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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 111–113 

Book Review

Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History

Esther Epp-Tiessen. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2013. 327 pages.

Reviewed by John E. Sharp

During a bitterly frigid Winnipeg winter in December 1963, forty delegates from five provinces gave birth to an inter-Mennonite service organization, Mennonite Central Committee, Canada. It was the fulfillment of many expressions of service throughout the Canadian provinces, of seeking to “bear one another’s burdens.”

Esther Epp-Tiessen has written an engaging, candid, and comprehensive account of MCC Canada, commissioned by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada to be the centerpiece of the agency’s fiftieth anniversary in 2013. With eloquence and precision, she weaves together the strands of a complex history involving a myriad of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ groups, all with the deep concern for the well-being of sisters and brothers around the world. The book is a view from inside the agency, an appreciative look at its people and its impact on the Anabaptist constituent groups.

Epp-Tiessen writes as an insider of the Mennonite world, profoundly shaped by her years of service in MCC, but also molded by “Christian feminism and nonviolent faith-based movements for social justice and peace.” Her accomplishments as a scholar, having written an MA thesis on the origins of MCC, and her work with the agency, have qualified her to tell this many-splendored story. Her love for Mennonite expressions of compassion and service, and her gift for language are clearly evident, as is her sympathetic critique of the agency.

In part 1, Epp-Tiessen traces MCC Canada’s precursors: the founding of the US-based MCC in 1920 to assist Mennonites in Russia during a time of revolution, famine, and the formation of the Soviet Union; conscientious objection and relief work during and after the Second World War (highlighting the concern and sacrificial giving of 1920s immigrants on behalf of 1940s refugees); and the postwar burst of global relief and development work up to 1963.

In the five chapters of part 2, the author explores decade by decade the work of MCC Canada and those who guided its ministries. In the story of {112} the first decade, entitled “Forging an Identity,” MCC Canada effectively served as a coordinated witness for service and an outlet for relief. Even as it cooperated with its Akron-based counterpart, MCC Canada developed its own identity and mission and became a unifying factor for its varied constituent Anabaptist groups.

Building on that first decade, MCC Canada creatively multiplied its ministries in scope and in number: working with Aboriginal people, criminal offenders, people with disabilities, refugees, Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico; establishing a “listening post” in Ottawa; using CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) funds; and developing a Food Bank.

These successful initiatives caused tensions with the US-based MCC, whose leaders feared MCC Canada was charting its own independent international ministry. Was Canada just another constituent group among many or an equal partner in worldwide ministry? Presaging the future realignment of the Mennonite Church and MCC along the forty-ninth parallel, some Canadians resented the domination of US agenda at MCC executive committee meetings. The subtle name change from “MCC (Canada)” to “MCC Canada” as it entered its third decade in 1983 signaled a decisive shift in the formation of a separate identity and a differentiated ministry.

In the fourth decade, a host of other name changes followed, not as the result of some grand scheme, but as a series of practical decisions taken in order to convey more clearly the mission of its ministries. Among them: SELFHELP became Ten Thousand Villages; Handicap Concerns became Mental Health and Disabilities; Native Concerns was rebranded as Aboriginal Neighbours; and Victim Offender Ministries, as Restorative Justice. Changes did not come easily or without internal dissension, but by 2003 MCC Canada had overcome the obstacles to re-envision its future and to ensure the relevance of its ministries.

Even more challenges emerged in the fifth decade. In the post-9/11 era, a new wave of nationalistic fervor swept the nation. Canadian soldiers fought on foreign soil in Afghanistan. A new conservative government was less friendly to MCC’s historic peace and justice ministries and its voice in Ottawa. But the times also created a new urgency for bolder relationship-building initiatives across the East-West divide, for building bridges between Christians and Muslims by such practical means as providing aid to the Iraqi “enemy” under US-imposed sanctions.

Other challenges included the increasing professionalization of its staff, race and gender equality, and maintaining the support of and speaking for a diverse constituency. These and other challenges led in 2008 to a two-year major reevaluation process called New wine/New wineskins. This process, which had begun with the formation of MCC Canada in 1963, led to a major reconfiguration of MCC along the forty-ninth parallel, as MCC Canada became an equal partner with its US counterpart. With the unexpected loss {113} of CIDA funding, MCC Canada is poised to become, as Epp-Tiessen puts it, one of the country’s “pre-eminent Christian international relief, development, and peacebuilding agencies.”

There is much that is inspirational and instructive in Epp-Tiessen’s story of MCC Canada. Her account of the heroic human impulse to serve “in the name of Christ” is inspiring, and her honest portrayal of the human fallibilities and divisiveness that make such efforts a challenge has much to teach us. It is also a well-written and well-designed book. The smooth flow of the text is judiciously broken up with photographs of people and events. The appendices include a list of MCC chairpersons and executive directors and the annual income received by MCC Canada from 1964 to 2012. The bibliography includes the names of the more than 100 individuals interviewed for this project. Both a person and a subject index are provided.

One could wish for more on the evangelism/mission-service divide. How has MCC maintained its congregation-based spiritual moorings? How did MCC interact with mission agencies? Who were the leaders who insisted on holding word and deed together, as did Orie O. Miller, longtime secretary of both MCC and Eastern Mennonite Missions?

Epp-Tiessen’s history is excellent. Perhaps an exploration of MCC Canada’s impact on those it served so passionately and creatively will follow.

John E. Sharp, MDiv
History and Bible and Ministry
Hesston College, Hesston, Kansas

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