Read the AW Book Forum presentation – Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation by Alain Epp Weaver here.

Place and the Construction of Christian Service

Response to AW Book Forum by Alain Epp Weaver*

Where does Christian service unfold? What places shape understandings of Christian service? How have those landscapes of Christian service been formed by regimes of power, including racism and colonialism? Who tells the story of a Christian service organization like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and from what locations? These questions focused my book-length examination of MCC and its century of relief, development, and peacebuilding in the name of Christ. [1] In preparing the 2019 Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College in Kansas that were the genesis of Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation, I grappled with how to offer a historical narrative with chronological and geographical breadth and analytical depth without any pretense of providing a comprehensive account of MCC’s work. I was keenly aware of the great diversity of people who have connected to and become part of MCC’s story and the multitude of landscapes in which MCC service has germinated and taken root—and it was pointedly clear to me that any attempt to narrate MCC’s history would fail to capture vital aspects of that rich diversity. How to do some measure of justice, if only partial, to this overflowing abundance of stories within the limits of four lectures?

The strategy I adopted for addressing this question was to advance a (not especially novel) theoretical framework for thinking about MCC’s history (and about the histories of missions and church institutions more generally). Rather than attempt to narrate a master MCC story or to identify a core MCC identity running as a through line across the MCC century, I sought to present MCC as a site of ongoing construction of and contestation over the meaning of Christian service. From MCC’s inception in 1920 until the present, people situated in a multitude of landscapes have argued about the shape and meaning of Christian service. MCC’s history can be understood as a rhizomatic spread of a tendril-like network within which ever-expanding and continually shifting conversations, debates, and conflicts take place over what service in the name of Christ entails. Telling MCC’s history involves tracing the nodes within this network, identifying the people and communities who stake a claim to MCC by joining in the project of constructing and contesting place-specific understandings of Christian service. Instead of seeking to advance a hegemonic account of MCC’s century, Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation charts some of these nodes, attending to a fraction of the stories of and tensions and conflicts over Christian service across MCC’s one hundred years.

In their generous and insightful responses to Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation, Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Anicka Fast, and Andrés Pacheco Lozano all present probing analyses of and raise incisive questions about MCC’s century-long history. I am deeply grateful to each of them—both for their affirmations of my analysis and their reflection on gaps and weaknesses in my account of MCC. Each one in distinctive ways points to actors and places vital for understanding how Christian service has been constructed and contested within MCC.

Shands Stolzfus highlights the racialized character of congregational, denominational, and inter-Anabaptist spaces in the United States as vital for understanding MCC’s work and identity. During the Second World War, participants in MCC-operated Civilian Public Service units in places like Gulfport, Mississippi, came face-to-face with stark forms of the racist, white supremacist ideology that has shaped the United States from before its founding. Shands Stoltzfus underscores how Vincent Harding and Rosemary Freeney Harding, in their leadership of MCC’s Voluntary Service unit in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early 1960s, pressed the broader Mennonite church in the United States to leave behind quietism and become engaged in the struggle for civil rights. Addressing racism, MCC discovered, was not solely a matter of confronting structures external to the church, but required undertaking the difficult, often painful, work of naming and dismantling racism within the church—and within MCC itself. MCC U.S.’s Damascus Road program, initiated in mid-1990s and led by Shands Stoltzfus in collaboration with others, contested the nature of MCC’s Christian service, pushing MCC to address how its relief, development, and peacebuilding work could be bound up with racism. As Shands Stoltzfus stresses in her conclusion, the work of anti-racism within Christian service is not a one-time action, but a commitment that must be continuously renewed. 

Who do we imagine when we picture an MCC worker? Who speaks into and shapes the MCC story? Anicka Fast raises such questions in her critical (and correct) observation that the role of MCC staff from the global South receives insufficient attention in Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation. In writing the book, I sought in different ways to deconstruct the image of the prototypical MCC worker as a white woman or man from the United States or Canada serving in a non-white location, noting at points the indispensable role that in-country nationals (referred to by MCC internally as “national staff”) have played over decades in its relief, development, and peacebuilding work, discussing MCC’s IVEP and YAMEN service programs in my examination of shifting understanding of service within MCC over the decades, and pointing to the rapidly growing numbers over the past two decades of “service workers” from the global South who work with MCC outside their passport country. Some of the book’s many photos highlight MCC staff from the global South actively engaged in service, including one of the photos on the book’s cover showing two MCC workers, one Bangladeshi and one white Canadian, working collaboratively to test a prototype of the rower pump that MCC then promoted across Bangladesh and beyond. However, as Fast rightly contends, my efforts failed to foreground the voices of MCC workers from the global South have contributed to the construction and contestation of MCC’s understandings of Christian service. Were I to marshal an explanation for this lamentable gap, I would note that time constraints limited me to archive-based research as I prepared the lectures that form the basis of the book, with MCC’s archives disproportionately preserving the written perspectives of white MCC staff. Yet even within the limits of archival research, my account could and should have more prominently highlighted and analyzed how non-white MCC workers from beyond Canada and the U.S. (as well as staff of color in Canada and the U.S.) have constructed and contested MCC understandings of service.

Fast also criticizes Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation for not discussing in greater depth how MCC has intersected with Mennonite mission agencies over the decades. I concur with Fast that MCC and Mennonite mission agency interactions—both collaborative and contentious—have not received the scholarly attention they deserve. In a forthcoming article, I seek partially to rectify that gap in the scholarly literature through an examination of how Mennonite mission agency anxieties about MCC’s rapid expansion in the 1950s led to the creation of mechanisms to ensure regular meetings between MCC and Mennonite mission agency leadership, meetings that helped manage tensions as they arose and sometimes opened doors for joint action. [2] Those mechanisms proved durable, persisting today in the Council of International Anabaptist Ministries. That study of leadership-level consultation, collaboration, and conflict between MCC and Anabaptist mission agencies must be supplemented by future missiological assessments of how MCC and different Anabaptist mission agencies have worked together, critiqued one another, and learned from each other in a wide variety of global contexts. At the same time (as I anticipate Fast would agree), much study remains to be done into how MCC’s understandings of Christian service have been shaped not only by intersections with Mennonite missions but also by ecumenical engagements beyond the Anabaptist world, interfaith encounters, and broader trends within humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding fields.

Drawing from the passage in the Pauline letter from which Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation took its title (2 Corinthians 5:14-21), Pacheco Lozano probes what we can learn by asking who the “ambassadors” of reconciliation to whom Paul refers are and where they are located. Reflecting on potentially colonial understandings of an ambassador as a representative of a colonial power, Pacheco Lozano asks if “ambassadors of reconciliation” are necessarily sent out from “here” to “there”. He answers no, creatively proposing to “re-frame the understanding of being an ambassador as someone who is sent to a different context, to a person witnessing to God’s reconciling work in each context.” Such a reconceptualization of who ambassadors of reconciliation are, Pacheco Lozano convincingly argues, in turn suggests new vistas for missiological histories—rather than attending solely to shifts, tensions, and trends within “sending” mission agencies, he urges, let us examine how “receiving” communities have interacted within those agencies, tracing patterns of collaboration and conflict. Pacheco Lozano’s response points to the need for histories of MCC that tell the MCC story from the perspective of the churches, church-based agencies, community-based organizations, and other groups that have partnered with and hosted MCC. 

Individually and together, the responses to Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation by Shands Stoltzfus, Fast, and Pacheco Lozano put forward important questions about how to narrate and understand MCC’s century-long story. While graciously affirming elements of my book’s argument, they have also addressed its weaknesses and in doing so have pointed to directions that future historians of MCC—and of Anabaptist mission work more broadly—might profitably pursue.


*Alain Epp Weaver directs strategic planning for Mennonite Central Committee. He lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and attends East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church.

[1] Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation: A Missiological History of Mennonite Central Committee, C.H. Wedel Series No. 21 (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2020).

[2] Alain Epp Weaver, “‘A Habit of Social Concern’: Anxieties about the Relationship between Mennonite Central Committee’s Relief and Service Programs and Mennonite Missions from the 1950s to the 1970s,” Journal of Mennonite Studies (forthcoming 2022).