MCC peace work in the United States: building an archive


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.

MCC’s peace work has always been multidirectional, including both an inward direction that aims to nurture the peace witness of Anabaptist churches in the United States and Canada and an outward direction that undertakes peace and justice work in the world around us, reaching beyond the boundaries of the church. Tracing the histories of this multidirectional peace witness is not a simple task. Where does one begin? Whose individual and communal stories are part of that broader story? Whose voices are we (de)centering in telling the story of Anabaptist peace witness in the United States?

Perhaps one begins with the formation of the MCC Peace Section in 1942 during World War II. For decades, the Peace Section served as an agency for counseling about conscription and the draft and as a center for study, research, writing and education regarding the Mennonite peace position. The Peace Section “was often on the cutting edge, dealing with controversial issues—draft resistance, nonregistration, war tax resistance, and women’s concerns to name a few.” It served as a “prophetic vehicle” that “could monitor, facilitate, and encourage more activist forms of peacemaking which otherwise would have been stifled by more conservative denominational forces” (Driedger and Kraybill, 142).

In this 1959 photo, J. Harold Sherk (left) and John Martin of The National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO) descend the steps at the Selective Service System headquarters in Washington DC. Sherk, of Kitchener, Ontario, was a Mennonite Brethren in Christ pastor and educator. During and after World War II, he also served in inter-Mennonite peace work, and served with MCC in India doing relief work. October 1949 brought him and his wife Mila to Akron, Pennsylvania, where he served until 1958 as Executive Secretary of MCC Peace Section. In 1958, responsibility as director of the National Service Bureau for Religious Objectors (NSBRO) took the couple to Hyattsville, Maryland, until retirement in 1969. (MCC photo)

Over the ensuing decades, the MCC Peace Section served as the umbrella for a wide variety of MCC initiatives and departments that sought to address questions of justice and peacebuilding. For example, MCC’s Washington Office was established in 1968 under the aegis of the Peace Section. This new office in the U.S. capital provided an important means of public engagement, political advocacy and communication between Anabaptist leaders and government representatives.

From the 1960s into the 1980s, the Peace Section initiated several distinct ministries, such as Mennonite Conciliation Services, Women’s Concerns (later Women’s Advocacy), Peace Education/Draft Counseling and Global Education. With the establishment of MCC Canada in 1963 and the creation of a binational MCC, MCC U.S. and MCC Canada divided responsibilities for addressing different types of country-specific peace and justice issues. In 1990, the MCC U.S. Peace Section was renamed Peace and Justice Ministries and began overseeing the Office on Crime and Justice. In 1993, MCC U.S. Peace and Justice Ministries added a Racism Awareness Program (later the Anti-Racism Program), while its Mennonite Conciliation Services program focused one of its staff positions on urban peacemaking. In 1999, the Immigration Education program was added, and in 2005 Mennonite Conciliation Services and the Office on Crime and Justice merged to form the Office on Justice and Peacebuilding. In 2012, MCC U.S. Peace and Justice Ministries was rebranded MCC U.S. National Program, with focus areas in Immigration Education, Anti-Oppression, Peace Education and Restorative Justice. Today, MCC U.S. National Program addresses Immigration Education, Peace Education, Criminal Justice Education and Anti-Racism and Anti-Sexism Education.

MCC’s nascent recognition that peace witness required addressing racism took a new dimension when in 1960 Vincent and Rosemarie Harding started a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit in Atlanta, a couple of blocks away from the home of Martin and Coretta Scott King, under the umbrella of the MCC Peace Section.

In addition to these programs and activities of the MCC Peace Section and its successors, a significant impact has been the social networks that have emerged around the work. MCC’s peace work not only “symbolized the activist edge of Mennonite peacemaking but also provided a network for hundreds of Mennonites who found support and solidarity” (Driedger and Kraybill, 144). In the remainder of this article, I will look at two examples of MCC’s peace witness that represent important shifts not only in the justice and peacebuilding work of MCC, but also in some fundamental assumptions about what that work is to begin with, a peace witness that embraces public engagement and political advocacy aimed at challenging systemic racism and imperialism.

Attention to systemic oppression and injustice, such as racism, has been a significant part of MCC’s peace work in the U.S. MCC U.S.’s Damascus Road Anti-Racism Process from the nineties and the aughts (that works independently today under the name Roots of Justice) stands as a more recent example of such peace work. But MCC anti-racism efforts can be traced back earlier, as white Mennonite participants in Civilian Public Service camps in the 1940s in places like Gulfport, Mississippi, were confronted by the stark realities of racism in the Jim Crow South. MCC’s nascent recognition that peace witness required addressing racism took on a new dimension when in 1960 Vincent and Rosemarie Harding started a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit in Atlanta a couple of blocks away from the home of Martin and Coretta Scott King under the umbrella of the MCC Peace Section. Vincent Harding was an African-American pastor, scholar and activist who played a significant role in the civil rights movement and in the Mennonite Church in the 1950s and 1960s, calling on Mennonites to bring their values “to bear on the urgent reality of racial oppression” and “align themselves with African-American struggles as an expression of ‘the way of the disciple’” (Shearer, 222-3). As the civil rights movement grew in visibility, and thanks to the prophetic calls of leaders like the Hardings, Mennonites in the United States increasingly paid more attention to racial oppression in their own communities, with the Mennonite press even beginning to include appeals for legislative action to address the blight of racism.

Who is being (de)centered in the peacebuilding stories we tell? Whose labor made any of these peacebuilding efforts possible?

Vincent Harding’s work and early partnership with Delton Franz—a white Mennonite pastor and the first director of the MCC Washington Office—arguably shaped the path that led to the first office MCC opened for the purpose of political advocacy. Harding called Mennonites “to transform the principles of nonconformity and nonresistance into active service to the world, especially in the cause of racial justice” (Shearer, 247). Even as the Hardings became understandably frustrated by the slow response of MCC and of white Mennonites to confront the evil of racism more vigorously, their witness helped to catalyze a significant shift in MCC’s peace witness and provided a challenge that reverberates today.

Other voices have also helped to catalyze the transformation of MCC and broader Mennonite peace witness—including the voice of an unnamed Palestinian woman. This Palestinian woman confronted Hedy Sawadsky, a white Canadian relief worker with MCC in the Middle East in the late 1960s, with the biting observation that “what you’re doing here is fine, but it is only Band-Aid work. Why don’t you go home and work for peace and get at the root causes of evil and war?” (Driedger and Kraybill, 137). We do not know the name of this Palestinian woman in Sawadsky’s story, but her impact was meaningful and significant. When Sawadsky moved to the U.S. in 1970, she became involved in war tax resistance and other forms of nonviolent direct action, joining Mennonite activists in protests at the Pentagon and the nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado.

In the voices of the Hardings and this unnamed Palestinian woman, we hear calls for MCC to embrace a “thicker” concept of peace that includes public engagement and political advocacy—working for change “upstream”(where problems originate) and not just responding “downstream” (where systems of oppression damage vulnerable communities). Voices like the Hardings and this unnamed Palestinian woman have also pressed MCC to recognize how U.S. imperialism abroad and racism at home are interconnected (see Satvedi 2011 for reflections on the interconnection of legacies of colonialism). These voices have pressed white peace workers from the U.S. over the years to confess and repent our own histories of violence and injustice on this continent and to recognize that our work at anti-imperialism abroad must be complemented by our anti-racism and anti-oppression work at home.

In building an archive of MCC peacebuilding work, we must ask critical questions like: Who is being (de)centered in the peacebuilding stories we tell? Whose labor made any of these peacebuilding efforts possible? If, with bell hooks, we understand our global historical context as shaped by imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy (hooks 2004), we will recognize that Mennonite peace work must be multidirectional and attentive to intersections, and we will strive to create an archive of voices from the MCC and broader Mennonite past that centers the witness of the Hardings and the unnamed Palestinian woman who confronted Hedy Sawadsky.  

Timothy Seidel is assistant professor of peacebuilding and development and director of the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University.

Amstutz, Jim Stutzman. Ed. “Fifty Years of Peacemaking.” Peace Office Newsletter. 22/5 (September-October 1992).

Docherty, Jayne and Mikhala Lantz-Simmons. A Genealogy of Ideas: What Is Old Is New Again. Harrisonburg, VA: Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, 2016. Online at

Driedger, Leo and Donald B. Kraybill. Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994.

hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Atria Books, 204.

Harding, Vincent. Hope and History: Why We Must Continue to Tell the Story of the Movement. Revised edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010.

Lapp, John A. “The Peace Mission of the Mennonite Central Committee.” Mennonite Quarterly Review. 44/3 (July 1970): 281-297.

Sampson, Cynthia and John Paul Lederach (eds.). 2000. From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding. Oxford: Oxford University.

Satvedi, Valentina. Ed. “Anabaptism and Postcolonialism.” Peace Office Newsletter. 41/3 (July-September 2011).

Seidel, Timothy. “The Things That Make for Peace: Our Treatment of Immigrants in the United States Has Links with the Palestine-Israel Conflict.” The Mennonite 12/23 (December 15, 2009).

Shearer, Tobin Miller. “Moving beyond Charisma in Civil Rights Scholarship: Vincent Harding’s Sojourn with the Mennonites, 1958-1966.” Mennonite Quarterly Review. 82/2 (April 2008): 213-248.