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Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 155–165 

Ministers of Commerce: Fifty Years of MEDA's Mission

Wally Kroeker

The people who started Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) were Ministers of Commerce, though there is no evidence they ever used that term. Early MEDA photos show white-faced (maybe sunburned) Mennonite men riding around on the backs of pickups, trudging through jungles, and sitting under trees eating watermelon with Paraguayan Indians. Back home in California, Manitoba, and Ohio these men were seldom seen in public without suit and tie. They were men who managed companies that employed hundreds, maybe thousands, of people and did millions of dollars of business.

MEDA members are encouraged to think that whether they work on an assembly line or in an office, they are called to represent God. That is their outpost of mission.

These were the MEDA pioneers of half a century ago—successful businesspeople who had heard the cry of the poor and who wanted to mobilize their special abilities and resources to be Good News in a world of urgent need.


It was the early 1950s. A few years earlier Mennonite refugees from {156} Russia and East Germany had been dislocated following the Second World War and several thousand had ended up in Paraguay and Uruguay. Other church organizations had provided these refugees with basic essentials such as food and shelter, but they needed more than temporary housekeeping. Those who had left trades behind needed working capital to establish businesses to provide goods and services in the Mennonite settlements. South American banks were reluctant to lend them start-up money because they had no collateral or credit history.

Word of their need reached North America. In 1952, several Mennonites flew to Paraguay at their own expense to study economic conditions. These visits made quite a stir in the Mennonite media, which dubbed their exploratory trips “Flying Missions.”

As a result of these Flying Missions, eight of these businessfolk from different Mennonite conferences gathered in Chicago’s Atlantic Hotel on December 10, 1953, to form a new organization that would provide capital funds at low rates of interest to develop enterprises that the community needed to grow and prosper. As funds would be repaid and some interest accumulated, other projects would be proposed and new investments made. The overall philosophy then, as now, was to help individuals in need to become self-reliant and economically self-sufficient. To use language employed often by the founders, MEDA’s goal was to “help people help themselves.”

The original investors pledged fifty thousand dollars to initiate the program. Each following year additional funds were contributed and stocks were issued for them. Each board member was assigned to sponsor certain projects and to visit their partners to provide ongoing counsel. New members were solicited as time went on, and stock was issued accordingly. Two Mennonite Brethren were involved in the founding: Edward J. Peters of Wasco, California, and C. A. DeFehr of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Peters would serve as MEDA’s president for its first twenty years.


MEDA’s first project was the Sarona Dairy in Paraguay’s Fernheim Colony. The name came from the biblical term “Sharon,” a fertile pasture celebrated in Isaiah 65:10. It aimed to alleviate a severe milk shortage in the region, as native bush cattle produced only a couple of quarts of milk per day. MEDA formed a partnership with local farmers to clear some scrubland and import a high-grade bull for crossbreeding. Before long, milk production was boosted to four or five gallons a day.

Sarona greatly improved the milk and butter supply in the region as {157} well as the grade of dairy cattle generally. Today, some eighty percent of the dairy products in Paraguay come from the Mennonite colonies. The dairy, meanwhile, was sold to the local partners in 1972, and remained in business until 2000.

The second MEDA enterprise was the Sinfin Tannery. The small tannery already existed, but lacked the capital to operate properly. MEDA stepped in to help erect a building and secure essential equipment.

A cattle operation and a tannery led quite logically to MEDA’s third project, the Fortuna Shoe Factory. MEDA provided the capital to erect a building and purchase equipment. By the late 1970s Fortuna was producing more than six hundred pairs of shoes per month, employing four to six workers. The factory also produced cowboy chaps and motorcycle seats for colonists, ranchers, and Indians in the area. It remains in business today.

Not every project was successful. As in business, there were fitful stops and starts. There were some hard lessons to learn. One of these learning experiences was the Casuarina Cattle Ranch, a ten thousand-acre project in Paraguay that operated from 1961 to 1968. It aimed to be a model demonstration project using modern techniques. Unfortunately, it failed due to poor management, lack of communication, and other factors. While not a huge financial disaster, it was extremely embarrassing for its owners.

Another significant learning experience was a large rice plantation that MEDA tried to help in the Volendam Colony of Paraguay. Some board members opposed getting involved, saying no one in MEDA knew anything about rice farming. As it turned out, crossing the border into Paraguay did not automatically increase their knowledge. Despite the expensive importation of draglines and pumps, only one good crop was harvested, and heavy losses were sustained.

In his book The MEDA Experiment, J. Winfield Fretz comments (36): “Probably the one significant value of this undertaking was the sobering lesson it taught MEDA members as to their limitations as a rescue organization for large business enterprises in financial difficulties.” Another missiological lesson it taught was that if you can’t do it at home, you probably won’t be able to do it overseas, no matter how good your intentions.


MEDA was able to bounce back from its failures and forge successful projects elsewhere. One of these was the Cooperative Creamery in {158} Uruguay which benefited immensely from the leadership of Lyle Yost of Hesston, Kansas. The creamery has often been described as the economic lifeblood of the Mennonite colonies in Uruguay.

This first period of MEDA’s history could be called the Partnership/Investment Period. MEDA provided investment capital and advisory services through MEDA members who were assigned responsibilities for particular countries. Many businesses were started as joint ventures with MEDA members. The nationalization of the companies took place through loans extended in the 1960s which were repaid in the late 1970s. For the most part, recipients of assistance shared the cultural, business, and faith background of MEDA members.

The need for MEDA’s type of assistance was immense, and invitations came from all over the globe. The period from 1960 to 1975 can be called the Credit Period of MEDA’s history. Working largely through the administrative services of missionary personnel, loans were extended in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. MEDA members backstopped particular projects from North America. Supervision was sporadic, and changing field personnel brought varying levels of commitment to the MEDA agenda. Sometimes the values of the donors and recipients clashed.

This does not mean that good things were not happening. There were beneficial projects, like a woodworking shop to make school desks and church furniture, and a small poultry farm. Eventually there would be more than fifty projects in Tanzania and another thirty-one in Zaire. There were projects in Somalia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

One painful discovery during this period was that loans were often made by local committees on the basis of family ties, or friendship, or even to augment authority. MEDA learned that giving a village pastor the authority to lend money combined spiritual power with economic power which could be very damaging if abused. MEDA learned to practice sound lending based on business criteria.

The Africa years also taught important lessons about dependence—lessons that every generation needs to relearn. Too often, borrowers thought North American money did not have to be repaid. Debts were seen as an imposition rather than as an obligation.

In the mid-1970s some hard-nosed reevaluation took place leading to a period of Direct Service Delivery. A conscious decision was made to focus activities in a few regions rather than being scattered so widely in twenty-five different countries. It was also decided to orient the program to the needs of the lower third of the population, the poorest of the {159} economically active. The MEDA mandate evolved to offer credit and training in tandem, to provide management support services as part of in-country integrated development, and to concentrate on developing human resources.


While all this was going on, new things were happening among a different group of Mennonite businessfolk back in North America. During the turbulent 1960s there seemed to be a growing gap between business and the church, at least in Mennonite circles.

In 1969 a group of ninety Mennonite businesspeople and educators got together to form an organization that would work to narrow this gap. It aimed to help those in business to be more deliberate about their ethical behavior, and to provide a place where businesspersons and their critics could get together and talk things out. This group was called Church, Industry and Business Associates (CIBA). Among the Mennonite Brethren involved from the start were the late A. A. DeFehr of Winnipeg and his son Arthur, today the president of Palliser Furniture.

Four years later another, larger business group formed. Some in the Mennonite community had felt that CIBA catered to big operators, such as owners of large factories and agribusiness firms. What about the smaller mom-and-pop businesses? Several hundred smaller business operators formed their own organization, called Mennonite Business Associates (MBA). Its purpose was to provide Christian fellowship, stimulate Christian witness in business, and encourage Christian ethics.

It soon became obvious that both CIBA and MBA were appealing to the same clientele. In 1976 the two groups merged to form Mennonite Industry and Business Associates (MIBA). This new group sought to incorporate the concerns and interests of both large and small businesses.

It has been said that wherever two or three Mennonites gather together they will form an organization. Another thing they will do is hold a conference. By now both groups—MIBA and MEDA—were holding regular meetings. It became apparent that a lot of the same people were coming to both groups. In fact, nearly all the members of MEDA were also members of MIBA. Why not merge again, someone wondered.

In 1981, after a few years of flirting and courtship, the two organizations did in fact merge. The language used was that of a wedding. Erland Waltner, a Mennonite leader of the day, preached the wedding sermon entitled, “A United Witness in the Business World.” The name {160} MEDA was retained because of its tax-exempt history in both Canada and the United States.


Today MEDA is a hybrid organization with a dual purpose:

  • To help businesspeople see their work as a form of ministry, and thereby integrate their faith with their business;
  • To use the skills and resources of businesspeople to help the poor in underdeveloped countries.

MEDA’s membership numbers some three thousand in Canada and the United States. It has programs in eight countries and activities with spin-off implications in many more. There are microenterprise programs, production and marketing programs for rural producers, a trading company, a consulting company, a business development department, and an investment fund. Its most visible event is an annual convention that rotates around North America and typically draws four hundred to six hundred people. MEDA publishes a bimonthly magazine, The Marketplace, which has a circulation of sixty-five hundred in Canada and the U.S. MEDA has offices in Waterloo, Ontario, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as well as in eight overseas locations. There are one hundred seventy-five employees around the world, most of them non-North American. MEDA also works with ten ASSETS programs in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico to help low-income people start or expand small businesses.

In a typical year, MEDA will help ten thousand of the world’s poor with small loans and business assistance. MEDA is known worldwide for its expertise in microenterprise development, having been one of the pioneers of this movement in the mid-1980s. Today there are four hundred agencies doing this kind of work. When all aspects of its work are considered, including consulting, trade and currency transactions, MEDA is involved in more than half of the low-income countries of the world.

Some have called MEDA the “mission arm” of the Mennonite business community. This mission is grounded in a larger understanding of ministry in daily life. MEDA members are encouraged to see themselves as God’s agents in daily life, believing that not everyone is called to be a pastor or full-time church worker. MEDA members are not content to simply sit in the church pew as second-class citizens who “pay, pray, and obey.” As people in business and the professions, they feel {161} called to work in the trenches and to be God’s junior partners in the ongoing work of creation and redemption.


MEDA’s faith statement has been articulated as follows:

We believe in God who created us, redeemed us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, empowers us through the Holy Spirit, and calls us together as Christ’s body, the church. Our task is to bear witness to our life in Christ by being agents of God’s caring, sustaining and transforming activity, characterized by love, peace and justice for all.

These beliefs undergird MEDA’s organizational mission statement:

MEDA is an association of Christians in business and the professions committed to applying biblical teachings in the marketplace. MEDA members share their faith, abilities and resources to address human needs through economic development.

Some of our assumptions include the following:

  • We believe work has intrinsic worth; it is not valued only because of what it produces.
  • We believe God wants humanity to enjoy spiritual, physical, economic, and social well-being.
  • The biblical call to “do justice” compels us to empower the disadvantaged and seek more equitable opportunity.
  • Stewardship means using our resources for the fuller development of the resources of all.
  • Compassion means we respond to Scripture’s clearly stated concern for the poor.
  • Christian love (and, by extension, a commitment to human dignity) forms the basis of all our relationships.
  • In our work and involvements we seek to affirm and enhance life and to avoid supporting that which harms or diminishes life.

The term “bear witness” in the faith statement means we seek to do God’s will. We believe God’s will is not only that people be redeemed but also that they be brought closer to what was originally intended for {162} them. The Good News is not only good news for individuals, it is also good news for society.

The Old Testament depicts God’s will in many ways including restoring waste spaces and turning deserts into fertile fields. It holds forth a vision of God’s intention for creation, God’s vision of “what ought to be.” That vision is one of peace, justice, and salvation, of spiritual, physical, social, environmental, and economic wholeness and well-being.

While the mission of God’s people in the New Testament is often narrowly understood as verbal proclamation of the gospel, MEDA sees it more broadly. The mission of God’s people is to carry out the total redemptive task of Jesus Christ. The Great Commission calls the church to baptize and to make disciples of all nations, but it also calls the church to teach all that Jesus commanded. It calls us to express the totality of his teaching and relationships. As God sent him, so he sends us (John 20:21).

Scripture says we have been given varying gifts. The Old Testament specifies that some are called to be artisans and woodworkers. The New Testament says some are called to be teachers and administrators while others are called to be evangelists. Scripture also teaches that we need one another’s giftedness. The head does not say to the foot, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21 NRSV, passim).

MEDA believes people in business can serve God with the gifts that are unique to them. These gifts are the skill sets that God has entrusted to us to use as stewards. We bring to God’s service that which is most precious to us, that which defines our specialized role in the ongoing sustaining of creation.


Here are some dimensions of how the act of helping to develop a low-income entrepreneur can be an expression of Christian faith.

1. Reflecting the Image of God

As Christians, we believe all people are made in the image of God. We understand creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship to be among the expressions of the character of God. We believe that microenterprise development helps people coax out these attributes and develop their godlike character. We believe it helps them to become all that God intended them to be.

2. Exercising Gifts

That belief leads to helping people to nurture their own God-given {163} interests and talents. Not only are they being helped to reflect part of God’s character, they are also being helped to develop their own identity. A small business gives its owner a chance to express creativity.

The apostle Paul writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

3. Being Good Stewards

Microenterprise development calls entrepreneurs to use their gifts responsibly. Self-employment offers the chance to use talents. We present our creativity, the skill sets that God has entrusted to us, to use as stewards. These are our own “treasure in clay jars” that God has put in our care (2 Cor. 4:7). Those who have enjoyed business success get a chance to share their talents with others; those who have not yet enjoyed such success are given a chance to nurture their skills.

4. Seeking Wholeness

Development is rooted in the biblical concept of shalom. This is often used interchangeably with “peace,” but the meaning is broader—it means wholeness. Good economic development responds to the need for wholeness. It involves “empowerment”: helping people to identify their strengths, gather their resources, and work together to overcome the problems that hold them back.

5. Being God’s Junior Partners

Our daily work matters to God. It is God’s will that people grow and distribute food, build houses and make furniture, operate stores and drive trucks, keep books and sell shoes. By operating businesses that provide goods and services (not to mention jobs) for society, we become cocreators with God in the ongoing task of sustaining creation. We become God’s junior partners.

6. Showing Compassion

The act of showing compassion to the marginalized has a rich history in Christian tradition. It is a consistent theme throughout the Scripture. Jesus praises those who bring a cup of cold water to the needy (Matt. 10:42). Of those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked, he said, “as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). {164}

7. Seeking Justice and Denouncing Poverty

The call to “do justice” (Mic. 6:8) compels us to pursue projects and use methodologies that empower the disadvantaged and lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth. Microenterprise development fights economic injustice and unfair commercial practices that keep persons poor, and helps the poor gain resources to find their place in the business arena.

8. Demonstrating the Good News

Nowhere does MEDA use microenterprise assistance as a tool for proselytizing. Nowhere do we expect participants to adhere to a particular belief system. We do, however, promote business ethics such as integrity and fairness. We see this as a demonstration of our faith. We also believe that microenterprise development demonstrates the power of Jesus Christ to transform lives.

9. Building the Church

A side benefit of some microenterprise programs is that they can help make local churches financially viable. As church members improve their economic situation, they may be better able to support their congregations financially.

This is part of the mix at Micro MEDA Mexico, for example, where MEDA’s microenterprise work is supported jointly by fifteen Mennonite congregations. Besides being a form of outreach to their needy communities, the churches are looking to the program to shore up the economic base of those members who operate small businesses.


MEDA encourages people to connect their faith with their work, but what exactly does that mean?

Former MEDA vice-chair John Eby, speaking in 1989 to a MEDA chapter meeting in Winnipeg, used a baking analogy to illustrate three ways of integrating faith and work:

  1. The most basic level—superficial piety—is like putting frosting on a cake: one could add a layer of sweetness but beneath it all there was the same cake.
  2. Another level is to employ some biblical principles at work, like chocolate chips in a cookie—they are part of the cookie, yet distinctly separate and isolated (in the cookie but not of the cookie). They don’t necessarily affect the work itself. {165}
  3. A third level is like the yeast in bread—it permeates the dough and actually transforms its essence and behavior.

MEDA seeks to operate at the third level. But what does it mean to act like yeast in our places of work? In the MEDA mind-set it might mean asking probing questions about our work. What public good will my work accomplish today? Is my work an important part of God’s economy? Is the world a better place because of the work I do? Does our work contribute to the kind of world God intended—where deserts become fertile fields, where parched lands become glad, where waste spaces are comforted, as the Old Testament prophets say? Does the work we do enhance life rather than harm it?

For a manager or business owner it might mean serving employees and recognizing them as stakeholders and not merely as a means of production. It can mean asking some serious questions about competition, not only between corporate competitors but also between coworkers.

It can mean dealing with the kinds of brokenness found in the workplace. It can mean dealing redemptively with failure, whether that be a bankruptcy or a failed employee. It can mean running a risk for the sake of an ideal. Honesty at all costs can be risky. Going the second mile with a problem employee can be risky.

MEDA members are encouraged to think that whether they work on an assembly line or in an office, they are called to represent God. That is their outpost of mission. That is where they represent God’s creative genius and the Christian virtues they carry with them. That is where they do the work of God by providing the goods and services that people need.

That is where they carry out their mission as ministers of commerce.


  • Fretz, J. Winfield. 1978. The MEDA experiment. Waterloo, ON: Conrad Press.
Wally Kroeker has spent more than thirty-five years as a reporter and editor, specializing in business and religion. Previously editor of the Christian Leader, since 1985 he has been director of publications for Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) and editor of its magazine, The Marketplace. Kroeker is a graduate of Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, and Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. He and his wife Millie are members of River East Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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