This issue of Menno Expressions explores the concept of service and acknowledges the 100th Anniversary of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) taking place in 2020. MCC was founded in September of 1920 to provide food and assistance to people affected by war in southern Russia which is now the Ukraine. (To learn more about its inception, watch the YouTube video Tractors for Ukraine. )

In the summer of 2018, I went to Ukraine on a Mennonite Heritage boat tour with my daughter and my parents. We visited the villages of our ancestors and the train station where their journey to the United States would have begun. We shared the experience with others who were also tracing their roots. While my family immigrated to the United States in the first migration from the Ukraine in the 1800s, there were some families that did not flee Ukraine until the second World War. We heard many first-hand accounts from the other travelers of how MCC had kept their families alive with the relief they provided and also stories of how upon arriving in the U.S. and Canada, they donated their few resources to MCC to help those left behind. With immigration a part of our national agenda today, I’m reminded that immigration is part of the Mennonite story of service as well.

For me, service has been a concept that I have not given much thought to the “why” we are called to serve. As I reflect on service, it has been a substantial part of my identity personally and professionally. My great-grandmother was a missionary doctor in India who treated leprosy, my paternal grandfather continued her work running the leprosy mission in the Madhya Pradesh region of India and my parents were missionaries to West Africa where I lived until age 10. I attended a small liberal arts college where “Culture for Service” is the motto and spent a semester in Costa Rica in the 1980s (before it was a tourist destination) studying the language and working in a Cooperative. My career has been in the Human Service field working with terminally-ill patients and their families, and in behavioral health settings as a counselor. I don’t think of my day-to-day responsibilities as ways of providing service to my community or think about how I might incorporate more service opportunities into my life. Maybe that’s because service has been an expectation, or part of my ethnic and cultural identity as a Mennonite, or as my professional role or what I witnessed the role models in my life doing. This 100th anniversary of MCC is challenging me to find ways I can be more intentional about the purpose of my service and to view service as an act of love.

Service does not have to be the larger acts of traveling to a foreign land for a development project or a medical mission. It might be through simple, daily actions and commitments that we make the most difference in the lives of others. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions but I’ve been thinking about a practice my sister’s family does each year of adopting a word for the year and finding ways to live that out throughout the year.  As a way to honor the anniversary of MCC and be more intentional in my life about the role and act of service, “Service” might become my word for 2020.

In my role as a counselor, I sometimes use the work of pastor Dr. Gary Chapman and his book “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.” One of the love languages he identifies is Acts of Service which is love we demonstrate by doing tasks for our partner that you know they would like you to do. Some examples could be filling up the car with gas, doing the laundry or bringing them a cup of coffee. Perhaps this is a way as well to be more purposeful at incorporating service into our lives through simple acts and not just in our personal lives.

I recognize that service can be complicated by our motivations and judgements and it does at times run the risk of creating dependency. Our human nature requires us to address these questions but in its purist form, service = love. Just as Jesus performed the simple, non-judgmental tasks of foot washing, acts of service are an opportunity for us to reach out in love to a stranger, an immigrant, a neighbor, a child, and a community without judgement, or the expectation of reward or monetary gain.

One MCC Experience

During my ten and a half years with MCC (between 1979 and 1994), I had the privilege to work in three very interesting places and learn from many inspiring people. The cliché about gaining more than one gives was true for me. My first three years out of college were at the MCC headquarters in Akron, PA, working in what was then called the U.S. Peace Section. While our focus was on being a peace education resource for the MCC constituency, I was exposed not only to the broad range of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, but also to the peacemaking efforts of several other church groups. During that time, President Carter reinstated universal registration for the military draft, and we devoted a lot of time to working with churches and young men on our response as a peace church.

While in Akron, I would see dozens of new volunteers coming through for orientation and then heading off all over the world for their assignments. I decided to explore that option. El Salvador came into the picture for me because of a long-time interest in Latin America and a desire to do something more concrete with my interest in peace issues. In mid-1982, I joined another MCC volunteer who had begun working in El Salvador the previous year. The country had been in the midst of a civil war for several years and MCC was beginning to explore opportunities to respond.

As in many other places, a small wealthy minority had been exploiting the poor majority for decades and a corrupt government with its military forces was enabling that system to continue. A revolutionary guerrilla movement had begun attacking government and army positions in an attempt to force change. The army responded with devastating repression in large areas of the countryside where they determined the guerrillas had their bases. Within a few years, a million Salvadorans were displaced from their homes. About half fled the country as refugees and the other half moved to nearby cities and villages where there was no housing, food, sanitation or other vital services.

A number of Salvadoran churches stepped up to begin filling these needs in spite of the danger of being viewed as guerrilla sympathizers. MCC began supporting some of these programs with money and materials, but also, of equal importance, with our presence. Having a North American visible as part of the program provided a small bit of protection from the military repression because the U.S. was the primary funder of the Salvadoran government and they did not want to risk the bad publicity that would result from harm being done to the people or projects. While we and the churches we worked with tried to be very clear about our focus on providing humanitarian assistance, there was no escaping the highly politicized environment.

If you weren’t a supporter, then you had to be the enemy. Within MCC and among our Salvadoran partners, we had many long discussions about what humanitarian aid in such a situation meant. Who were we helping? Were the displaced persons really benefitting? Were we simply making it easier for the repressive government to pacify and control the population? What did it mean to be a Christian peacemaker? There are no clear right or wrong answers that apply in every situation, but it was important to ask the questions and be aware of our impact in a complex situation.

Following a several year break for further education and getting married, Colleen and I rejoined MCC for four years in Nicaragua, a very different experience but also very interesting. We arrived very shortly after a change of government from the Sandinistas who themselves had overthrown a brutal dictatorship a decade earlier. The U.S. had funded a counterrevolution since then, and also instituted severe economic sanctions. Nicaragua had turned to the Soviet Union and Cuba for support but by 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to drastic reductions in aid.

The Sandinistas were forced to become more pragmatic about their relations with the U.S. and hold elections where opposing parties could compete. A more conservative candidate with U.S. support won the presidency and, under pressure from the U.S., turned the economic and social policies upside down. Within a few months, unemployment rose to over 50%, government services and subsidies were cut drastically, and the country went into a severe depression. Hyperinflation was so severe that we had to change dollars into local currency weekly or the cash would lose most of its value.

MCC had been in Nicaragua continuously since a major earthquake in 1972, again working with local churches and relief and community development agencies. As MCC country representative, I supported about a dozen volunteers working with our partners in appropriate technology, health, agriculture, women’s programs and community development projects.

In the midst of dire poverty and economic policies making things worse, I was able to work with many dedicated Nicaraguans and MCC volunteers trying to demonstrate ways to improve the situation. As in El Salvador, we relatively wealthy North Americans in a poor country had questions about how to be of assistance. How should we build a balanced partnership with Nicaraguan churches and organizations when we had access to much greater resources? How do we encourage making use of local resources as much as possible? What is an appropriate lifestyle when even on a minimal MCC stipend we could be so much more comfortable than those we worked with?

These were certainly not new questions and I’m not sure we arrived at satisfactory answers, but my life was certainly enriched by the experience of living and working with many Central Americans and North Americans committed to service.

So You Want to Try Something New?

Mennonites have traditionally spent a great deal of time discussing the concept of “service.” We vary in how we live that concept out in our lives, but as a community – whether from the old guard or the new – the Mennonite organizations certainly provide us with opportunities to experience different types of service. This piece is an attempt to acquaint readers with some of those groups. It is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is enlightening. A link is provided for each group. Other groups can be accessed through the main links. It is implied that each effort is attempting to show the love of Christ as we learn and share within the programs.

Let’s explore the main organizations out of which a variety of service groups are generated: MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) and MMN (Mennonite Mission Network. EMM (Eastern Mennonite Missions) also has similar programs.

  1. MCC – Mennonite Central Committee 
    • IVEP – International Volunteer Exchange Program – This program encourages a one-year voluntary service assignment for non-U.S. and Canadians to gain work experience in the U.S. Global Gifts has utilized this program which allows for participants to improve job skills and English so that they can be more marketable in their home countries. In exchange they get room and board, new friends, an intercultural experience and time with others who are doing the same program. My first babysitter was from this program so clearly – it’s been around a long time!
    • SEED – It’s not an acronym. It’s a concept. This is for 20-30-year-olds from many countries who are interested in spending 2 years in community while working within a larger community on issues such as violence, oppression, climate change, food insecurity etc. The idea is to bring people from different cultural, theological and political spectrums together to work on issues weighing on all of us.
    • SALT – Serving and Learning Together. A one-year experience for 18-30-year-olds from the U.S. and Canada who want to have an international cross-cultural experience steeped in putting faith into action. 
    • SWAP – Sharing With Appalachian People. Volunteers pay for the week-long opportunity to help Appalachian communities with housing repairs and learning about life in Appalachia.
    • Summer Service – This is a 10-week program for young adults of color. Its goal is to build leadership skills and capacity focusing on peace and justice and community engagement. It is done by collaborating with the local churches of these individuals. 
    • Washington Office Internships – There are three terms in a year enabling an interested college graduate to participate in the work done at the MCC Office in DC. Individuals must pay to live in the DC area, but they gain a close-up view of the efforts to serve through legislative means. 

MCC also offers many other short-term opportunities for older and younger folk, as well as service-learning tours to various places. 

  1. Mennonite Mission Network (MMN)
    • MVS – Mennonite Voluntary Service – For persons ages 20 and up. A myriad of opportunities to offer your skills and to learn – generally for one year – in needed spaces. Highly variable in experiences and in communities – generally associated with a local church.
    • Youth Venture – Ages 15-22. This is generally a 2-3-week experience for young persons in which they learn and serve in communities to which they have been invited. The experience is intercultural. We had several groups from FMC go to Colombia, South America a while back – 20 years ago!
    • Service Adventure – Ages 17-20, HS graduates. Here is a one-year opportunity to live in community and grow in leadership and faith with others your age. Participants have a variety of jobs, learn about the work world, and enjoy new friendships while learning. It’s a productive “gap” year post high school.
    • SOOP – a term for this mishmash of widely ranging flexible service opportunities lasting one week or more. Experiences are mostly for ages 25 and up. Retired persons as well as those looking for a new learning experience of any adult age are considered. You can look for an experience that uses your particular talents or simply expands your life.
    • DOOR – Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection, is a faith- based program headquartered in Chicago which offers experiences for groups or individuals ages 13-30. Participants focus on service, learning and leadership development within an urban setting. Our FMC youth have done a number of DOOR experiences. (MMN partners with DOOR)
    • Journey International – Ages 18-26 – An opportunity to support programs and learn from individuals in other cultures. This appears to be a one-year commitment. 

Above are just a few of the possible Mennonite Church sponsored programs one could consider as a volunteer opportunity. The major links can lead you to more possibilities. There is one separate set of initials, however, that still deserves a mention:

  1. MDS – Mennonite Disaster Service – This is a volunteer network of Anabaptist churches that respond to disaster needs. It is open to all who can do the work. Some work is simply down and dirty clean up and some is highly skilled. Some people do administrative help, cook meals for workers, or assess damages. FMC has had numerous people participate in short-and longer-term efforts. 

Try a short-term effort through the wider church sometime. It’s a way to meet new people within the denomination who share your passion for learning and for justice. Explore these sites for other opportunities not mentioned here. As I read each description it seemed the overall hope was to help people grow through serving each other. 

MCC Kit Bags

FMC Kit Crew

Every year, thousands of MCC Kits are created and sent to people in need all over the world.  School Kits are the type of Kit most frequently requested.  They contain notebooks, pencils and sharpener, pens, ruler, eraser, and colored pencils packaged in a handsome cloth bag – The MCC Kit Bag.  All Kit Bags are essentially the same size and shape, measuring 11 3/4” x 16 3/4” and are closed by 2 drawstrings at the top.  Kit Bags are sewn and the drawstrings threaded at the top by volunteers who then donate them to MCC. The Kit Bags may be made from a variety of cotton and synthetic fabrics.  They have to be sturdy to carry many things and withstand some rough use.  But in order to reduce mailing costs they cannot be too heavy so denim and corduroy are not acceptable. 

There is a long history of Mennonite women caring for their neighbors. Sewing Circles that made garments for the poor are documented as early as 1897 in eastern Pennsylvania.  In the decades that followed there was an expansion of sewing circles with many name and organizational changes.  This was occurring even before MCC was founded on September 27, 1920 with the initial goal of providing food for Mennonites starving in the Ukraine.  The mission of MCC quickly expanded to helping anyone in need.

The first “Kit type” items distributed by MCC were Christmas Bundles sent to children in Europe in 1946 following the devastation of World War II.  Many older members of FMC remember helping their mothers prepare these gifts.  Quickly following the Christmas Bundles, in 1947, School Bags began to be distributed which in the mid-1960s became known as “School Kits”.  The types and numbers of kits MCC currently generates and distributes is shown below.

MCC Kits Distributed in 2019

Relief Kits 22,029
Hygiene Kits 63,360
School Kits 129,100
Infant Care Kits 10,934
Sewing Kits 2,220
Total 227,643

The kits shown above have a total value of $1,960,500 and account for approximately 40% of the total material resources MCC shipped last year.  The Hygiene Kits, School Kits and Sewing Kits all include a MCC Kit Bag so 194,880 Kit Bags were needed in 2019.

The FMC Kit Crew was started in 2017 led by Priscilla Boschmann and Margaret Miller.  It meets monthly to sew Kit Bags and, in addition to the leaders, consists of LuEtta Culp, Marilyn Stutzman, Falguni Sarkar and Connie Danielson.  Several others from both FMC and Shalom have contributed time and materials.  New members and visitors are always welcome.  In 2017, FMC donated 379 Kit Bags and 7 comforters to MCC.  In 2018, five comforters and 557 Kit Bags, of which 150 were filled with items donated by the congregation to make complete Hygiene Kits, were sent to MCC.  The FMC donation in 2019 was four comforters and 429 Kit Bags of which 175 were filled with the items needed to make them School Kits.  The FMC Kit Crew plans to continue sewing and donating Kit Bags to MCC contributing, in a small way, to MCC’s Mission of sharing “…….. God’s love and compassion for all…..”                             

Reference:  The MCC Archives in Akron, PA.

Aprendizajes del Tigre Con Dos Patas (Lessons from a Two-legged Tiger)

“Will he come?” I asked. “Who? ‘El Tigre con dos patas’? No, he won’t come” answered the remaining health promoters. I had just finished meeting with the Bolivian health promoters that my MCC predecessor had taught. Together we had set a date for our next meeting. Don* Leon, the best educated and the most sophisticated of the promoters had just left the meeting when I asked the question. The other promoters continued to enlighten me. “El Tigre con dos patas” was what the local people called Don Leon behind his back. I learned he was a shister, a loan shark and not to be trusted. And no, he did not come to our next health promoter meeting.

The first time I met Don Leon he was not shy about asking me what the Bolivian people would gain from my being there. In my halting Spanish I tried to explain my motives were altruistic; I had come to serve in the name of Christ; I was not there for my own personal gain. But he did not buy it. He said, “yeah, we’ll teach you Spanish and then you’ll go back to the United States and get a high paying job because you speak Spanish.”

I, like others in my village, lived in an adobe house with a dirt floor, palm leaf roof, no running water or electricity. We had a health post with a Bolivian nurse, a primary and secondary school, several churches and a dirt road that was passable most of the year. The health promoters lived “mas adentro” across the river and further into the jungle in very small villages which had no health care, schools that only taught primary grades, if that, and impossible roads. These villages could only be accessed by four-wheel drive vehicles several months each year during the dry season. When I visited them, I usually went by motorcycle or horse—mostly horse.

On one of my visits to Don Leon’s village, I met his father. A small weather-beaten man of Inca decent with a snagged tooth gin who reeked of the local corn liquor. Don Leon invited me to a party to celebrate his father’s 50th birthday the following week. I already had a commitment in another village for that day, so I explained I would not be able to attend. Don Leon looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t tell me you can’t come. Tell me you are honored to be invited and that you will come,” but I protested, “that would be a lie because I already know I can’t come.” He replied, “tell me you will come; tell me it will be fun. And then if you can’t come, I’ll understand. But don’t tell me NOW you can’t come.” I took a deep breath and told him I would come, knowing I would not be there.

Over time I learned that Don Leon was not honoring the agreement he, as a health promoter, had with MCC. He was doing things for which he had not been trained—like giving IV medications and IV fluids. In order to be trained as a health promoter and receive a small medicine chest, each promoter agreed to only dispense the medications and provide the medical care for which they had been trained. When I confronted Don Leon about giving IVs and IV drugs he adamantly denied it and stalked off. Later I learned that direct confrontation, even if done kindly, is considered offensive in the Bolivian culture. Rather, one should ask a mural friend to act as a mediator.

Don Leon was more a thorn in my flesh than a friend. I’ve thought of him and what he said each time I’ve gotten a new job. But as the years pass, I’ve come to believe that maybe I needed a “Tigre con dos patas” in my life. How else would I have realized that I received much more from the Bolivian people than I gave? How would I have learned about a different way of dealing with conflict that allows both parties to save face? How would I have understood a culture that places more importance on valuing the current moment and the person you are with, than future plans and commitments?

I hope in small ways I was able to help alleviate suffering, promote better health practices and share God’s love. I do know my experiences there molded and changed me. They helped me see, understand and value a different point of view and for that I am deeply grateful.

* “Don” is a title used with men you know showing courtesy and/or respect.

Recollections and Reflections: Bill Albrecht’s Service Adventure

Bill Albrecht began attending FMC in the late 1950s when he was an intern at Marion County General Hospital. He and his wife, Mary, raised their five children in Indianapolis and were very active members of FMC for decades until 1996 when they started attending Shalom. Grace (Albrecht) Rhine is their second daughter. She and her husband, Carl, live in Indianapolis and attend Shalom. Grace retired from nursing in 2016 to have more time to be with her family, including elderly parents and parents by marriage as well as spending time with her three young granddaughters.

Bill Albrecht is fourth from left.

It was the winter of 1947 when my father, Bill Albrecht, stood on the windy seaside dock in Newport News, Virginia, waiting to embark on the adventure of his young life. At 20 years old, he had graduated from high school and was working on his family’s dairy farm by day; by night, he caught and loaded chickens into coops for transport to the poultry markets in Chicago and Detroit. Ready for more than this, and with his experience in caring for animals, he signed up with Brethren Church Service and The United Nations Relief Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) as a seagoing cowboy.

In Bill’s memoir, “Recollections and Reflections,” he writes that after World War II many countries in Europe faced the long process of rebuilding all that was lost. In addition to the loss of human lives, many animals died as well. In order to help those experiencing great losses, UNRRA provided ships, which were operated by the Merchant Marine, and sent supplies across the Atlantic Ocean. Brethren Church Service supplied animals to be shipped. Most of the animals being shipped were young female cows, or heifers. This was known as the Heifer Project although sometimes the animals being shipped were horses or mules. This was the forerunner of Heifer International which exists today. As the animals would need to fed, watered and cared for during their overseas voyage, Brethren Church Service enlisted the help of farmers, usually young men, to tend to the animals. Bill, excited at the opportunity for both service and a new adventure, signed up with a friend from Forks Mennonite Church where they both attended. The term “Seagoing Cowboy” is a term that was used later; at the time of Bill’s service they were called “Cattleman” or “Cowboys.”

The two men boarded a Greyhound bus and reported to the Brethren Service Center in Newport News where they were processed at the Coast Guard Center and became official members of the Merchant Marine, classification: Cattleman. Bill waited three weeks in Newport News before shipping out. During the day, he and his friend watched the animals being loaded onto ships, hoisted by a crane in a sling. In the evening, they ate and slept at the Catholic Maritime Club that provided room and board. The sleeping quarters were simply rows and rows of cots without dividers. The club was full of sailors… and sailor talk.  This was an eye-opening experience and a sharp contrast to life on the farm in Middlebury, Indiana.  

When the wait was finally over, Bill boarded the Woodstock Victory along with the captain, crew, and 900 mules, all bound for Greece. They sailed out of the harbor in the evening just before dusk. His work assignment was Hold Number Two on the top level of the ship. There were four men assigned to care for 100 mules in this hold, each given a specific assignment of 25 mules to feed and water and, of course, to muck out the areas where the mules were standing. All the manure was kept in the hold and later was unloaded in Greece to be used for fertilizer. Mules and horses should sleep standing as they might get pneumonia if they lie down for more than a short time. Bill was diligent to watch for any of his mules that attempted to lie down to sleep, quickly rousing them when they did. In Hold Number Two, no mules got pneumonia; out of the 900 mules on board, only four mules were lost to pneumonia.

The first night of sailing in the Chesapeake Bay was smooth and easy. The next morning, the ship started its gentle roll, back and forth. The sun was barely up that morning before Bill found himself hanging over the rail, seasick. He was so sick that all he could do was lie in the feed alley of the mule hold and heave. The three other men assigned in his hold took care of his animals until he was on his feet again.

It took eight days to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  Each day, after tending to the mules, there was free time on the main deck, watching the porpoises, leaping and playing by the ship for hours. The young cattlemen were careful not to get in the way of the Boatswain or other members of the deck crew; they were never allowed on the other decks where the officers stood. After eight days, they sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Bill remembers a bright sun and a blue sky on that day of pleasant sailing into the Mediterranean Sea. At dawn, on the 13th day after leaving port in Newport News, they docked into Patras, Greece, their final destination.

As four days were needed for the ship’s crew to unload the several hundred mules, the seagoing cowboys were free to explore. Bill writes “We explored the streets of Patras and did some shopping. I remember a group of us Mennonite guys going to a restaurant and everyone was ordering coffee. The waiter seemed to be upset that no one was ordering alcoholic beverages. I’m sure he wondered what a strange bunch of American sailors this was.” Before heading back to sea, there were more wonders waiting for these seagoing cowboys – drinking thick, muddy coffee in a tiny little cup, hiking in low mountain areas while gazing at snow-capped peaks, taking a bus to Athens to see Mars Hill where Paul preached, and touring the ancient ruins of Acropolis. 

When they returned to port and headed back to the United States, the primary job of the cowboys was to clean up the mule stalls and prepare for the next round of cargo. Once again, Bill was seasick. However, this was a small thing next to the hurricane that the ship encountered 500 miles off the coast of New York City. Although all ships were to be out of the hurricane zone, the ship’s Second Mate was drunk and navigated the ship into the middle of the hurricane storm, kicking up 60-foot waves that towered 30 feet over the main deck. Bill describes that the ship “bobbed like a cork on a churning sea.” 

As he lay in his bunk at the height of the storm, he closely watched a large gauge tilt 45 degrees one way, roll and then tilt 45 degrees the other way, and each time wondered if the next time the ship would right itself or capsize. After the hurricane was over, Bill writes that “a sailor who had been on the sea for seventeen years…told us he had never been in anything like this. We heard later there was a fire in the galley and the cook was crying that we were all going to die together. We could have sunk to the bottom of the sea but by the Grace of God we made it to shore.”

Sometime, after returning home in late February 1947, my dad re-committed his life to following Jesus. He joined MCC in Mexico in 1949 serving as an ambulance driver and orderly in a hospital in Cuauhtémoc which inspired him to eventually become a physician. He continued his life of service as a doctor for the steel mill workers in Gary, Indiana, as an anesthesiologist at Marion County General Hospital, now known as Eskenazi Hospital and as well-respected professor to medical students. 

If you are interested in reading Bill’s entire memoir, “Recollections and Reflections”, he still has copies available. Please contact Bill at email hidden; JavaScript is required and we will be sure to get the book to you! 

Bundles of Blessings

Perhaps the story of Mennonite Central Committee Christmas bundles is not familiar to you? Here’s some background on bundles of blessings.  In many Mennonite churches, these projects jog memories of the holiday season and an outreach to children in countries around the globe. Since at least the 1940s, families were encouraged to collect simple clothing, a bar of soap, comb, toothbrush, and a small toy or personal item. These were all wrapped in a bath towel, secured by large safety pins, and then delivered to Akron, PA.  Topped with a note indicating clothing sizes for a boy or girl, including the name and address of the sender added a personal touch. Often put together by children, these bundles provided assurance that someone cared enough to remember a struggling family in Europe after WW II, or countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Jordan, South America, and more recently inner cities in the U.S. There are touching stories of friendships established through this sharing of gifts at Christmas.

One particularly serendipitous saga involves two long-time members of First Mennonite.

In 1949, Tina Neufeld, a young widow in Paraguay, received two Christmas bundles, one shared for her two little girls and one for her two boys. Filled with gratitude, she wrote a kind thank you note to the young Priscilla Selzer of Protection, Kansas, who had assembled the bundle, and wished her God’s blessings. Translated from German by Priscilla’s grandfather, the treasured letter was tucked in a scrapbook for safe keeping.

In the late 1950s, Erwin Boschmann traveled from Asunción, Paraguay, to study at Bethel College, where he met and married Priscilla Selzer, then a young schoolteacher. In a visit with her family, years later, Erv noticed a letter, written in German with a familiar signature in an old scrapbook. They were all astonished to realize that the Christmas bundles from long ago had found their way to Erv’s aunt!

Eventually, during a family visit in Paraguay, Mrs. Neufeld had the chance to meet Priscilla and share her appreciation in person. Everyone was able to reflect on the unexpected blessings to their family reaching back many years through unknown connections. To God be the Glory.

Erv Says Thank You

Because of war, lawlessness, and drought my people in southern Russia (now Ukraine) were starving in early 1900s. Their names were Penner, Fast, Rempel, Friesen, Gerbrandt, Klassen, or Unruh. Their normal diets were borscht, zwieback, summer sausage, plummemoos, verenike, paska, peppernuts, and New Year’s cookies; but now these were but a memory.

In desperation they wrote to their unknown brothers and sisters across the pond who had names like Bender, Miller, Schwartzentruber, Bontrager, Amstutz, Hess, Kauffman, Yoder, Stutzman, or Goering, Their normal diet was dumplings, sticky buns, Shoofly pie, apple butter, pickled beets, beef, pork, and chicken. 

The cry for help from Russia was soon answered with the sending of 50 tractors to Russia in the summer of 1922 (exact replica in photo).  This gift “In the Name of Christ” saved their lives, and the Mennonite Central Committee was founded the summer of 1920. 

As a descendant of those Russian Mennonites, I humbly say Thank You for your service!

Life as an MCC Kid

At the top of the Akron hill, and two blocks from the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) headquarters, sits a white clapboard house I was brought home to as a baby and where my dad still lives. Dad worked at MCC during my entire childhood.  Akron is small, with a population of only about 4,000 people and has little industry or business, so MCC was very important not just to me and our family, but to the town and the people.  Dad would walk to work and back, coming home for lunch often.  We borrowed the MCC truck for weekend projects, filled up at the MCC fuel tank, and made copies on the MCC Xerox machine.  We played on the MCC swings, basketball court, and hit golf balls behind the office.  My best friend and neighbor Rich was an MCC kid, and Akron elementary school was peppered with kids whose parents had traveled or served overseas. Akron Mennonite Church had a deep connection with MCC and its mission of service. 

My first paying jobs were at MCC – Dad would pay me a quarter to fill all the staplers in the office.  I’m sure it was just to occupy me while he tried to do some dictation or other work.  Later my brother Dean and I would empty all the wastebaskets and do some light custodial work.  At 15 I was mowing the lawns and painting MCC houses during the summer, working with Alfred, Sara Penner’s grandfather.   MCC was the backdrop for my childhood, and was the calling of my parents.  Called away from a Minnesota farm life after two years of alternative service.  Called away from both of their families, called to a life of service.  But definitely called. 

I believe that sense of calling extended to the whole family.  We understood that Mom and Dad were dedicated to MCC and its mission of development and relief.  There were perks like growing up knowing Orie O. Miller, William T. Snyder, and Peter J. Dyck.  I visited the amazing basement of Edna Byler, full of exotic items from many countries, which grew into Ten Thousand Villages.  We shared many dinners with staff and “orientees” (Mom would occasionally complain we never got invited back because all our guests were heading out overseas!).  We grew up with a sense of the wider world, meeting volunteers heading off to do service in Latin America, Asia and Africa, talking about the poor and hungry of Haiti, Chad, and Appalachia, and helping with the MCC meat canner.  But I’m sure there were also sacrifices of which we weren’t even aware. 

One family story of sacrifice features my brother Dean.  It was just days after my second Christmas, and Dad was heading off on another weeks-long trip.  To “draw us deeper into his work” and to “plant the seed of service in our hearts,” he told us about the children he would be visiting, and the poverty they faced.  We were asked to select one of the gifts we had just been given for Dad to give to a child.  Dean brought out a new yellow car that was later given to a nearly blind 8-year old boy who “clutched it to himself after playing with it on the hot dry ground of Haiti.”   

Haiti still holds a special place for our family.  Dad has been to Haiti close to 50 times, and he has managed to get every one of his children and grandchildren to Haiti at least once.  I have visited Haiti multiple times, Dean and his wife served two years, my sister Kris for 8 years.  And we continue to be involved in Haiti through Kris’s strong ties to individuals and organizations there.            

It’s hard to quantify the impact MCC had on my youth because I have no other childhood experience with which to compare, but it is clear that MCC and my dad’s role in it was and is part of the fabric of my life.  The example of calling played a role in my own choice of profession.  The themes of faith, service and volunteerism are woven deep and strong.  As I reflect on these themes, I pray I have done these values justice in my life as I strive to live the life of a (now grown up) MCC kid.