Expanding Horizons

Packed trains, crowded sidewalks, unfamiliar smells, bewildering signs and a perplexing language that sounded completely unlike the vocabulary and grammar lessons that we so diligently studied before our arrival. Here we were in Tokyo, Japan – a city and country unlike any in our experience.

Married Goshen College graduates, Wade and I had enjoyed several jobs each, but both felt a tug toward doing some type of service. After exploring a variety of options, we surprised ourselves and our families when we settled on working as support personnel for JEM, a small mission organization centered on providing Bible training for church pastors and teachers in Niigata prefecture, on the west coast of Japan, a country where less than one percent of the residents identify as Christians. Wade focused on photography and creating slide shows while I composed newsletters and other communication as needed by the organization. Preparing for this venture included three months of language and cultural training in Washington DC before finally arriving in Kashiwazaki, our hometown for two amazing years. In that time, aside from one preplanned phone call, staying in touch with family and friends in the US was through blue aerogramme letters and occasional photographs.

Adjusting to an ancient culture vastly different from our rural Ohio setting provided exciting as well as daunting experiences that broadened our Mennonite horizons, expanded our spiritual growth, and taught us more than we could imagine about working together harmoniously as a couple and as part of a caring team of diverse coworkers. Several have remained special friends for fifty years. The most consequential event during our time in Japan was welcoming our dear baby daughter Leah, born on the Emperor’s birthday!

Art by Annabella Habegger

Looking back after many years, we can still see life changing lessons and habits from our time of service. Some are simple, like never wearing shoes in the house, eating Asian food with chopsticks, or feeling the need for a slight bow when greeting or thanking someone. These actions became so much a part of our everyday life that we almost forget their origin.

We remember gracious manners that permeate the culture, and understand the value of adopting behaviors that benefit the community, rather than insisting on personal freedom to do as we please.  

Respect for history, tradition and beauty is so ingrained, that Japan designates artists, and others who have contributed to society as Living National Treasures. I think this focus has inspired us to appreciate the ever-changing beauty in nature and also to encourage the talents and skills of family and friends in their ventures. I could also wax on and on about the techniques and delights of arranging flowers that are so esteemed in Japan!

We remain grateful for the Lord’s leading and protection that we felt in so many ways. Wise leaders supported us and became “family” to fill in when ours were far away. Singing and worshipping together in varied settings brought encouragement. Our lives have been immeasurably enriched through the time we spent in the Land of the Rising Sun, and the joy lingers in myriad ways.

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About the artist

Annabella Habegger

Annabella Habegger is an artist living and working in Indianapolis. She graduated from IU Bloomington with a BFA in Digital Art. She enjoys exploring all types of media, often combining drawing with other materials.

Sewing Seeds of Service

I made my first trip to Cuba in April 2012 with a group from Witness for Peace (WFP). Soon after that visit, I began organizing People to People trips there under the auspices of the Sarasota Chapter of MEDA. People to People trips provide opportunities for travelers to have direct contact with Cuban people and provide a window to their everyday life.

The MEDA Sarasota chapter had particular interest in supporting entrepreneurial activities which might be emerging in Cuba in a changing economic landscape. As a communist/socialist country, Cuba is not known for its support of entrepreneurial pursuits, and yet there were many people who were operating small businesses in challenging environments.

In 2016, we met two women who had just launched a sewing cooperative. The leader, Alina, a domestic abuse survivor, shared her vision. If she could teach other survivors to sew, they could gain economic independence, and the cooperative members could provide emotional support for each other. As I listened to Alina speak, I was moved by her passion, but I had to wonder how she could accomplish this with a couple old sewing machines, a few accessories, and working out of a small screened front porch. She had one cloth bag for sale, which we bought. As we left, we said, “When we come back next time, have more things for us to buy.”

Returning a few months later with our group, the sewing cooperative was prepared for us. There were now four members. They had Christmas ornaments, clothing and small stuffed toys for sales. Our group purchased some items, but most of their customers were people from the community.

On our last trip in November 2019, the cooperative had 16 members and included a woman with Down’s Syndrome and a man who was deaf. The cooperative was now co-ed. They had made enough profit to purchase their own space, a third-floor room that held numerous sewing machines and other accessories needed for their business. They were clearly a sustainable organization.

A late update. On March 30th, we received a message from Alina. In November, someone from our group had donated squares of cloth; probably quilt patches, that the women didn’t know what to make with them. Here is her message. “Without realizing it, we were preparing for this time. We designed a really useful mask with three layers of cotton fabric and then the colorful fabric on the outside of the masks. We donate the masks to people who can’t afford to buy them and sell the others. It is so wonderful to provide employment to more women who are making masks, thanks for all the fabric.”

One of the greatest satisfactions that I’ve had in my time in Cuba is to see this group of women, under the leadership of a visionary, succeed and thrive. In our last time together, Alina shared that her Christian faith compelled her to help people who are in need, and they plan to continue to grow.

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A Year of Growth and Giving

When I was in college, I knew that I wanted to do a year-long program after graduation to get experience in digital media, my field of study. More importantly, I realized that I have been given so many opportunities and blessings in my life, and it was time to start giving back.

Initially, I looked into programs within the US, because the idea of serving internationally for an entire year seemed like something only other, braver, more confident people did, not me! But when I heard that Mennonite Central Committee‘s one year service program for young adults (SALT) had a social media position open in Bangladesh with an organization called Basha, I was intrigued. When I learned that Basha works with women survivors of trafficking, I was convinced. Using my digital media skills to serve an important cause was clearly an opportunity I was meant to take. Ten months later, and I can say it was absolutely the right decision!

My role includes social media, filming, photography, and graphic design, and matching saris for the kanthas! I love my work at Basha, but living in Dhaka has not been easy. With an estimated population of 20 million, Dhaka was a huge shock coming from a small town of 2,000! Going through culture shock is a difficult and ongoing process, but I have surprised myself in my ability to be flexible and to adapt to circumstances. Now the thought of navigating the city alone by bus or rickshaw seems normal rather than terrifying!

During my time in Bangladesh, I have learned that I can make do with so much less. I don’t need more than 7 sets of clothing. I don’t need air conditioning, even when it is 100 degrees for weeks. I don’t need most of the “necessary” things we spend money on in the US. I have also found what I do need. I need my family. I need friends. I need people to worship with each week. I need a time and a place to exercise. I need to see the sky.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had is trying to understand the lives of the women who work at Basha. Their lives have been different from mine in every possible way, full of poverty, exploitation, and indescribable trauma that I have never experienced in my sheltered, privileged upbringing. I have no reference to be able to understand their anger and their pain. I don’t know if I can say that I’ve overcome this challenge, but perhaps I have gotten a little better at having an attitude of compassion rather than one of judgment.

Young people, if you’re considering volunteering internationally, DO IT! Even if you have doubts, concerns, or fears. You don’t have to be particularly brave or qualified. Service isn’t about changing the world but about being changed yourself by joining the work that is already being done in the place you serve. It will be one of the hardest things you will ever do and one of the best things as well.

When I go home, I will tell the Basha story to everyone I can. I will share the stories of women who have gone through so much hardship, yet have changed their lives with little more than a bit of education and a safe place to work. I will share about the children who would have grown up to be exploited themselves, but are now thriving and planning for bright futures. I will share about these beautiful kantha blankets and the women who are keeping their traditional craft alive and pulling themselves out of poverty at the same time.

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Leprosy, foreign languages and new cultures

In January 1991 (as the Gulf War had just started), I spent four months volunteering at the Leprosy Colony KM 81 in Paraguay. My great grandparents had volunteered there in the early 1950s. I had just graduated from Goshen College with a Biology degree, and had worked short term jobs in landscaping and in a laboratory. I was still figuring out next steps toward a career. Through family and friend connections, my friend Maria and I embarked on a four month service term in Paraguay. I volunteered at the Leprosy Colony which was 81 kilometers from the capital city (hence the name KM 81). Maria volunteered in a daycare (“Guardaria”) in Asuncion.

The Leprosy Colony is a compound staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses, pharmacists, a physical therapist, prosthetist and others. Local people travel hours for health care needs. There is a hospital onsite for those needing acute medical attention. There is also a clinic where people come for basic health care needs and medications. The Physical Therapist, Annie (a volunteer from Germany) would educate patients on the importance of daily foot inspection for any injuries or skin issues. Leprosy, while mostly eradicated in the US – but not in Paraguay – is a highly contagious disease. It damages nerve endings and decreases blood flow (similar to diabetes) which can also delay or prevent healing. If patients with leprosy have a small foot wound, the patient will not feel pain. Patients walk on a small wound unknowingly for weeks until a severe foot wound develops. Often patients need surgeries, and have resulting misshapen feet, or even amputations. The prosthetist assists in creating custom made shoes, or new prosthetic limbs as needed.

There were and still are many young volunteers at the Leprosy Colony from the surrounding Mennonite Colonies (i.e. Fernheim, Loma Plata, Bergtal), as well as from abroad. I spent my time with the young volunteers rotating between the kitchen, laundry room and general cleaning. Many of the volunteers were German Mennonites speaking Low German. I had studied High German throughout college, but this was different than the Low German spoken here. The patients were often native Paraguayans speaking Spanish. There are also many Indigenous people in Paraguay speaking Guarani. I learned that Paraguay is a melting pot of cultures and languages, making communication challenging at times.

On one “field trip” I was able to travel with a doctor to the outlying villages. Here the doctor did follow up visits with patients who were unable to travel to the clinic. He even took lab samples to check for the status of various diseases right there in their homes. It was a mobile lab!

A typical carved horn for drinking ‘mate’.

Despite my language barrier, I made friends and connections with other volunteers. On weekends off, I traveled by bus to Asunción to be with my friend Maria, and visit my Opa and Oma.

While adjusting to the language and cultural differences was challenging, this was a very rich four months away. This is one of the life experiences that helped to steer me into the path of Physical Therapy.

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MCC: Receiving by Giving

“It is in giving that we receive” – St Francis of Assisi

“They who lose their lives shall find them” – Jesus of Nazareth

While much of the MCC centenary celebration is focused on the untold millions who were the fortunate recipients of MCC, this article concentrates on the benefits that accrued to the MCC and it’s constituency. 

MCC helped the constituency pushing back old boundaries

In 1920 the North American Mennonite constituency consisted mostly of persons of Europeans ancestry. They were hard working, God-fearing people, living mostly in rural enclaves. Many were first or second generation immigrants. Their world was small and simple. On Sundays, these large families gathered in modest but functional church buildings where many still sang from German hymnals and were ministered to by devout but untrained preachers.

MCC was essentially in recess in the decade of the 1930s. It had neither a permanent staff nor a headquarters. The office moved from Scottdale, PA, to Akron, PA, in 1935 when Orie O. Miller was named Executive Secretary.

As the decade of the 30s was coming to a close, Mennonites began to feel threatened by war clouds in Europe that culminated in WW II. That was a watershed moment. To populate the armies needed to fight this two-front war, the Selective Service System was brought into being. It’s long arm reached into these rural communities and found draft age men who refused to participate in the military. They were assigned to camps strategically scattered across Canada and the United States in a program known as Civilian Public Service, administered by MCC. 

Following WWII, and MCC’s robust feeding and resettlement programs, MCC was catapulted into an internationally known organization. 

The Mennonite map was redrawn. In the next decade the historic Mennonite “capitals,” like Mountain Lake, MN; Marion, SD; Meade, KS; as well as areas in Canada such as Coaldale, Alberta and Swift Current, Sask, etc, became hollowed-out. Concurrently, the urban option ushered in church plants in cities such as Indianapolis, IN; Topeka, KS; Denver, CO; Cincinnati, OH and New York City.

So it was that, completely unintended, but guided by God’s invisible hand, MCC participated in reshaping and modernizing the North American Anabaptist world. 

MCC’s role in inter Mennonite cooperation

Yet another unintended consequence of MCC’s sudden appearance was its role in inter Mennonite relationships. North American Mennonites have never been one homogeneous body. The Swiss migration began already in the late 1600s, followed 150 years later by an influx from Russia. Within Russia they came from many different villages. The Mountain Lake, MN, community, for example, came from more than 50 Russian villages. They eventually organized themselves into 9 semi independent congregations representing 3 conferences.

Both streams, upon arriving on these shores, were attracted to good land in the Midwest expanse, but there was little or no coordination between the two bodies. In some cases, they did not even know that the other existed.

In 1940 their quiet way of life was interrupted by the draft to man the Army to fight WW II. There was no provision to exempt conscientious objectors from participation in the military. The scattered Mennonite communities had no mechanism through which to make a united appeal. In a search for options, someone recalled that Central Committee through which they had helped their brothers and sisters suffering in Russia. So it was that through MCC, joined by the Quakers and the Church of the Brethren, the Civilian Public Service was brought into existence. Administered by MCC, more than 5,000 men served their alternate service through this program.

The miracle of MCC is that this scattered, diverse constituency became acquainted with each other while serving side-by-side in MCC in behalf of a needy world. It set the stage for more inter Mennonite activity to follow.  

MCC’s role in educating its constituency

William T. Snyder, MCC’s longest serving Executive Secretary, was fond of saying, “MCC is not a check writing organization. Its first medium is not money; it is workers.” This philosophy made MCC programs lean on budget and rich in personnel. At its peak MCC had more than 550 workers on assignment, most of them drawn from its constituency. After serving 2-or 3-year terms, this stream of MCC alumni enriched the congregations to which they returned. 

It is a partial answers to the question outsiders ask, “How is that a constituency so urbane has become so global in its reach and awareness?”

Thus it was that MCC service, along with other influences, played a major role in helping the historically insular North American Mennonite churches to make the transition to the 21st century, while adhering to its Anabaptist roots.

Ah yes, Jesus and St. Francis had it right. By sharing generously of treasure and talent, by opening itself to the needs of a hurting world, God has seen fit to use MCC to help the Mennonite Church reach out to a needy world while itself being born again. God be praised.

Reflecting on Service

I was asked to write a reflection on service. It is proving one of my most difficult assignments. The more I think about it, the more questions arrive. Who is serving whom? Is the power differential poisoning the effort? Is this the right approach? Service in a church context vs service in a Christian context vs service in a secular context? Military service? Public service? My experiences of various service have raised these questions and more.

I once “served” on a church-based Appalachian housing project. A team of middle class mostly professionals from Indianapolis went to somewhere in the economically and educationally trampled Appalachian area and spent a week building and repairing houses. We had quite a bit interaction with local folks. We had a good time working in fair weather. It was kind of a lark. I wonder what the local folks thought and felt about the invasion of do gooders? There were many teams through there that summer.

Service often is pretty much like work in any organization. Sometimes we find ourselves working on a seriously flawed project or one with predictable bad outcomes – and we have to ask “What happens if I just walk away from this? Will that make it any better or worse?

Volunteering on Habitat projects, I found myself working on houses for people with disabilities in a setting where several such houses were clustered together creating a small disability ghetto in an impoverished section of the community. The right thing to do? Folks needed the housing. The Habitat organization was unwittingly exercising a kind power over those they were serving by creating a limited (probably unavoidable) choice of neighborhood.

Sometimes I find myself working with leadership that have the same flaws as we find in the everyday work environment, flaws that make the situation unpleasant and may have a negative effect on the project or the people served. Well, what did I expect? Sometimes I find myself questioning the motives of fellow volunteers. That is usually time for me to check my own.

 A “service” project involved writing a solid grant proposal for a volunteer organization that insisted on presenting it to a funder who had rejected a previous proposal. The funder told them not to come back until they met certain conditions that the applicant refused to meet. The organization was a basically good one and we wrote a proposal that would serve well when they used it properly.

I will soon be involved in aiding a community of immigrant agricultural workers. I struggle with this. How do I show/live out my respect for them in this situation? I come into their community from across barriers of language and money. The food and clothing we bring are banners of those barriers. The situation unavoidably creates a social power dynamic with the “server” having greater power than the “served.” When I served in a kitchen for disadvantaged folks, I answered that question by simply saying to myself “They’re hungry. I fill the plate. They eat. We leave and get on with our lives. It is not great, but they are less hungry today.”

Maybe that is the approach I should take in Immokalee. If we deliver to the center quietly, leave the truckloads of goods and go, we will have done a service. It may be the best we can do this day. On the other hand, what if we get into extensive interactions with the folks we seek to serve? Do you see the paradox? How do we assure dignity for those served without assuming the power that cancels that dignity?

Which brings me to public service, civil, military, political. I have worked in civil and military service, finding no one who considered themselves servants. Most are just trying to do the best they can to go forward in life and make a living and see some good happen in the world where the work. They serve without obeisance but with hope for positive change in the face of great frustration. When people spoke to me of the good work I was doing in civil service, I always replied that I loved my work but could not do it if I did not get paid, always trying to maintain perspective.

I have written previously in MennoExpressions about military service. I only say here that throughout the history of the “civilized” world, the young and strong are conscripted (openly or subtly) to carry out war. The winning sides have momentary celebrations of the returning “heroes” followed by various means of making them disappear. Underneath it all I suspect we are subconsciously afraid of the people we have required to do our killing.

In political service there has always been the question of who is serving whom. Sometimes we like the answer. Sometimes not.

Finally, the most important service, personal. Here is where all the questions and ambiguities become most incarnate, most glorious and most painful. I have done personal care at different levels for both family and non-family. It takes so many forms that much of it goes unnoticed by the servant. You give someone a ride, kneel for a conversation with someone in a chair, run for the juice when the blood sugar drops, just sitting by, listening, leaving for work an hour early to drive a guy in an accessible van to his work, learning to clear a trach, changing adult diapers, cleaning up in the midst of another person’s embarrassment. You will find yourself doing it when you are both irritated, when you have already put in a full week, when you can’t quit because there is no one else to do it.

Our church in Florida has a next-door neighbor who hated the church and spoke out against any effort to modify, expand or otherwise enhance the place. When he fell last year and began to use a wheelchair, our folks built a ramp for his front entrance. When I told John Hofstetter about this he replied “Oh, Mennonite revenge.” If you can still find a copy, I recommend the movie MY LEFT FOOT. It is a real-life story of a person with a major physical disability who is also obnoxious in various ways and hard to deal with. I am trying to say personal service is often HARD.

I have often found myself confused when attempting to be of service to others. When I was younger I usually did not realize when I was serving myself more than the one served, when the service was more about me feeling good or when my ego initiated a service that was not requested and may not have been wanted. Now I do what comes to be done, try to be respectful and carry the questions, live with ambiguity and paradox.

Mel Swartzentruber’s Legacy

“Leaving a legacy means being remembered for what you want to be remembered for.” Google definition. Service is Mel Swartzentruber’s legacy. He will be remembered for being a kind and gentle God loving man who performed innumerable service projects during his 65-year stay at First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis (FMC). It’s estimated that he performed at least one service project every week that he was at FMC.

Service; that’s Mel’s legacy. Services of all kinds to FMC, to neighbors, with Mennonite Disaster Services, for Habitat for Humanity and to anyone who needed help. He did carpentry, cabinet building, painting, fixing anything that’s broken, maintenance of facilities or machinery, grounds keeping, snow removal, construction and construction supervision, locksmithing, and much more. Anywhere you look around FMC you see his handiwork. For example, the kiosk in the Fellowship Hall was a creation of Mel’s. He was a part of the crews that built the first FMC building as well as the current building and the 2009 addition.

Mel was born April 2, 1930, to an Amish family in southern Indiana near Montgomery. There would eventually be 14 children in the family, Mel is the third from the oldest. His father was a blacksmith who had a shop to repair buggies and harnesses as well as a hardware store that served the Amish community. Mel remembers his family performing services in the Amish community especially to families with newborn infants. The women would prepare meals and the men would do men’s chores as needed. “Just like we do today”, Mel states.

Along with two sisters Mel began attending the Mennonite church as a teenager. That’s where he met Mary Graber who would become his wife on October 11, 1952. In the summer of 1953, they moved to Indianapolis so Mel could complete his two-year Voluntary Service commitment at Methodist Hospital. Then he spent 23 years doing home construction before returning to Methodist Hospital where he directed the locksmithing crew until he retired in 1996. Mel and Mary have three children: Keith, Lynette and Sheila. Mel and Mary now live in Illinois.

“I praise the Lord for all the opportunities and abilities he gave me. Without Him I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I did. When we pair up with God there is a lot we can do.” One of his favorite Bible verses is “In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct thy paths” Proverb 3:6.

Top Ten Reason to Serve

  1. Learn from others.
  2. Learn about yourself.
  3. Learn humility; you may need it someday.
  4. If you wait until the time is perfect, you will never serve.
  5. Because you want to.
  6. In serving, you will be blessed.
  7. Set an example for other generations. 
  8. It is what we are called to do. 
  9. It is much more difficult to be served than it is to serve.
  10. You will want to serve again!


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.