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FOR THE LOVE OF GOD: The Mennonites & Benjamin Eby
Helping Community

Loving Thy Neighbour as Yourself

The picture of Mennonite life etched in most minds is the horse and buggy, plain and simple dress, a self-sufficient community, living off the land. And when a Mennonite's barn or house burns to the ground there's an army of neighbours appearing over the horizon at daybreak, coming to raise a family's charred dreams from the ashes. The Mennonite way of life is one of tradition passed on from grandfather to son to grandson, and of holding strong to the universal values of self-reliance, mutual aid, hard work and humility.

Mennonites are also known for staying apart from the world; the renouncing of wordly possessions and doing without modern conveniences. Yet, in many ways, it is by reaching out to the world that Mennonites fulfill what they believe to be their mission in life: to love thy neighbour, and thy enemy, as yourself; to make sure everyone lives without hunger, and in peace(1).

Caring Mennonite communities find many ways to support those in need. One only has to look at the recent natural disaster in eastern Ontario and western Quebec, where ice storms ravaged urban and rural areas into a state of emergency. Mennonites offered mutual aid and selfless generosity. "We just heard of it, kinda word of mouth and heard they were in quite a lot of trouble," said Robbin Bauman, who came with nine of his friends from a Mennonite community in Kitchener. They travelled all the way to Hulbert, Ontario and showed up at Oliver Thurler's farm completely unannounced, offering to help. "They literally just said, 'Hi, we're here to help,'" Thurler said."I can't believe they came. It's just so wonderful." Thurler and his brothers had just been digging themselves out from the latest crisis - their barn roof had collapsed under the weight of the ice, killing several of their prime milking cows(2).

The Mennonite tradition of helping reaches beyond individual acts of kindness. Mennonite communities across North America have organized a formal coast-to-coast network called Mennonite Disaster Service(MDS). When floods, tornadoes, or other forms of disaster strike, volunteers come to the aid of anyone by cleaning, building and restoring(3). Evan Hetse, at the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario, says it is still too early for large numbers of disaster workers to be sent into the areas of the ice storm. But once damage is assessed and communities are functioning again, he expects the MDS will be responding to a number of requests.

The Mennonite Central Committee also responds to emergencies out of the media glare, and much further away from home. Many Mennonite congregations work cooperatively and voluntarily through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in a worldwide service to aid people who are suffering and deprived(4). The MCC was formed in 1920 by Mennonites across North America to help family and relatives still in Russia. MCC volunteers were able to persuade the then Soviet government to allow Mennonites to leave the country, and encouraged countries such as Canada to accept them as immigrants(5).

For over fifty years the MCC worked to reunite Mennonite families separated by persecution. During the Second World War the MCC began to help non-Mennonites, especially children who were evacuated from bombed British cities. In the 1970's it aided refugees in South East Asia, and has smoothed the way for Canadian Mennonite congregations to sponsor refugee families who want to begin a new life in Canada(6).

In recent years, the MCC has sent millions of pounds of food - beans, corn, meat, milk, rice, oil, wheat and other commodities - to people around the world. Their care has extended to Rwandan regugees, war victims in the former Yugoslavia, and people in Sudan, Nicaragua and the former Soviet Union. The MCC takes its mandate from scripture, which tells them that God does not want people to be hungry(7).

With that, comes the MCC mantra: "There are many ways to stock a pantry"(8). In other words, there are many ways to protect people from hunger, besides providing food. MCC sometimes sells donated grain in North America and then uses the proceeds locally in Third World countries. This money pays wages, or provides food in food-for-work ventures that help build a community's economic infrastructure. Other means of aid include agriculture and technical assistance, job creation, peacemaking and mediation services; reforestation and water projects(9).

Each year the MCC has a budget of about $20 million to apply to foreign and domestic programs ranging from development to relief and peace projects(10). More than half of MCC dollars come from fundraising done by Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. The remaining income is from grants, the largest of which comes from the Canadian government(11).

Today the Mennonite Central Committee has nearly 900 men and women working in more than 60 countries. Each volunteer serves for 2 or 3 years and is paid living and travelling expenses plus a monthly allowance(12). Workers for the MCC need not be Mennonites, although they must be committed Christians and active members of a local church, ready to identify with and participate in the life of the Christian church where they are assigned(13). Most Mennonites support the MCC, with work, money, or prayers(14).

Endnotes

1,3,4 - Mennonite Life
by John A. Hostetler (Herald Press, Kitchener, 1983).

2 - "Dairy farmers count their blessings amid wreckage"
by Michelle Shephard and Jim Rankin (Toronto Star, January 15, 1998).

5,6,14 - The Mennonite Canadians
by Joanne Flint (Van Nostrand Reinhold Ltd., Toronto, 1980).

7,8,9,11,12,13 - "How many ways are there to stock a pantry"
(Mennonite Central Committee, 1997).

10 - The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998).


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