A New UnderstandingA New Understanding
Most Mennonites have traditionally supported pacifism and non-resistance instead of war. In the past, Mennonites have died instead of betraying these principles. At other times, they left everything they owned to move to a different country to keep their faith. In times of peace and prosperity, however, Mennonites did not have to actively practice these values. At the start of the Second World War in 1939, young Mennonite men were tested for the first time. Would they join the army to defend the country that had given them shelter and protection? Or would they remain true to their centuries-old faith?
Although some choose to join the army, most decided to become conscientious objectors. For them, this experience strengthened their faith and turned out to be a time of personal transformation. This was the case for Ben Bergen.
The conscientious objector experience changed my life. Camp experience has broadened my understanding of other denominations, their teachings and beliefs. I learned to show more patience and to cooperate with my fellow man. [ASM, 55-58]
Cornelius Dueck also sees the CO experience as pivotal in his life.
As I look back, this experience was a turning point in my life. I got to know Christian fellows from other districts and backgrounds. Many of us had the same goal in life: to live for Jesus Christ and to prepare for eternity. One thing that I appreciate tremendously was, that we had ministers at camp to help us, give guidance, and preach the Word of God… These ministers were willing to give of their time to help us. It has been a highlight for me spiritually. From a self-centered, self-righteous life, it changed to a more broad outlook on life, and accepting my fellow brethren even though they did not speak, think, and do exactly as I did. I realized that God looks at the heart and not at the outward appearance. This led me to have high regard for all believers and our church. [TTbP, 97-98]
J.W. Nickel, who served in the CO camps as a worker and as a religious director, gave this evaluation of the experience.
What did camp life do for the conscientious objectors? For one thing, it taught those, who because of previous isolated church life held the members of another denomination in narrow esteem, to respect and love their brothers…. Through discussion and observation these men had a wonderful opportunity to free themselves of denominational bigotry. By the same means, they arrived at destinations in their spiritual development in which they experienced in a broader way what their religious leaders and teachers at home had often only hinted at and some had in vain attempted to instill. [Toews, 103]
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My personal opinion,” says Ben Reimer, ”of the whole experience is more of a privilege and blessing than hardship. Because of many different ways that others understood the Scriptures, we did some real searching and studying of Scriptures.” [TTbP, 97] Peter A. Unger writes that “I am convinced that God used this experience for our good (Romans 8:28 ), where we let ourselves be molded by His Spirit. Many church leaders and workers in our contemporary churches come out of Alternative Service. This was my experience and I praise Him for it.” [ASP, 196]
George Groening lists four ways in which he was personally transformed by his experience as a CO.
- “I was taken out of the comfort zone of home and church. I had to face the hardships of life which ultimately helped me mature and prepare for future service.
- I was thrust into ministering to my peers in camp. We had to help in the spiritual ministry in the camp where the church could not do it. I found the opportunity to teach, preach, counsel and help give leadership; all of these helped me in later life.
- It taught me an appreciation for our Native people.
- It prepared me to become a teacher and later a pastor. It prepared me for future leadership in the church, conference and work at Columbia Bible College.”
“I view these years as having been very useful for future ministry. They enriched my life and helped prepare me for my future.” [ASP, 99]
A common theme in CO stories is the faithfulness of God. For the young men who left their communities to be COs, it was an act of obedience to God. This was Peter Neufeld's experience.
“The stand that we as COs took was a positive experience in our personal lives and a testimony to our fellow Canadians. It prevented a strong anti-Mennonite feeling by the general public.
“In looking back to the years 1939-1945, I am thankful for the Lord's wonderful leading in my life. He sustained me then as a young pacifist and guided me in my desire to be a peaceable person.
“We should strive to be peacemakers, not only in times of conflict and war, but also in our daily walk with the people that we live and work with.
“It is a duty and a privilege in time of war to build when others destroy, to heal when others kill. There is no greater force in all the world than the power of Christian love.” [ASM, 62]
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Jac. K. Schroeder remains thankful for the positive effect CO service had on his life.
The CO experience, even with its hardships and disappointments, was a positive experience for me. It tested my values and thrust me into areas of service I would never have experienced otherwise. It brought me a new outlook on serving the country that was my home, namely that every able-bodied young person should give a year of “free” service to the nation in times of peace. Christians especially, need to volunteer such a year's service to the nation in areas of human welfare.
I felt that God had shaped the events of my CO experience and guided me and my family through the time of serving the nation in positive, constructive ASW during a time of war. [ASP, 177]
John E. Klassen also points to his time as a CO as a life-changing experience.
As I reflect on this time of some three and a half years, I do not consider them to be wasted years. Camp days were a time of personal spiritual orientation and growth, building and preparation for going into full-time ministry. God has used that in my forty years of ministry and I thank him for it.” [ASP, 109]
Rev. H.R. Baerg spent a year in alternative service work camps. He gives a candid evaluation of the CO experience.
Alternative Service constituted for us a program of submission. Ours was not to reason why, or to ask why, to argue or denounce. We were conscripted to spend the same amount of time under similar regulations as the boys in other branches of the Service. We now had an opportunity to confirm our faith by rendering a sacrifice, not of our lives but of our time. For some, time spent in camp was indeed boring and monotonous; however, for most of us this was a chapter in our lives when we could learn many lessons and gain worthwhile and meaningful experiences.
Numerous citizens of our country could not understand our singular stand and mistrusted our motives, thinking that a lack of loyalty and courage was at the base. It was our duty to resolve the misunderstanding by living up to our message of love… A number of working projects were unrealistic and not exactly of ‘national importance'; some of the foremen were unlearned, unprincipled, and unsocial loggers or ‘bushwackers' a few of the superintendents were prejudiced; some of the fellow draftees were partisan, obstinate, and obtuse. Under these circumstances it was imperative that we who were attempting to give an affirmation of our faith be buoyant, courageous, resourceful, and confident.
It was an enlarging experience to maintain personal love and to create close friendship with the various individuals of different background and training … It was indeed an experience requiring self-discipline, self-understanding, and inter-personal and inter-group understanding. [Toews, 103-104]
The experience of American COs was similar. Long time minister in the American Mennonite Brethren circles, Marvin Hein said “I shall never be sorry I spent those years in CPS. Much of what I am today is a result of those 33 months in CPS.”
Marvin Hein, My Lines Have Fallen in Pleasant Places: An Autobiography , (Fresno: Marvin Hein, 2005), 67.
When confronted with war, young Mennonite men had to make a choice. For those who became COs, that choice led to intense experiences and personal transformation. The alternative service work program was not perfect, but as the COs above know, good things can come out of difficult situations.