Reflections from Civilian Public Service (1941-1946)


Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.

Women’s Summer Service Unit from Civilian Public Service (CPS) Camp No. 85. at Rhode Island State Hospital for Mental Diseases in Howard, Rhode Island. The Unit was one of 26 CPS mental health units operated by MCC, opened in 1943 and closed in 1946. (MCC photo)

As the specter of war loomed in the late 1930s, Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren and Quakers (who identified themselves as the “Historic Peace Churches”) collaborated to advocate to U.S. government officials that provisions be made for conscientious objection to war. MCC officials represented diverse Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and Amish groups in these discussions with government and military officials. Together, the Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers were successful in securing an agreement to establish the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program, which would operate camps where young men would be stationed to carry out work of “national importance” in lieu of military service. These alternative service CPS camps would then fall under the authority of different civilian government agencies, while being operated by MCC and other church bodies.

We exited CPS persuaded that a life of voluntary Christ-followership demands constant service to other people.

Marvin hein

MCC opened its first CPS camp on May 22, 1941 in Grottoes, Virginia. It would continue to operate CPS camps through March 1946. MCC’s first 25 camps all fell under the jurisdiction of the Soil Conservation Service, the Forest Service and the National Park Service. Over CPS’s nearly five years of operation, MCC collaborated with twelve U.S. government departments, including the Public Health Service, the Department of Agriculture and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration. Of the 151 CPS camps or units that operated during World War II, MCC operated 60 of them on either a solo or joint basis. Records indicate that around 38% of the conscientious objectors who passed through the CPS camps were from different Mennonite churches (with 4,665 young Mennonite men out of a total CPS group of approximately 12,000). CPS men fought forest fires, worked at soil conservation, served as orderlies in mental hospitals and much more. MCC’s first CPS mental health unit opened in August 1942 in Staunton, Virginia. Mennonite experiences in CPS mental health units spurred post-war action for more humane mental health facilities, leading to the founding of Mennonite mental health centers such as Oaklawn in Goshen, Indiana, and Prairie View in Newton, Kansas.

CPS broadened ecumenical horizons for participants, bringing young men from diverse Anabaptist groups together—and with Christians from other traditions. MCC organized educational programs for Mennonite participants, publishing a series of booklets for those programs that covered Mennonite history and theologies of service and non-resistance. MCC sought to foster a spirit of CPS men being “willing second milers” rather than “conscripted Christians,” even as some CPS men chafed at rough living conditions, low pay and compulsory labor (and as some CPS men criticized the program for too-close affiliation with the government and the war effort). CPS service had different meanings for different participants: for some it was a religiously acceptable way of fulfilling a patriotic duty, while for others it represented a positive, proactive witness for the gospel of peace (and for some it was both).

In 1941, just before Pearl Harbor, I left public school teaching because I knew that once our country declared war, I could not supervise war bond sales.

Mary wiser

Just as the war effort mobilized many women into the work force, so, too, did women become part of the CPS effort. Wives and girlfriends often moved to be based near and work at or close by the camps where their husbands and boyfriends were stationed. Some women served in the camps as nurses. Women’s sewing societies prepared “camp kits” to send to CPS that included bedding, towels, toiletries, stationery and stamps. Over the course of CPS’s operations, around 2,000 pacifist women lived in or near the 151 camps, with CPS even operating women’s units at eight state-run mental institutions.

The excerpted reflections below from CPS newsletters and reports show young Anabaptist men and women reflecting on the meaning of Christian service and peace witness, on broadened ecumenical horizons gained through service and on the meaning of cooperation with the state in a time of war.

CPS as Christian service

CPS work has meaning to the men who perform it as an expression of loyalty and love to their country, and of their desire to make a contribution to its welfare. It has still larger meaning as constructive service and ministry to human needs, and as a demonstration of a way of life in peace and love in contrast to the destructiveness of war and violence.
—from Mennonite Civilian Public Service Statement of Policy, approved by MCC Executive Committee, September 16, 1943.

We want to do more than take a stand against war… We believed in the spirit of nonresistance, but also in the power of love to overcome evil.

Elmer ediger, 1945

CPS is a constructive witness to the way of love as taught by Christ. The fact that the government has not opened the way immediately to use CPS men in areas of more direct need such as relief and reconstruction has not been too disturbing even though many at home and in the camps as well as administrative officials sincerely desire such service and feel it should be made possible. Because the church desires relief service does not mean they will refuse to cooperate with the government in areas that they can use CPS men and which are constructive in nature. . . . [S]o long as CPS gives expression to this deep religious faith there will be support of CPS by the church. Should it become something else, or should the government disallow a religious expression, church support would no longer be forthcoming.” MCC hopes “that through the CPS experience men will deepen and grow in their faith in and love of God,” “that CPS will do works that are a witness to the faith,” “that the men in camp will be more than drafted men,” and that “the men will rise above the fact that they have been conscripted and look upon their status as an opportunity to hear testimony to a deep faith in God and God’s purpose for man.
“The Mennonite Hope in CPS,” Mennonite Central Committee CPS Newsletter 1/13 (March 19, 1943).

It has been stated that men in CPS are only going the first mile and that often grudgingly. That is far too true; but we can go the second mile. If we were not in CPS where could we better represent the principle of going the second mile? If we cannot go the second mile in CPS, then we are admitting that Christianity is not practical in every occasion.
—Abraham Graber (Amish CPS camper), Mennonite CPS Bulletin 3/24 (June 22, 1945).

To say that the men in CPS are going the second mile and overcoming evil with good is to look at the picture through rose-colored glasses.
—Anonymous CPS man, quoted in “Keeping the Vision Clear,” Mennonite CPS Bulletin 4/9 (November 8, 1945).

Glenn Smith, Forest Service Squad
Leader, adjusts the parachute of
Harry Mishler at Civilian Public
Service (CPS) Unit No. 103 in
Huson, Missoula County, Montana.
Camp No. 103 was a Forest Service
base camp operated by MCC in
cooperation with the Brethren and
Friends service committees. It
opened in May 1943 and closed
in April 1946. Men in the unit were
highly trained, parachuting into
rugged country to put out forest
fires; in down times they performed
fire prevention work. (MCC photo)

Writing in the 1945 MCC Workbook, Albert Gaeddert observed “A weariness with the program.” “With too many campers there is a lack of active participation. Interests seem to center about personal convenience.” “We have discovered certain of our limitations. Selfishness is still very much a part of us. We are not free from greed and the things of this world.”

Most of us entered CPS largely because we had little choice. We exited CPS persuaded that a life of voluntary Christ-followership demands constant service to other people. For two years we had served our national government, the church and each other. Somehow the conviction that our lives were not our own was translated into an unshakable belief that we were destined as God’s people to serve the world.
—Marvin Hein, A Community is Born: The Story of the Birth, Growth, Death and Legacy of Civilian Public Service Camp #138-1, Lincoln, Nebraska 1944-1947 (self-published).

[T]hose to whom CPS has been a challenge and have had as their motive service for Christ and the Church will make excellent relief workers and am hoping that they will be able to go soon into all parts of the world to witness for what they believe.
—Ellen Harder (former CPS nurse, written while working with MCC at Taxal Edge, England) Mennonite CPS Bulletin 4/2 (July 22, 1945).

Broadened inter-Anabaptist horizons

In most instances [the discharged CPS worker] will be interested in cooperating more closely with other Mennonite groups. He will have formed acquaintances among them, which he will not forget and he may not always sympathize too much with old prejudices. He will know other Mennonites as they are.
—Unnamed CPS worker, MCC Workbook, 1945.

Bennie Deckert reflected that “when we were at home many of us lived largely to ourselves. We had very little contact with the outside world, with men of different denominations, occupations, different sects, communities and states. Our friends lived nearby, perhaps in our very local community. Now we know men from nearly every state, denomination, and from nearly all walks of life. To many of us Mennonites has come the realization that there is much more to the word Mennonite than is embodied in our own local group.”
—“Three Years in CPS,” Rising Tide (June 1945).

Women and CPS

Civilian Public Service (CPS) Camp
No. 45 Camp sign situated on the
Skyline Drive in Luray, Virginia. Camp
No. 45 was a National Park Service
base camp located in Shenandoah
National Park and operated by MCC.
It opened in August 1942 and closed
in July 1946. CPS men maintained
and improved park and recreational
facilities, including roads. They also
performed conservation and fire
prevention duties. (Photo courtesy of
Edgar M. Clemens)

Lois Schertz: “Even though the working conditions at the Mt. Pleasant State Hospital were deplorable, there were many good things that came from that experience for me as a woman. The unit became a family. We bonded together in a beautiful way, both men and women. For example, in our church services, men and women both participated. This was my first experience in being allowed to lead a worship service. (I went back home after the war and it took a good 30 years for that to happen).”
—Lois Schertz (served at CPS unit at Mt. Pleasant State Hospital, Iowa), “War, Alternative Service, and a Reality Jolt,” Women’s Concerns Report, no. 116 (Sept.-Oct. 1994), 5.

In 1941, just before Pearl Harbor, I left public school teaching because I knew that once our country declared war, I could not supervise war bond sales. Nor did I want to be part of the accelerating groundswell toward war that seemed to be required of public school teachers.
—Mary Wiser, “Searching for a Brotherly Life in a Warring World,” Women’s Concerns Report, no. 116 (Sept.-Oct. 1994), 8-9.

Expanded understandings of nonresistance and peace witness

We want to do more than take a stand against war. Many of us entered CPS with the vision that camp was the place where we could make a clear cut witness against war and for the positive aspect of our belief. We believed in the spirit of nonresistance, but also in the power of love to overcome evil.
—Elmer Ediger, Mennonite CPS Bulletin 4/4 (August 22, 1945).

Along with a stronger faith in the nonresistant position has come a greater sensitivity to the all-embracing implications of the Christian gospel. If nonresistance is held in regard to war only and not in attitude toward the mentally ill, the negro [sic], the under-privileged, employer, and fellow employees then nonresistance finds itself on the same level as a Sunday religion. In appreciating the totality of the way of love there comes a deep awareness of individual inadequacy, yet a drawing responsiveness to the call of Christ to permit him to penetrate every thought and act of our being.
—Unnamed CPS worker, MCC Workbook, 1945.

Mennonites, CPS and collaboration with the state

The irony of CPS was that Mennonites sought to remain free of governmental control, but by force of circumstances and tradition found themselves in one of the most intimate relationships ever established between church and state in American history, and with the military arm of the government at that.
—Al Keim, Gospel Herald, August 7, 1979.

Mennonites hold that it is the Christian’s duty loyally and faithfully to obey the state in all requirements which do not involve violation of the Christian conscience, that is, a violation of the teachings of the Word of God. They assuredly believe a Christian must obey God rather than man when the demands of the State conflict with this supreme loyalty to Christ but they also hold that the Christian should ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,’ and ‘Obey every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’ Although they acknowledge that it is within the province of the state to require service of its citizens, they reserve the right to refuse such service if it is contrary to conscience. This attitude toward state service does not constitute an endorsement of conscription or compulsion as such, but is rather an expression of the principle of obedience to the powers that be. In like manner, the Mennonite Central Committee takes a positive rather than a merely negative attitude toward the Selective Service Administration and other government agencies which are responsible by law and presidential directive for the administration of this state service.
—from Mennonite Civilian Public Service Statement of Policy, approved by MCC Executive Committee, September 16, 1943.

From left, Floyd F. Yoder from Kalona, Iowa, Orville C. Smith from Sumner, Iowa, and three other men (names unknown) help clear fallen trees after a March 1942 tornado in Locan, Illinois. (MCC photo)

[I]t is quite possible to accept an evil compulsion in a Christ-like manner. But it is also a serious matter to judge anyone’s refusal to accept conscription as being un-Christian. For there are those conscientious objectors who cannot acquiesce to government pressure to perform civilian service in lieu of armed service because war and conscription for war are inseparable. We have a profound respect for the men who have worked with us within CPS before deciding that they must bear their witness in jail. They have been a continual challenge to us in our stand.
—Delmar Stahly, “Invitation to Conscription,” Box 96 (monthly publication of CPS unit in Mulberry, Florida) 2/1 (August 1945).

Alain Epp Weaver directs strategic planning for MCC. Frank Peachey and Lori Wise are MCC U.S. records manager and assistant, respectively.

The Civilian Public Service Story. Website.

Gingerich, Melvin. Service for Peace: A History of Mennonite Civilian Public Service. Akron, PA: MCC, 1949.

Goossen, Rachel Waltner. Women against the Good War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997

Peace(Summer 2020)


[Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Seek peace and pursue it. Psalm 34:14b 

In Lusaka, Zambia, Issa Ebombolo attends a peace club meeting at Mancilla Open Community School in 2011. Ebombolo founded peace clubs in Zambia, an effort that has spread throughout the country and to other continents, and now serves as a peacebuilding coordinator for MCC’s work in Zambia and Malawi. (MCC photo/Silas Crews)

At an unscheduled stop at a mass grave memorial in northern Uganda, we gathered in silence, knowing that one of our colleagues had been forced to flee his village as a child to escape the horror documented by the tragic memorial cairn and plaque in front of us. “LRA War Victims . . . 365 people lay at rest,” the plaque read.

An hour later, we visited an MCC-supported agriculture project unfolding in relative calm and security. This initiative could not have been implemented during the horrific violence perpetrated by the LRA only 15 years earlier. I breathed a prayer of gratitude for the tireless peacebuilding efforts of Uganda’s Ocholi religious leaders, MCC partners who insisted on dialogue and prayer as weapons of peace in the early 2000s. Bishops and lay leaders, some of whom came to Canada to share their peace message, took enormous personal risk to be agents of the gospel of reconciliation. How often I have asked myself since this visit to Uganda: In situations of conflict, does MCC need to undertake peacebuilding work with local partners before any other development or humanitarian relief work is possible?  

As disciples of the one whose peace surpasses understanding, MCC workers continue to make a distinctive and powerful witness for God’s peace in places marred by violence.

As disciples of the one whose peace surpasses understanding, MCC workers continue to make a distinctive and powerful witness for God’s peace in places marred by violence. They join and support the witness of churches, community-based activists and Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu leaders committed to finding alternatives to violence and transformative approaches to conflict. In this issue of Intersections, readers will see how MCC’s peace witness is forged through relationships with “the enemy” and how teaching peace emerges from within the communities where violence has been faced and met with nonviolence. As we mark 100 years of MCC, may we be grateful for the good news of the peace God has brought us in Jesus and faithful to God’s call to share and testify to that good news in our lives.

Rick Cober Bauman is MCC Canada executive director.

Creating ecumenical ties through food sovereignty

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the rural village of Llano Alto in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico, a group of gardeners meets regularly to share experiences in cultivating organic kitchen gardens that produce various kinds of herbs and vegetables for domestic consumption. Supported by the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research (INESIN, an MCC partner organization
for which I work), these gardeners come from families that have been working the land for centuries, with most dedicating themselves exclusively to growing beans and corn, the major staples of the local diet. The idea of growing an organic vegetable and herb garden in one’s backyard is a fairly novel idea. When families have extra cash on hand, they might buy these “extras” to supplement their staple diet—otherwise, they do without. The INESIN initiative aims to foster greater food sovereignty in Llano Alto, supporting farmers in this rural community to provide balanced diets for their families. The initiative has proven successful: the kitchen gardens have attracted the attention of other farmers, leading to an expansion of the group from nine to 19 gardeners. At INESIN we view this expansion positively, yet we also know that expansion could introduce delicate dynamics into the life of the group, as now the gardeners no longer share the same religious affiliation.

INESIN began facilitating the gardeners’ group through a contact at the Church of the Nazarene in Llano Alto. Although INESIN explained upfront to the gardeners that neither INESIN nor the gardeners’ group itself is a program of the church, for the last eight months the majority of the group’s meetings have been held at or around the church. INESIN has found that churches are often good starting places for gardeners’ groups because the church space creates a sense of trust; once a gardeners’ group is formed and operational, however, INESIN encourages it to move outward into the broader community. At a recent meeting with the Llano Alto group, my coworker Marielena delicately brings up the possibility of expanding beyond the church. “Now that the gardens are growing and
we have new members, it’s a good time to begin meeting at each other’s houses,” she suggests. A few faces of the newcomers look relieved. One man explains, “Since we are not part of this church, we feel uncomfortable meeting here, like we’re disrespecting the space by invading it.” Two women from the original group disagree. “This is where we’ve always met. We don’t have the space to host people in our houses anyway.”

The discussion goes on, with the group reaching an agreement that future meetings will be hosted at the homes of group members who volunteer. But as in the case of many conflicts, what makes this particular conflict interesting lies not so much in what is being said, but rather beneath the surface of this conversation about the spaces of gardens, houses and churches.

There have long been tensions over both politics and religion in Chiapas, but the effects of the 1994 Zapatista uprising have deeply intertwined the two. Although the uprising was not clearly a movement about religion, the Zapatista movement benefited from the energy of a socially active Catholic parish influenced by liberation theology. At the same time, a
paramilitary organization in the region drew upon the resentment of the evangelical church feeling like a persecuted underdog. Political and religious tensions at times erupted into violence, most glaringly in the massacre of 45 indigenous pacifist Zapatistas in the community of Acteal in 1997.

These political and religious tensions have persisted among people of different faiths in Chiapas. Several peace organizations have developed over the past 20 years, many through the support of the late Catholic bishop Samuel Ruiz, a significant actor in the peace process during and after the uprising. When Ruiz and others dreamed about what INESIN would look like, he commissioned a group of people to “get Catholics and Protestants together to do something. Anything. But don’t talk about religion or differences. Not at first. Just get them together and talking.”

The social landscape in Chiapas has witnessed many changes over the past two decades. In the case of the community in Llano Alto, social conflicts simmer among evangelical churches, rather than between Catholics and evangelicals (Catholics have their own internal struggles in other communities). Yet Ruiz’s original commission to INESIN applies here as well, with INESIN looking to foster ecumenical relationships at the community level through collaborative initiatives around common interests.

In the case of Llano Alto, INESIN’s collaborative initiative focuses on the common interest of food sovereignty. INESIN staff give workshops on organic fertilizers and seed saving (and sharing); gardeners in the project tend each other’s plots and make small talk. When political and religious tensions arise at the community or state level, the members of the group have lived experience with “the other” that is broader and more gracious than mass media portray.

A colleague in the region once told me about a mediation session she facilitated between Protestants and Catholics. At the end of the session the two groups began talking in their native language of Tsotsil, an indigenous language commonly spoken in the highlands of Chiapas. My colleague asked someone to translate for her, as she felt so good about the progress that had been made and wanted to know where the conversation was leading. As it turns out, the two groups were talking about beans, the one thing they felt they might be able to talk about together, perhaps one of the only things they felt they had in common. This story reflects INESIN’s broader experience, in Llano Alto and elsewhere, that engaging in something so simple and complex as growing our own food is intimately connected with the simple and complex task of living peacefully together.

Lindsey Frye serves with MCC in Mexico as ecumenism promoter for INESIN, an MCC partner.

Learn more:

For further reading in English:

Hayden, Tom. Ed. The Zapatista Reader. New York, NY: Thunder Mouth’s Press/Nation Books, 1997.

En Español:

Interfaith bridge-building and violence aversion in Chad

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the late 1970s, Chad entered a civil war for political power between geographically- and culturally-based groups. Even though the civil war pitted Christians against Muslims, religion was not a major motivating factor for militants. Over the past decade MCC has partnered with the department of Ethics, Peace and Justice (EPJ), an operative branch of
the Protestant churches in Chad, to promote conflict transformation in interfaith settings. This article examines the religious context and history of Chad and discusses how EPJ draws upon religion as a resource for proactive peacebuilding and violence aversion.

In terms of religious affiliation, Chad’s population is divided among Muslims (55%), Catholics (20%) and Protestants (15%), with the remainder practicing forms of African traditional religion. Religious identity is tightly intertwined with tribal and ethnic affiliation for geographic reasons. Islam entered northern Chad with Arab traders in the
twelfth century, while western missionaries arrived from the south during the twentieth century. Both religions are blended with rituals and beliefs that predate the arrival of Abrahamic faiths in Chad.

Like other colonial administrations, France’s colonial regime exploited and exacerbated ethnic and religious divides. Chadians in the overwhelmingly Muslim north routinely resisted the imposition by the colonial authorities of a French education system. The colonial regime, in turn, disproportionately appointed people from the predominantly Christian south to lead various government departments. Following independence in 1960, it was therefore southerners who occupied the majority of civil service positions. The
country’s first president, N’Garta Tombalbaye (a Christian southerner), appointed a majority of Muslims (65%) to his first cabinet. Originally named François, Tombalbaye established a tyrannical one-party system that brutally promoted a top-down cultural revolution that pushed for movement away from Christian and Muslim influences towards a recovery of Chadian traditions. Following a decade of armed rebellions, Tombalbaye
was assassinated in 1975, plunging the country into an armed power struggle between the predominantly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south that continued into the 1990s. The religious differences between these two regional populations led adherents to vilify the religion of the other. Religion remains a dividing factor in population, with the
government perceived as being dominated by Muslim ethnic groups.

Within this post-civil war context, EPJ has worked to strengthen relationships across religious divides as part of peacebuilding and violence prevention efforts across the country. Over the past decade EPJ has earned a reputation as a leading organization of interfaith dialogue. Initially EPJ addressed conflicts within the church, but in 2008 expanded its violence aversion efforts by hosting an interfaith conflict transformation workshop for 30 Muslim and Christian leaders. This workshop became an annual event in N’Djamena, running through 2011. In 2012 EPJ stretched these interfaith peacebuilding efforts beyond the capital to host a workshop in Mongo. Momentum grew, with EPJ initiating workshops specifically targeting women and youth. Since 2013, EPJ has organized 29 week-long workshops for over 1100 participants in 15 different locations.

While current violent conflicts in Chad today flow from multiple sources (such as competition over resources and political power), participants in these conflicts routinely frame the conflicts in religious terms, making interfaith peacebuilding efforts that draw on religion as a source of conflict transformation a vital necessity. EPJ’s workshops highlight common ground between faiths and offer alternatives to violence. Each workshop is attended by local representatives who are selected by the national religious
bodies of each faith. EPJ strives to have 40% of workshop participants be Muslim, along with 30% each for Protestants and Catholics, although these percentages vary.

At the beginning of each workshop, participants are usually quiet, tense and polite, sitting with their co-religionists. Over the course of the workshop participants hear and discuss stories from sacred texts that describe how both Jesus and Muhammad taught their followers to do good to their enemies.

EPJ workshops center on a relatively set course of seminars led by EPJ staff that promote strong interfaith relations, present nonviolent conflict management strategies and teach mediation techniques. EPJ consistently invites MCC staff to contribute to the overview of the biblical basis for peace. EPJ also invites leaders from Muslim and Catholic institutions to give seminars on how their respective faiths understand peace. Catholic participants draw on Catholicism’s rich tradition of social justice teaching, while Muslim scholars highlight passages from the Qur’an and stories from the hadith (traditions about the prophet Muhammad) that exemplify peacebuilding in action. The workshop leaves considerable time for group discussion, encouraging thoughtful engagement with presenters and among participants. By the end of the workshop, participants typically report transformed perspectives. For example, after a workshop in the eastern city of Am Timan, one of the Muslim participants, Imam Ibrahim Abdoulaye, stated: “We have never heard teaching like this before; it needs to continue. We want to help.”

EPJ routinely faces two significant hurdles as it works to break down barriers between participants. First, Muslim and Christian participants need to hear that their own faith holds deep and rich peace teachings. Both Christian and Muslim sacred texts contain plenty of examples of violence seemingly portrayed in positive terms, from the conquest narratives of the Old Testament and literalist interpretations of Revelation, to violence
carried out by the nascent Muslim umma (community) in Medina, the conquest of Mecca and certain hadith about Muhammad. Participants often arrive at the workshop convinced that their sacred texts justify violence. EPJ staff and the invited speakers complicate this understanding by lifting up examples from Muslim and Christian scriptures that reflect a
commitment to peacebuilding, with a specific emphasis on Jesus’ life and teachings (especially the Sermon on the Mount) and Muhammad’s respect for both Jewish and Christian communities as well as his teachings on conflict resolution.

The second obstacle is to dispel notions of persecution that Christians and Muslims hold concerning one another. Both Muslim and Christian participants will point to the other with accusatory claims, citing current or historical outrages, such as Boko Haram’s massacres or the history of Africa’s colonization by western powers such as France. Citing such histories and present realities, Christian and Muslim participants can retreat into defensive postures that justify violence. EPJ works with participants to overcome such defensiveness and to focus on past histories of cooperation and coexistence and on possibilities for the future.

EPJ’s interfaith peacebuilding efforts have gathered momentum since 2013, with its conflict transformation workshops increasingly in demand and gaining support from Chadian leaders. Challenges certainly remain, including establishing better mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the longer-term impact of the workshops on communities where the workshops are held. Yet EPJ’s experience has already clearly demonstrated
that participants emerge from the interfaith peacebuilding workshops with an increased desire and willingness to collaborate across religious lines, which is no small feat in a context in which appeals to religion too often stoke rather than transform conflict.

Mark Tymm works with MCC partner, Ethics, Peace and Justice, in N’Djamena, Chad.

Learn more:

Abu-Nimer, Mohammed and David Augsburger. Peace-Building by, between and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009.

Azevedo, Mario J. Roots of Violence: A History of War in Chad. London: Routledge, 1998.

Flood, Derek. Disarming Scripture. Metanoia Books, 2014.

Religion and reconciliation in post-conflict northern Uganda

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

It is a day I will never forget. Six members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had surrendered and returned home after years of fighting a bloody war against the government of Uganda. The crowd gathered to witness the homecoming consisted of those who themselves had endured horrific massacres, mutilations, mass displacement and the abduction of their loved ones, including upwards of 30,000 children forced into the rebel ranks. I didn’t know what to expect as survivors and perpetrators came face to face for the first time. Would the crowd demand their arrest? Would some seek revenge?

What happened next is not what I had expected. As the former rebels moved into the clearing of the compound where the crowd of survivors had gathered, they one by one stepped on a raw egg that had been meticulously laid on the path along with two types of branches by the traditional leaders. Known as nynyo tong gweno, this act signified a desire to begin the process of reconciliation, symbolizing the perpetrators’ acknowledgement of wrongdoing and their desire to be a part of the community again. Noise erupted from the crowd, but instead of the sound of insults and jeering, it was the sound of cheers and jubilation. Shortly afterwards, the Catholic Archbishop of northern Uganda, John Baptist
Odama, knelt down in front of the returnees, stating, “If in any way my contribution [to ending the war] was not sufficient or enough to make you better, please forgive me.” The moment was powerful and communicated collective responsibility, acceptance, hope and a desire to move forward together to achieve sustainable reconciliation and peace.

Religious leaders in Northern Uganda have been active in promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the region. Beginning with an idea to come together and pray, the religious leaders recognized they would have a greater impact working together rather than separately. Out of these prayer meetings the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), consisting of top clerics from the Anglican, Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox and Pentecostal faiths, was born. Guided by values and teachings that its participants share in common, ARLPI seeks to foster sustainable peace and reconciliation by transforming conflict using the path of nonviolence. As the Catholic Archbishop Odama states, “The world has torn us apart; it is our job to bring it together.”

With many based at the grassroots level, Ugandan religious leaders have been well placed to provide constant spiritual support and encouragement to those enduring through hardship. Religious leaders have organized activities such as building monuments to remember those killed in the conflict and annual peace prayers at massacre sites throughout the region. Many survivors of the conflict have told me that religiously-based
messages have provided a significant source of comfort to communities that have lived through ongoing conflict. One individual shared how the biblical story of Job narrated by a religious leader during a peace prayer event resonated with her personal experience and helped to provide a sense of hope that her plight was temporary. She insisted that “It’s only the word from the Bible that can console people. . . . . You will find that this type of suffering did not only start with me. Like for Ayubu [Job], all his family died so Ayubu was left with nothing and again God brought to him a lot of pain . . . but still Ayubu survived.” Reflecting on the unprecedented brutality and large scale of the violence that had torn through northern Uganda, one person with whom I spoke observed that “such kind of death would not be managed emotionally by anyone if there were no prayers.”

Promoting theology that insists that “we are all children of God,” religious leaders have also used peace prayers to provide a non-adversarial and supportive forum where both survivors and former rebels have an opportunity to give their testimonies and feel safeguarded by the presence of religious and other leaders well-known for promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. Former rebels heard stories of how the war had affected the survivors and survivors were able to hear directly from individuals once deemed as enemies to learn about how many of them were abducted and forced to fight and about the hardships they endured just to try and stay alive with the hope they would one day return home to their families. This sharing of stories has not only helped to provide a better understanding of the complex nature of the conflict, but also helped to highlight the blurred lines between victim and perpetrator, fostering the re-humanization of those who were once solely viewed as the enemy.

However, not all have been supportive of the role and influence that religious leaders have had in promoting peace and reconciliation.Critics argue that survivors are pressured by religious leaders to forgive, which promotes impunity and does not adequately address the unique needs of survivors. Some critics express the concern that the Christian understanding of reconciliation carries strong moral obligations, implying that in order to have a relationship with God, one must forgive one’s enemies. This concern is compounded by the fact that the Acholi word for amnesty, a process vigorously promoted by the religious leaders in order to encourage the surrender of the rebels, is kica, which also means forgiveness. Others argue that the widespread use of religious rhetoric in promoting reconciliation may only help to achieve non-violent coexistence, but not reconciliation. For example, in post-conflict Sierra Leone, Lisa Skoval perceived the rhetoric surrounding Christian reconciliation to be “formulaic.” She found that while people verbally stated they had forgiven and reconciled with their perpetrators, community members remained “fearful, careful, and diffident in their dealings with former combatants” (quoted in Govier, 2006). Such critiques certainly name valid concerns. For their part, ARLPI recognizes that ceremonies of reconciliation like the one descried at the beginning of this article are only the starting point. Sustainable reconciliation is a long-term process, providing opportunities for both victims and perpetrators in northern Ugandan communities to work side-by-side, rebuilding trust, restoring interdependence and moving towards a shared future together.

Wade Snowdon coordinates MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program.

Learn more:

Finnström, Sverker. Living With Bad Surroundings. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008.

Govier, Trudy. Taking Wrongs Seriously: Acknowledgement, Reconciliation, and the Politics of Sustainable Peace. New York: Humanity Books, 2006.

Oloya, Opiyo. Child To Soldier: Stories from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Peachey, Dean. “The Elusive Quest for Reconciliation in Northern Uganda.” In Critical
Perspectives in Transitional Justice. Ed. Nicola Palmer, Danielle Granville and Phil Clark, 287-308. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

Tutu, Desmond. No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Related articles:

The church and peacebuilding in the African Great Lakes

Empowering children in their own protection

[Individual articles from the Summer 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

While adults are ultimately responsible to keep children safe, young people can also play an active role in contributing to their own protection. As part of its commitment to ensure safe and healthy childhoods and transitions to adulthood, Justice Development and Peace/Caritas (JDPC) is in the forefront of the campaign against all forms of child abuse in Nigeria. In 2014 JDPC, an MCC partner organization, developed a five-year child protection policy to guide its personnel and volunteers in the conduct of their activities and has established a network for child protection in Plateau State in partnership with other civil society organizations.

The Emergency Preparedness and Response Team (EPRT), a program of JDPC, focuses on establishing peace clubs in schools across Plateau State, along with other peacebuilding initiatives focused on dialogue, civic and political education, conflict mediation and conflict prevention through early warning and early response systems. EPRT has observed that the skills students learn in peace clubs are empowering students in ways that are reducing their vulnerability to abuse, even though peace clubs did not start with child protection as their primary purpose.

The primary vision for peace clubs was building a peaceful society through youth leadership training, with school-based peace clubs teaching young people strategies to face a wide array of difficulties or challenges. These strategies include: asking for help when encountering seemingly unsolvable problems; asserting one’s agency; determination and continuing to work for resolutions when conflicts get difficult; listening effectively; being creative; taking care of oneself; standing for justice; and being effective and efficient peacebuilders. Secondary school students are also taught how to
creatively resist teachers and other adults who may want to cause harm or abuse them sexually or physically.

EPRT has adapted peace club manuals developed by the Peace Clubs organization, led by Issa Sadie Ebombolo, and MCC Zambia for use in Nigeria, including a module that educates children on gender-based violence and introduces them to practical strategies for addressing it. Strategies of resistance promoted in the peace club curriculum include
using persuasive words, body language or behaviors that will disarm the aggressor and create the opportunity to draw the attention of parents, guardians and school or other authorities.

While children should be empowered to protect themselves, adults also have a responsibility to provide safe spaces for children, especially those who have been abused or traumatized. Through its high-profile presence across Plateau State, EPRT provides a system through which children and others can report incidences of sexual abuse, rape or other forms of abuse for onward submission to relevant authorities, thus supporting children in their efforts to protect themselves.

A major achievement of the peace clubs is that members are able to spread their skills by educating their peers in school and others in their homes and communities. Their activities are helping reduce incidences of child abuse which was rampant and growing at an alarming rate in Plateau State. EPRT hopes that the peace club model in Plateau State will help the child protection movement spread to other parts of Nigeria and beyond.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that “If we are to have real peace, we must begin with the children.” The children of the world must be empowered in their own protection, so that society may be free of traumatized children who carry unaddressed burdens from abuse by parents, relations and others. Working diligently at child protection is an essential component in creating a future in which war songs and drums of war are silenced and
energies are re-directed from the wasting of selves through killings and destruction to growth and development.

Boniface Kazah Anthony is program manager for the Emergency Preparedness and Response Team (EPRT) department in the Social Justice and Human Development for Peace Initiative (JDPC Jos) in Jos, Nigeria.

Learn more:

Peace club manuals and curricula from Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique and Burundi available at:

Reconciliation in post-war Burundi

[Compiler’s note: At the time of this writing, Burundi had just re-erupted into political unrest after a ten year period of peace. Up to twenty people have been killed in clashes between protesters, police and military forces. Additionally, over one hundred thousand have fled the country in anticipation of further violence. But, in a large part due to efforts such as those described below, the vast majority of the Burundian population has remained nonviolent and peaceful.]

The small country of Burundi, situated in the Great Lakes region of Africa, has experienced decades of complex violent conflict highly influenced by ethnic and regional elements. The widespread massacres and the civil war that took place in Burundi between 1993 and 2005 have left victims and offenders on all sides of the conflict. Within this context, many Burundians have dared to work toward reconciliation among people from different ethnic groups, regions and political parties.

Peace studies scholar John Paul Lederach describes reconciliation as the confluence of truth, mercy, justice and peace: peacebuilding processes must provide time and space for all four elements. Reconciliation is the process of rebuilding broken relationships by addressing harms and choosing to move forward peacefully together. In the Burundian context reconciliation processes play out at political, social, media and community/grassroots levels: each level is distinct and all levels are interconnected. MCC’s Burundian partners work primarily in grassroots reconciliation through a peace committee approach that empowers and trains local leaders to mediate conflicts in their communities. Understanding the different forms of reconciliation and recognizing their interconnectedness help to clarify the vital role that grassroots reconciliation plays in Burundian communities.

At the state level, political reconciliation serves as a national strategy for responding to atrocities and human rights abuses. Efforts at political reconciliation in Burundi have involved attempts to achieve transitional justice through the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). The 2000 Arusha Peace Accords laid the groundwork for setting up a Burundian TRC to investigate cyclic violence since Burundian independence, to punish or forgive offenders, to offer reparations to victims and to establish the truth while clarifying a shared history. In 2015 the members of the TRC were elected, but the commission has not yet commenced its investigations.

Work towards social reconciliation in Burundi occurs at the level of civil society involvement. Civil society refers to non-governmental organizations and institutions linked by the common interests of citizens. Ideally, civil society actors, such as the leaders of religious, traditional, academic and humanitarian communities and organizations, remain apolitical as they advocate for the broader population, but such neutrality continues to be a challenge in Burundi, where most civil society actors tend to become politically polarized. The Great Lakes Initiative, with which MCC partners, is an example of social reconciliation as a movement of religious leaders to end the cycles of violence that tear apart the region by promoting reconciliation through their institutions.

The media plays a major role in situations of violent conflict, but at the same time has great potential to be utilized as a tool for reconciliation in what we call media reconciliation. Media is often manipulated to spread rumors and messages of hate that increase tensions and cause panic. Reconciliation through media promotes professional, responsible and neutral media that provides a platform to share diverse opinions, inform the population and hold political and social leaders accountable.

During the 2015 political unrest, the Burundian government cut certain private radio emissions broadcasting what it viewed as anti-government messages. Protesters destroyed the private pro-government radio station and in retaliation all of the anti-government radio stations were destroyed. Due to the radio stations’ lack of neutrality in their broadcasting, they became targets of political violence. Remaining media outlets provide space for occasional programs that speak on themes of reconciliation, but unfortunately peacebuilders in Burundi do not yet have a formal platform for sharing the message of reconciliation through media.

Finally, community or grassroots reconciliation works toward social cohesion at the very base. At this level, communities organize structures to address conflicts, seeking creative solutions that apply to their contexts. Peace committees in Burundi are grounded in traditional restorative justice practices in which the bashingantahe, or community elders, guide mediation processes between parties in conflict. Based upon this traditional institution, peace committees offer a more inclusive form of restorative justice that works alongside the state judicial system, receiving cases and reducing the number that arrive in court. By providing a space for dialogue among members in a divided community, peace committees unite people around common values that encourage peaceful coexistence.

An MCC partner, the Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC), works in grassroots reconciliation by training and accompanying almost 400 peace committees throughout Burundi. The peace committee approach brings together volunteers from all social categories (representatives of the hutu, tutsi and twa peoples; displaced and repatriated persons; bashingantahe; demobilized combatants; religious leaders; etc.) to work together for social cohesion in their communities.

Peace committees in Burundi engage in many different types of peacebuilding activities, from people learning to forgive those who killed their family members during the civil war to using mediation to resolve land conflicts for the thousands of internally displaced and repatriated families throughout the country. Peace committee members also train their communities in conflict transformation, advocate to the appropriate authorities on behalf of vulnerable persons and mobilize communities to work together on development projects such as rehabilitating the homes of repatriated persons and building health clinics.

MIPAREC promotes social reconciliation by serving as a civil society link between grassroots reconciliation and political reconciliation processes. Using experiences with peace committees, MIPAREC collaborated with other peacebuilding organizations through the Quaker Peace Network (QPN) to develop a transitional justice model applicable to the Burundian context. QPN was able to propose this model to the country’s National Assembly as it drafted legislation to establish the truth and reconciliation commission. Understanding what grassroots reconciliation looks like in practice allowed MIPAREC to integrate realistic approaches to national reconciliation into the proposed bill.

Each level of reconciliation plays an important role in creating positive peaceful change in divided societies. At MIPAREC, we believe that grassroots reconciliation serves as the necessary foundation for encouraging sustainable reconciliation at each level. Communities need to accept the values of tolerance and empathy in order to live peacefully together with a certain degree of trust. Social cohesion must first be established in communities in order for efforts at higher levels of reconciliation, such as a national truth and reconciliation commission, to be effective.

Reconciliation in post-war contexts is a complicated and long process. Particularly following a civil war in which neighbors killed neighbors, trust is profoundly lost. Rebuilding trust is essential in allowing communities to coexist peacefully and in preventing violence in the future. Reconciliation in post-war contexts focuses on providing a space for dialogue that can help heal the wounds of war. Burundi still has a long way to go in addressing wounds of the past, building trust and finding healthy ways to move forward. We hope that our efforts in grassroots reconciliation are playing a role in uniting communities even while deep-rooted divisions remain a major source of conflict in Burundi. This year has been a great test for peacebuilders in Burundi. Even as violence erupts due to political unrest, many communities are holding on to higher values of tolerance and peace, resisting violence for the benefit of their communities. Grasping on to these scraps of hope, we continue on this journey toward sustainable reconciliation in Burundi.

Oscar Nduwarugira is the Director of the Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC), an MCC partner organization in Burundi. Melody Musser is the Communications Specialist for Peacebuilding for MCC Burundi/Rwanda.

For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. 

Conflict, reconciliation and partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes region

The Great Lakes region of central Africa—the countries grouped around Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika—showcases both the very best and the very worst of humanity. The region has seen its fair share of war and conflict: the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a twenty-year ongoing legacy of conflict and war in eastern Congo and a prolonged civil war in Burundi (a country where, just weeks ago, political tensions broke out again after ten years of peace) have all left their marks on the bodies and psyches of the peoples in the region. At the same time, the Great Lakes region is home to a vast and ever-growing community of peacebuilders, researchers, teachers, civil society actors and citizen activists who strive to re-establish and maintain peace.

The past and current conflicts of the region are nothing if not interconnected, both to each other and to the wider world. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda emerged from the same ethnic tensions (created and fostered by the colonial powers) that fueled the Burundian civil war. The conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi caused the displacement of refugees (and rebel groups) into Congo. International organizations and actors are omnipresent (although not with uniformly positive results). Through all of these events, the ugly specter of colonialism makes its enduring presence felt across the entire Great Lakes region.

Local dynamics often have regional and international causes: in eastern Congo, for example, a mine worker’s livelihood can be affected by the local military commander, by merchants in neighboring countries or by legislation enacted in the United States. In the Great Lakes, as elsewhere, following one single thread often leads to the discovery of a rich and varied tapestry of causes, effects, solutions and consequences, all tied into
one another, each one impossible to consider on its own.

True understanding is an act of compassion and the root of real peace. In this issue of Intersections, a team of authors from the Great Lakes region, along with MCC workers, present several windows into the dynamics that shape the region as a whole. While their articles do not present definitive solutions to the challenges facing the Great Lakes countries, the authors do highlight several key dimensions of the quest for durable peacebuilding and sustainable development in the region, including: the vital role played by
the church in durable peacebuilding efforts; the importance of supporting the efforts of local organizations; the pressing need to address the economic and human security devastation created by militias in the DRC; and the promise of grassroots peace initiatives in Burundi and Rwanda.

Patrick Maxwell is MCC’s Eastern Congo Peacebuilding Coordinator

Learn more by reading the summer edition of Intersections here.

The making of a COMT

A lifetime journey led me to make the moral choice to become a COMT—a “conscientious objector to military taxation.” World War II was raging when my journey began. I grew up in a Canadian city amongst patriotic people of British origin. Young men who were neighbours, relatives and even fellow church members were enlisting to help defeat Hitler. Some of them lost their lives in that endeavor. Even my beloved teacher came to school one morning in the splendid uniform of the Canadian navy.

Meanwhile, my Mennonite parents, teachers and wider church family were shaping my mind in other ways. The war savings certificates promoted at school got no approval at home—my first lesson in conscientious objection to military taxation. War costs money, but the government was not getting any from our family. In my baptismal instruction class I struggled with the doctrine of nonresistance. It sounded heroic for the sixteenth century, but definitely not cool in the 1940s. When my father served as pastor at an alternative service camp for COs, I became more aware that, while most of society was on the track rushing to war, some heroes refused to board that train.

The church schools where I received my secondary and college education strengthened my commitment to Christ and his teachings. When I taught with MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program in Kenya in the 1960s, I learned about the Kikuyu Christians who paid dearly at the hands of the Mau Mau for their unflinching commitment to the same nonviolent Jesus.

Back in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s, the Cold War and anti-nuclear movement drew me and members of my faith community into Ban the Bomb demonstrations and marches. One day we heard Edith Adamson speak about what Quakers in Victoria, BC were doing to protest Canada’s use of their income taxes for military purposes. Adamson made it clear that, if we expect our young people to stay out of the army, we should be just as categorical about keeping our money from funding the army.

Adamson’s organization, eventually known as Conscience Canada, encouraged people to withhold the portion of income tax intended for military purposes, deposit it into a trust fund and lobby the government for a Peace Tax Fund to be used only for peaceful purposes. This was “fiscal” rather than “physical” conscientious objection to war. The idea captivated me and I decided to become a COMT as soon as my income from teaching piano lessons rose to a taxable level.

For at least 15 years I annually followed Conscience Canada’s instructions on how to file my income tax, withholding a specific percentage and sending a letter explaining as persuasively as possible the reason for this action. I received responses from successive Ministers of Finance informing me that my actions were illegal, along with cold letters from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) telling me I owed them money. The CRA probably considered my “debt” too insignificant to try to recover, but after my 65th birthday, it annually withheld a Goods and Services Tax refund due me until the full amount was erased. I suffered no great harm from all those years of civil disobedience.

Currently, the only legal way to avoid paying taxes for military purposes is to keep one’s income low and/or increase charitable donations up to the limit. But even for the pensioner who receives a refund after filing, the conscience is not perfectly at ease. We can downsize our income, but our monthly old age security allowance depends on investments in corporations which fuel the military. We are inextricably involved, so it seems.

We COMTs need to find new ways of inviting others to make the moral choice of conscientious objection to military taxation. We need to find new ways of appealing to legislators for the legal means of redirecting our taxes for peaceful purposes. We need to find new allies in those who object to lavish military spending.

Mary Groh lives in Toronto. She has been president of Conscience Canada since 2010.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

Mennonite women as conscientious objectors

Shortly after the Second World War began in 1939, women in Ontario organized their local sewing circles into the Nonresistant Relief Sewing Organization. In describing the humanitarian assistance and moral support given to conscientious objectors in camps and war sufferers overseas, secretary Clara Snider said: “We are representing a common cause and stand for the same principles. . . . United we stand, divided we fall.”

American Edna Ramseyer, writing in 1943, reflected a similar desire that women be included in the discourse on nonresistance and conscientious objection. She asked: “Have you ever wished that you could prove your convictions on peace and war as your boyfriend, husband, brother, or son has? . . . Girls and women of the Mennonite church groups! Our Christian responsibility, to our God, the world, the church, our boys . . . is tremendous. The challenge is before us; the projects await us; the question is, do we as girls and women want to serve?”

These Mennonite women were not called up to serve their country militarily, but they nevertheless chose to identify as conscientious objectors and to provide an ‘alternate service’ to their country and to humanity. Indeed, they served voluntarily while Mennonite men were required to provide service to the state in eras when military conscription was enacted. And while men were confronted with the question of what they ‘would not do’ during war, women considered what they ‘would do’ in the midst of conflict. What they did was offer a ‘positive peace’ in the form of material and moral relief and service to those who suffered from the violence of war.

Mennonite women, and others from historic peace churches, expressed their conscientious objection in both world wars of the twentieth century by providing material relief and voluntary labour, both to their own men in work camps for conscientious objectors (COs) at home and to war sufferers overseas. During the Second World War, a church-administered work program for COs in the United States called Civilian Public Service (CPS) drew women into labour as nutritionists, nurses, cooks and other roles within the 151 CPS camps established across the country.

In Canada, the Alternative Service (AS) work program for COs was government-run, and so women were not as involved in the camps. Yet Canadian women declared a pacifist stance by sending care packages and letters to their own sons and husbands in AS camps and by entering paid employment in order to support their families in the absence of male wages.

Mennonite women’s organizations across Canada and the United States prepared clothing, bandages, food and other relief goods to be sent directly overseas and held sales and other events to raise money to support organizations engaged in wartime relief. Relief workers in England suggested that women in Canada and the United States adopt the slogan “Non-Resistant Needles Knitting for the Needy” to underscore the “magnificent opportunity” that their work represented. A 1940 report on Mennonite Central Committee’s relief clothing program for war sufferers in Europe described the relationship between relief and peace thus: “In the face of war’s havoc there is need for a positive testimony of peace, love, and compassion toward the suffering.”

The voluntary ‘positive peacemaking’ of women was literally embodied as numerous young women went overseas themselves, during and after the war, to work in orphanages and refugee centres and to distribute food and clothing. Arlene Sitler of Ontario was one woman who took up this opportunity: she affirmed the material relief provided by Mennonite women, suggesting that through their giving “the bonds of peace and Christian fellowship may become stronger throughout the world.”

Women continued to demonstrate a ‘positive peace’ in the decades after the Second World War, volunteering for overseas relief work or domestic voluntary service in high numbers. Between 1940 and 1970, for example, nearly twice as many Canadian women did service with MCC as Canadian men (Epp-Tiessen, 63). Moreover, during the Vietnam War draft in the U.S., when most of the 89 men in MCC service in Vietnam were there to perform the required alternative service duty, 39 women were there completely voluntarily. Women have also demonstrated a keen commitment to active nonviolence through their participation in Christian Peacemaker Teams.

If notions of Mennonite nonresistance, as expressed by male church leaders, shifted from a passive to an active pacifism in the latter part of the twentieth century, it could be argued that such a shift had already been anticipated in the words and actions of Mennonite women.

Marlene Epp is professor of History and Peace & Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.