Kim Thiessen’s rendition of “Give Yourself to Love” was a perfect thematic opening to the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta’s (MHSA) 2015 fall conference. The gathering highlighted the history of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Canada.
Love for God’s people underlies the work Thiessen, associate director of MCC Alberta, helps the organization accomplish. In an update on current projects, Thiessen showed how it has become well-known for helping refugees.
“It’s been a really, really busy fall. The more [Calgary] mayor, Naheed Nenshi, mentions MCC and the work we do, the more calls we get!” Thiessen commented.
She said that there are over 1.8 million refugees in camps in Lebanon, with many families there for two to four years and trying to live on $13.00 per month. MCC Alberta is currently working to help churches and community groups sponsor some of the most desperate and vulnerable refugees. “This won’t be ending any time soon. It is gratifying to be part of a community welcoming these people.” Thiessen said.
After hearing of MCC’s present reality, keynote speaker Esther Epp-Tiessen plunged the crowd back in time to the organization’s beginnings. She led off with a story she learned from Dr. Terry Leblanc, indigenous studies program director at Tyndale University College. In the story, a young boy is terrified about getting lost. While walking with his grandfather, the boy noticed that the old man regularly stopped to look back down the path. When the boy asked why he did this, the grandfather said he was looking back to see where they had come from so they would not lose their way. Epp-Tiessen views the knowledge and study of history in a similar way.
In 2013, Epp-Tiessen’s book, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History, was published. A self-described MCC ‘insider,’ Epp-Tiessen grew up discussing MCC projects around the dinner table, studying its history while in university, serving in the Philippines for four years with her husband, and working for both MCC Ontario and MCC Canada. The book was written at the request of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada.
In the book’s preface, Epp-Tiessen writes, “Someone with greater detachment from the organization would undoubtedly bring a greater level of objectivity to the story than I. However, I have tried to use my experience as an ‘insider’ to tell the story of some of the internal working of MCC Canada—the struggle for identity and purpose, the oftentimes turbulent relationship with constituents, the power struggles within the organization, and the contradictions and complexities of compassionate service to a hurting world.”
As an insider, Epp-Tiessen’s passion for the work of MCC infused her presentation with both love and, at times, angst. In describing her writing experience she said, “(It was an) agony and joy to do this. The people we love are also the ones that drive us crazy—that’s also the story of this project!”
In the writing process Epp-Tiessen struggled with the sheer volume of information she had to sort through, as well as trying to make sense of the blurry boundaries between what content was bi-national, shared with MCC USA, and what was uniquely Canadian. Even within the Canadian context, provincial and national interests and organizations, perspectives and social locations proved complicated to explain.
The roots of MCC Canada began growing in the 1920s, with the concern of Canadian Mennonites to aid those suffering in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union. The inter-Mennonite organization, however, only became formalized in 1963, at a December 12 meeting held in the Portage Avenue Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg. Back then, Epp-Tiessen noted, “Inter-Mennonite co-operation was not the case at all. Coming together to work was radical at the time. The urgency [in Russia] demanded a united effort.”
Most of Epp-Tiessen’s address to the historical society focused on part 2 of her book, the development of an MCC identity, an ongoing and constantly evolving process. From MCC’s very beginnings, the urgency of relief work was paired with development so that persons in need would be equipped to help themselves. Immigration support concerns were also a reality that accompanied relief work.
As MCC placed volunteers in other countries, it became a “place of profound learning and Christian formation,” said Epp-Tiessen. “MCC became a window on the world, interpreting the world to the people back home.”
Questions from the floor expressed appreciation for the forthright way Epp-Tiessen approached both her writing and the presentation, highlighting accomplishments, and yet never hiding problems and failures. “The book contained warts, but publically we don’t see those,” attendee Dave Toews said.
An ongoing discussion for MCC has always been how to best present the gospel message, to determine what combination of word and deed was appropriate in various countries. Marvin Baergen commented, “MCC tried not to plant churches or evangelize; it seems we lost an opportunity. MCC’s work to ‘provide a cup of cold water’ was a decision made by mission boards; however, churches have emerged.”
It was clear in the rest of the discussion that MCC is still working with the question of identity. It was noted that more non-Mennonite churches are now among MCC’s constituents. Epp-Tiessen addressed the identity issue by referring to MCC’s “new wineskins” discussions from 2007 to 2008. “It is interesting that MCC is more strongly tied to denominational churches than before . . . [and there are] new voices. This is wonderful but presents tensions too,” she said.
The work of MCC has often gone beyond simple provision of material and food relief. MCC’s victim services and restorative justice programs, concerns about people with handicaps, indigenous relations, recycling programs, education initiatives, peace and justice initiatives (and more) attempt to work at the roots of injustice, to alleviate the causes of suffering. Epp-Tiessen’s book and the stories are to be celebrated. MCC is “God’s miracle among us. Praise be to God!” she said.
The MHSA spring conference and AGM will be held on April 30, at Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton. The theme will be “Rethinking Mennonite History in Light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Speakers will be Dr. Roger Epp, professor of political science at the University of Alberta and author of We Are All Treaty People; Isaac Glick, retired community development specialist with First Nations in northern Alberta; and Chief Calvin Bruneau of the Papaschase First Nation.