I tell people I am going to write for an organization in Honduras, and they understand. It gets a lot harder to explain when they press for details. By the time I tell them that I will be working at AJS through the SALT program of MCC most eyes glass over. I’ll be unpacking that sentence piece by piece, starting with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and how on earth I got here.
First, a clarification of terms:
Who are Mennonites?
All Mennonites are Anabaptists (people who believe that it is adults, not infants, who should be baptized), but not all Anabaptists are Mennonites.
Anabaptists came out of the Radical Reformation centuries ago, and since then have splintered into many smaller groups, among them the Mennonites, the Hutterites and the Amish.
To clarify, Mennonites are not Amish, and are more diverse than any other denomination I can think of. Some more conservative Mennonite congregations wear specific dress and head-coverings and eschew certain modern luxuries, but many more dress the same as I do and have the same phones, laptops, and TVs as any of their neighbors.
There are about 1.6 million Mennonites in the world, and over half live outside of the United States and Canada. Immigration and conversion have produced Mennonite churches everywhere from Brazil to Indonesia, and these churches are growing faster than any in North America.
So, what exactly do Mennonites believe?
Mennonites are Christians, and their similarities to my past congregations far outweigh any differences. These differences include pacifism, nonviolence and nonresistance, all a central part of their identity and their theology. Other key aspects of their identity are simplicity (not having more than you need), mutuality (service that aims not to be one-sided), and radical discipleship (being like Jesus even when it is difficult, particularly when it comes to peace).
What does that have to do with me?
The Mennonite church hosts an organization that works for relief, development and peace. The organization, called Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), began in 1920 as U.S. Mennonites’ response to other Mennonites starving in Ukraine. MCC sent famine relief for a few years, sat dormant for a decade or two, and then began relief work in Poland, England, and France as World War II began.
A key part of MCC’s beginning was overseeing the Civilian Public Service (CPS) for conscientious objectors to the military draft. CPS enabled drafted men to serve instead on humanitarian aid or peace-making projects.
MCC’s name is an admitted misnomer, as it is neither Mennonite (the organization includes Brethren in Christ congregations, and Amish congregations donate time and talents as well), nor particularly central, nor exactly a committee. But nearly 100 years after its founding, its name is one well-recognized in development circles.
Which brings us to how I got here.
In addition to long-term service workers who work around the world, MCC hosts three short-term programs for young people aged 18-30, all of which place individuals to do work for a year in a country where MCC is working. These programs are:
YAMEN (Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network): In this program, individuals from the Global South (sometimes called developing countries) work in other countries in the Global South. For example, I will attend orientation with one YAMENer who will go from India to Honduras.
IVEP (International Volunteer Exchange Program): In this program, individuals from outside the U.S. and Canada come to work here. They may assist in schools, work on organic farms, or do accounting for a nonprofit. For example, one IVEPer came from Colombia to teach at a bilingual kindergarten in Pennsylvania.
SALT (Serving And Learning Together): In this program, individuals from the United States and Canada go to serve in the Global South. While some work directly with MCC, many, like me, will work with partner organizations, like AJS. Wherever SALTers go, MCC provides both training beforehand and support during.
I am still learning a lot about Mennonites and MCC, and I’m grateful for the graciousness of everyone who’s answered questions for me so far.
Sources: mcc.org, SALT training, and Development to a Different Drummer, Anabaptist/Mennonite Experiences and Perspectives – required reading in Prof. Kuperus’ capstone class last Fall!