see Mennonites as allies. They showed openness to Anabaptist theology and many made tangible commitments to peacebuilding in their local communities. And the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolized the triumph of the hopes we came to share with many people in the region.
Gerald and Sara Wenger Shenk worked with MCC Yugoslavia (Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia) from 1977-83 and 1986-89 (jointly with Eastern Mennonite Board of Mission and Charities, now EMM). Sara went on to serve as president of Anabaptist Biblical Seminary and Gerald as professor of church and society at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
Jantzen, Mark. The Wrong Side of the Wall: An American in East Berlin during the Peaceful Revolution. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1993.