PRELIMINARY FINDINGS REGARDING THE EMB-FEBC AND THE MCC
Caution: While this essay represents a review of available materials and will probably exist in a state of constant revision as additional materials and persons become available.
Having spent two days in the archives looking into the nature of the relationship between the Brüderthaler-Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (EMB) and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), I think that I have discovered the probable truth regarding their divorce, and that like most stories, it is both mundane and revealing.
The MCC was established 27 July 1920 in response to the famine decimating the then Soviet Republic of Ukraine. In many senses, the modern identity of the Anabaptist community was born in this struggle of the new world Mennonite immigrants to meet the needs of starving family and conference members in Ukraine. One early lesson being that all of the disparate Mennonite-Amish-Anabaptist groups would have to work together. The situation was complicated and dire enough without having to work around the efforts, needs, and preferences of individual congregations and small conferences. Secondly, in learning how to care for our own, we learned how to cooperate to effectively minister to the needs of others, non-Mennonites, as a form of service witness. Third, the international effort to meet the international needs of an international faith body reinforced the internationalist perspective of the greater Anabaptist community. Fourth, the need was met by everyday people, each doing their own small part according to what they had or could do, thereby contributing to a great and effective project. Everyday people doing everyday things to help and assist everyday people is more or less how the MCC has generally been perceived. So what then is the problem?
The issue is why did the EMB-FEBC view the MCC with such ambivalence and then choose to sever ties with that greater inter-Mennonite body? In researching this question, I have come across many views -- a gentleman from the Lustre EMB congregation indicated that ties were severed because the MCC no longer represented the views of the EMB and that the point of disassociation was when the MCC was caught smuggling guns to rebels in Africa (various versions of this story indicate that the arms in question were meant only for self-defense). Many in the greater EMB-FEBC conference have indicated that the conference evolved past its Mennonite roots and simply no longer shares values in common with the MCC -- especially in regards to Pacifism and certain other, often left undefined, values.
On the other hand, I am aware that many of the older members of my home congregation continued to support the MCC for most of their lives and many of the younger twenty- and thirty-somethings have reconnected with the MCC through the sales, 10,000 Villages stores, and on-line. Stories of missionaries that the various congregations used to support, or of singular events such as volunteering to work the meat caning “bees” remain an integral and defining aspect of our greater cultural memory.
MCC has also remained part of the Brüderthaler memory and identity by retaining its position as a place holder in the Mennonite alphabet game -- you know -- the MB, the EMB, The MCC, then come the others. Even in their unreasonably strong opposition to participation in the MCC, the EMB have retained it as an essential part of their Anabaptist identity -- if in a negative rather than positive sense. So then, what is the real story?
The essential facts regarding the EMB are indicated in both respective records (O.J. Wall’s Concise History of the ….) and in the MCC Yearbooks, as active constituent members who donated to the MCC as a conference, maintained representation on the MCC Board, and continued to have personnel participate in the MCC as workers past the 1977 separation date. This is especially interesting because , alone of the major constituent bodies of Russländer-Mennonites, the Brüderthaler - EMB did not have a conference history or identity extending back into the Russian Ukraine. The EMB separated from the General Conference Mennonites and the Kleine Gemeinde after the immigration to the Great Plains of North America. While many families, including my own, maintained family relationships and friendships in the Russian colonies, the conference as a whole did not necessarily have reason to join in the original relief effort – nor did it seemingly wish to “evangelize” amongst the Russian colonies as it did in Canada and the United States.
On the other hand, lacking its own missions board, the early Brüderthaler were known to cooperate closely with other Mennonite and evangelical Mennonite churches to provide service and missions opportunities around the world. Brüderthaler participation in the MCC was a natural decision, but not a foregone conclusion.
Cooperation in preserving the Pacifist stance and opportunities for conscientious objectors would also be a strong impetus for the Brüderthaler to engage and cooperate in the MCC -- but as the Brüderthaler element lost or relinquished ideological control of their conference, it was also one of the first Mennonite-affiliated churches to officially drop Pacifism from its officially proscribed values (while it was not condemned or rejected outright, the post 1955 constitution or statement of beliefs simply left the matter up to the individual conscience without taking a theological stance or recommendation as a conference).
Followers of C.W. Redekop would be inclined to believe that the MCC relationship merely reflected the greater ambivalence of the EMB towards their Brüderthaler Mennonite heritage. I am not sure that this is the case. There is no real evidence that the traditional-minded Brüderthaler ever stopped supporting the MCC individually. The failing to maintain a strong support for the MCC probably resulted from an increased proportion of non-Brüderthaler members in the churches, a greater dominance of the conference by urbanized (assimilating) congregations in Salem-Dallas, Oregon, Omaha, NE, and Steinbach, MB, Dalmeny, SK, Abbottsford, BC, etc. Secondly, while the Brüderthaler, like most Mennonite congregations, definitely settled the west in colony-like bodies, eventually, the Baby Boomer generation no longer moved on to establish new communities where new farmland could be found, but rather left the rural villages and farm communities to establish non-rural, non-traditional, non-ethnic lives in urban areas. Even those who later returned to the family farms had by that time already shed much of their “country-bumpkin” Mennonite heritage and fully assimilated into a culture that did not identity as Mennonite or share the Pacifist ideals.
In other words, what happened was less a losing of or rejection of the Mennonite identity and an affiliation with groups such as the MCC, but rather a failure to pass those values and relationships on to the newly established urban congregations, to the increasing number of Brüderthaler with non-Mennonite church memberships, or even to their own ethnic sons and daughters. It just ceased to be important, or got lost in the urban shuffle.
According to the MCC Great Lakes office in Goshen, IN, the gun running rumor is a perpetual urban myth based on the MCC. Staff explained that for some reason it keeps popping up periodically, usually referring to whatever hotspot is then in the news -- Africa, the Middle East, India or Latin America, but that it is pure rumor.
On the other hand, there is some evidence that some sort of story might have occurred about the time that the relationship was actually severed -- in 1976, the MCC was assisting in evacuating displaced persons to villages in places like Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). So the general background of the story I heard in greatest detail does in fact have a potential ring of truth. Africans were being relocated into villages in Rhodesia around the time and in circumstances to the rumor circulated amongst Brüderthaler circles. But I have yet to find evidence that the MCC was providing those villagers or any other group with guns and weapons -- as self-defense or otherwise.
Yearbook messages for 1975, 1976, and 1977 indicate that the MCC was in a fairly extreme politically-charged mood regarding Pacifism -- it is highly unlikely that the group would have officially sanctioned either gun running or the purchase of “weapons of self-defense” -- the philosophical and political motivation just is not apparent or contextually consistent. If such an event did take place, it might have included a group with which the MCC was cooperating or even a renegade MCC worker. As a group the MCC was not involved, left no indication in their substantial reports that any such incident had occurred, and left a fairly strong record of philosophical and political opinions that would have been directly opposed to such actions.
Ironically, I can state that the persons who have related this story to me directly and with a stern sense of negative judgment, are all , whether Mennonite, Brüderthaler or Evangelical, of a rather conservative bend that would actually indicate a certain appreciation for such an activity had it occurred -- why would they use such a story to discredit the MCC when they would have more or less agreed with it? These are the same persons who almost to a person supported United States President Ronald Reagan who was then smuggling arms to the Contras in Nicaragua.
It just does not add up.
Again, a more likely or better explanation lies in the actual records. As indicated by OJ Wall and by the MCC World Reports, the MCC was supported by the Brüderthaler-EMB both financially and in personnel, but never to the extent that other Mennonite affiliates supported it, nor to the same extent that the EMB supported other missions and service projects. While the MCC could be seen as a useful tool for establishing missions opportunities or short term development projects, the MCC was never an end in and of itself to the missions-minded EMB. This is clear by how relatively few resources came to the MCC by way of the Brüderthaler. By 1977, the EMB were supporting one of the world's highest membership to missionary force service ratios. One would assume that there should be a correspondingly high representation in the MCC. That this is not the case indicates that the EMB seemingly simply had other priorities and was already identifying more effectively with other missions programs (though historic participation in other inter-Mennonite Missions organizations indicates the lack of a anti-Mennonite bias -- but rather the identification with a narrow understanding of Christian service that valued one type of organization over the other).
Secondly, the church records indicate that maintenance of the MCC tie was maintained by the same person for over twelve years, often alone but with the sincere appreciation of the conference leadership – another indication that the MCC was simply not a high priority for conference leaders compared to Evangelism, missions or education.
Generally, in a democratic church environment, you want to look for two things to indicate problems in policy -- either a large and rapid turnover of persons heading up or participating in the project, or the opposite -- a single person maintaining charge for that project or committee for an unusually long time -- a possible sign that while the group remained committed to the project, participation was low enough that maintenance of that project rested solely on a few or even a single member. I would presume that for the most part, EMB records indicate a reasonable average turnover for most positions -- with the exception of the MCC delegate.
The structure of the EMB-FEBC would have served to undermine the conference’s efforts to adequately gauge support and participation of its members in the MCC. Both the cause of and a consequence of not having its own missions board is that the conference became effective in coordinating independent mission’s activities, but the majority of that activity was actually left in the hands of the individual congregations. While the church conference participated as a whole in the MCC, it was at a rather short level -- even contrasted to participation in other missions and outreach projects. The goal of the EMB was to achieve converts and possibly to establish seed churches and missions. This is not the purpose of the MCC.
On the other hand, individual participation in MCC programs such as bandage rolling, diaper sewing, school kits, meat canning and participating in fundraising sales and auctions indicates that the MCC retained a high, if unofficial, level of support amongst individual congregations, youth groups, Ladies Auxiliary programs and individuals. During interviews, these activities are indicated to have retained a significant cultural value and meaning to Mennonites and Brüderthaler Mennonites of the EMB through the so-called Greatest or World War II generation, and amongst established rural congregations -- dropping off with the Baby Boomer Generation, urban congregations and church plant (non-Mennonite heritage) congregations.
Singularly, the FEBC also left the decision regarding support of the missionaries more or less up to their home congregations and to the individual support of other EMB members. Neither did the EMB-FEBC really seek to raise funds as a conference, under most conditions, to send out and support these missionaries and projects. Rather, the Missionaries would be furloughed to the United States and Canada where they would commence an all-encompassing grand tour, meeting with each congregation to share their mission and program and depend on the Lord’s providence to touch the individual hearts amongst the congregation to generate enough money to support them -- rather like a face-to-face public radio fundraiser. This model is referred to as Faith Based Missions – the missions set out on faith that the Lord will raise up sufficient funds amongst individuals outside of a structured support system. While often a small amount of support would go through the church as a congregation, the largest amount would be filtered by individuals through the church as individual monthly support. A substantial portion would be sent to the missionaries directly or to their missions board without having crossed the accounting books of either the home congregation or the conference. One would assume that support for the MCC would be in a similar fashion.
It is most likely that the majority of the EMB support for the MCC would have been via individual relationships off official church records. (Note: If this is the case, then it is yet another argument in favor of the MCC developing a liaison designed to encourage and growth this pool of historic givers.)
Lacking records indicating massive amounts of financial support or a maintained recruitment of program participants, understanding that the delegate position was dominated a single person or being filled by a single person for lack of involvement by others, then there is little grounds on which more supportive members of the congregations might base arguments for continuing conference support and participation in the organization. At best, the evidence is that declining numbers of highly motivated participants and supporters were increasingly overpowered by more highly motivated political critics (buttressed with the spreading of a scandalous, if untrue, rumor). At the end of the story, the EMB simply does not fill its board seat and ends up withdrawing – more or less by default.
Again, this brings us to the question of whether the MCC or the FEBC should seek a rapprochement -- the effort would probably be wasted -- not for lack of common interests or shard visions for the world, but simply out of politics. That train has already sailed…or something like that.
However, if these observations prove to be accurate, they could indicate to both bodies the possibility of increased participation in the MCC by those who are interested in the work and feel so moved by the spirit. Similar to the Pacifist stance in the Statement of Belief – room could be made for the individual to participate or not participate in the MCC as an individual who is so moved by God as a matter of individual conscience and unique cultural context.
Apart from helping to raise funds for the missions and service projects, such a continued dialogue would benefit both parties by engaging and providing voice for both conservative and liberal members of the congregations and to ensure that supportive and critically enforcing voices continue be heard in both bodies.
Ultimately, the entire issue of the separation becomes one of the EMB failing to realize the correct or even an accurate level of support in the conference for participation in the MCC due to a lack of internal organization.
The EMB Archives indicate that Sam Schmidt’s successor as EMB delegate, actively supported the MCC strongly and directly in opposition to the view points and politics of the more fundamentalist elements of the congregations. But he maintained the relationship for only a single year. By 1975 he is still indicated as participating on the MCC board, but no longer for the EMB, but rather for the Evangelical Missions Church of Steinbach, MB. When he left, no-one from the EMB apparently stepped up to replace him.
Three years prior to this anomaly, the post appears to have been vacant. Since there was no open conflict with the EMB that was readily apparent in the archives, one could guess that Sam Schmidt had simply filled the position for so long and so completely that no one else was prepared or interested in taking over his position. Lacking a strong proponent defending participation in the MCC, conservative voices against the perceived growing radicalism of the MCC, even if based in untruth, would be unopposed and free to define that relationship, to discourage new participation and rather quickly, to kill it off.
Again, it can hardly be an accident that the MCC address its relations with “Evangelicals” in the 1976 report as follows:
One of the striking phenomena of 1976 on the US church scene has been the rising visibility of Christians identifying themselves as Evangelical. All of the evangelicals have in common an explicit emphasis on the bible as the source of their authority and direction. But with that the similarities cease. One type of emerging evangelicalism is represented fairly typically by the Campus Crusade style of evangelistic activity. This movement is characterized by ‘God and country’ mentality, an individualized and spiritualized definition of the Kingdom of God and more interest in doctrinal than discipleship questions… (p 122-23).
Notably, as support for the MCC and its programs declined amongst the EMB, of which the Brüderthaler were a component, support for and participation in Campus Crusade was increasing amongst the Brüderthaler and their fellow EMB’ers. Rather than reaching out to evangelical Mennonites during this time, MCC’s own report clearly stakes out a political position to the Left (read the full statement), and for its part, bites its thumb at supporters amongst the conservative evangelical Brüderthaler. The evidence is that there was probably no gun running, but rather, the Mennonite diaspora had collapsed into dogmatic schism and that the professional organization of the MCC responded to declining support amongst the evangelical Mennonites by similarly politicizing the debate and inter-Mennonite culture – clumsily playing straight into the hands of Evangelical Fundamentalists who were then competing for funds, personnel and political support for programs such as Campus Crusade and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) against traditional support for inter-Mennonite groups such as the MCC. Caught between the conservative Fundamentalists and the objectively self-admitting liberal “Mennonites”, the conservative evangelical Mennonites were collapsed upon by both sides. The carefully constructed, neutral ethnic Mennonite identity was politicized in a probable struggle for power and resources in such a manner that conservative Mennonites may have felt the need to choose between their “Mennonite” heritage and their “fundamentalist” beliefs. A potential grievous error by all involved.
Regardless, one point needs to be made clear for the benefit of historians – while the EMB, now FEBC, church office feels the date of separation to have been 1977, it is clear that EMB participation in the MCC continued well beyond that point. It is only in 1987 that the EMB changed its name to FEBC and dropped all Mennonite affiliations that all interaction finally came to a halt – even though the name change was carefully implemented to avoid any actual doctrinal or organizational changes to the conference itself. The controversy comprised of smoke and mirrors – nothing was substantially changed. Had the MCC handled the situation more diplomatically and in a politically more neutral manner (as in Republican versus Democratic, not internal church politics), the name-change probably would not have had too much impact over future access to FEBC congregations or individuals.
What most “outsiders” or non-EMBers seem to forget is that in 1986, the new FEBC conference was as jittery about losing its Brüderthaler and other Mennonite constituents and congregations as the MCC should have been. The loss to both the Brüderthaler and the MCC was probably avoidable and needlessly culturally traumatic – and speaks not at all well about the retained heritage of those self-less united pan-Mennonite, Brethren and Amish early MCC workers to whom all ethnic Mennonites owe such a great debt.
Note: Gus Stoews, who worked closely with Sam Schmidt to maintain the EMB presence and interest in both the peace witness and the MCC, was unable to be available for this research. His testimony would greatly impact the understanding and narrative structure of this historical episode, should it become available.