Life of Service

Life of Service

Look at the subtitles of the Mennonites in Canada series. The first volume, covering 1786-1920, is subtitled The History of a Separate People. The second, volume, 1920-1940, A People's Struggle for Survival. The subtitle of the third volume is A People Transformed. Between 1939 and 1970, the years covered in the third volume, Canadian Mennonites changed as never before.  

In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, most Mennonites lived in isolated farming communities. In fact, of the more than 111,000 Mennonites in Canada in 1941, nearly 87% lived on farms or in small towns. Mennonites tried to preserve their values by remaining separate from the rest of the world.

All this changed after the war. By 1971, fewer than 30% of Mennonites lived on farms. The remainder lived in towns or cities. Suddenly, Mennonites were in the mainstream of Canadian life. They had to deal with new people, new ideas, and new situations. More than ever, Mennonites began to participate in all aspects of Canadian life.

The conscientious objector experience played a role in this transformation. For many of the COs, the alternative service work was the first time they had been away from home. The alternative service program forced them to see different parts of the country and meet people with different backgrounds and ideas. This was very challenging for many Mennonites. You might think this would destroy some of their beliefs. For some Mennonites, this was true. But for others, having a wider perspective meant applying their Mennonite values to the world beyond their own community.

David Fransen writes that:

“The camps accomplished even more than providing the forum for facilitating religious toleration and great inter-Mennonite cooperation. They also provided the impetus for a new service consciousness on the part of Mennonites…. Now, … Mennonites began to see themselves as participants in a society much broader than their own. Christian responsibility now required not only ministering to one's own people, but to society in general.”

 Listen to Henry Gerbrandt share he feels the conscientious objector's expereince had a possitive impact on society and the church where they came from.

This became evident in a number of new service and relief organizations established by Mennonites after the war. COs were one reason why Mennonites began to open themselves to the outside world and to see the opportunities for national and global service.

JReimer Wed, 01/20/2016 - 15:08

Life of Service - Page 2

Life of Service - Page 2

Service has always been an important part of Mennonite life.

The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), for example, is a relief, service, and peace agency. Founded in 1920, MCC seeks to reflect the Biblical call to care for the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the sick, and those in prison. In 2002 alone, MCC received nearly $100 million to fulfill this mission. It has 1300 workers in 57 countries. 

Not coincidentally, many Mennonite outreach agencies started up after the war.

Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) was founded in 1953 and aims to bring hope, opportunity, and economic well being to low income people around the world through a business-oriented approach to development. Each year MEDA creates or sustains about 10,000 jobs around the world. One way they do this is through the Sarona Global Investment Fund. Sarona is the only socially responsible fund that specifically targets low-income people in the developing world. MEDA's target group is the poorest of the economically active in the developing world. These are people who, because they are poor, cannot obtain loans from local banks to start or grow businesses.


Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) was founded in 1944, making it the oldest continuing voluntary service program in Mennonite circles. It provides a way for people to live out their faith through deeds of service. MVS has been a powerful influence on the church. Thousands of Mennonites (and others) have served marginalized people in the past five decades. In the process, they themselves were served and transformed by the people among whom they lived.


Mennonite Disaster Service, founded in 1950, is a channel through which various constituencies of the Anabaptist churches can respond to those affected by disasters in North America . While the main focus is on clean up, repair and rebuilding homes, this activity becomes a means of touching lives and helping people regain faith and wholeness.

 Ed Bearinger wanted to do all he could to alleviate human suffering in the war.  He wishes he could have done more.  Since the war he has encouraged people to be involved with Mennonite Disaster Service which works at alleviating human suffering.

These agencies have all done valuable service, but what exactly is the connection to conscientious objectors?

JReimer Wed, 01/20/2016 - 15:10

Life of Service - Page 3

Life of Service - Page 3

Henry R. Baerg served as a conscientious objector in various national parks and on a farm. Looking back, he can see the far-reaching effects of CO service.

Alternative service during World War II played a greater role in our lives than we realized at the time. It added significantly to development in Mennonite history by impacting a whole generation of men who became pastors of our churches, teachers in our colleges and leaders in our conferences. They became men of evangelism and missions. [ASP, 34-35]

David Schroeder echoes Baerg's comments. Schroeder worked in St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg for his alternative service. He is amazed by the effect this service had on him and his fellow COs. “Of 35-40 COs who attended Bethel Church during that time,” he writes, “8 went into full-time Christian service. That's unbelievable. Being together, having to stand up and fend for yourself, forced you to encounter life in a different way.” [ASP, 160]

David Goerzen agrees that serving as a conscientious objector had a lasting possitive impact on the Mennonite churches.

The group of COs who attended Bethel Church do not seem to have been unusual. Although no one has counted how many COs went into Christian service after the war, we can guess that there were quite a few. Henry R. Baerg remembers how camp life encouraged many COs to rededicate themselves.  

I took along a few books and my Bible for preaching and study purposes. Later, some men took up serious studies, even finishing high school by correspondence and enrolling in university courses or engaging in group studies. We might have been helped by some guidance as to study courses, more profitable studies and academic or educational training. Most of us benefited from the inter-church association and fellowship. We cultivated our own spiritual lives and learned from each other how to develop good devotional habits. By being responsible for much of our nurture, we learned leadership responsibilities, grooming some prospective preachers and pastors. We received spiritual nurture through chaplaincy and had regular Sunday worship. Our camp chaplains did some of the preaching, but since they had to serve a number of camps, we did a lot of preaching, teaching, leading Bible studies and prayer meetings. Many COs went on to Bible College after release from ASW and became pastors and teachers. Since several of the men in ASW were not believers, it gave us opportunity to witness. Some came to full assurance of faith and we all grew and gained greater knowledge of the truth. [ASP, 34-35]

Along with this new-found truth came a desire to put it into action. The CO experience reminded Mennonites that it was necessary to put their beliefs into action. Instead of pulling away from the world, the post-war Mennonites engaged the world. They realized that being a CO was more than not fighting. Being a CO meant working for peace. COs didn't always think their alternative service in Canada was doing much good. After they were released, they had more opportunities to work actively for peace. Norman R. Weber volunteered as soon as he was able.

Soon after the war, I answered the call of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association and volunteered to work on a relief ship carrying horses and relief goods to Poland and Finland. The adventure that started when I left southern Ontario September 2, 1946 and was supposed to last 4-6 weeks, stretched into four months. We had a stormy crossing and lost horses to the rough waves of the North Atlantic. We walked among the corpses in Polish battlefields and were shipwrecked in the Gulf of Finland …. I saw first hand, the traumatic experiences brought on by World War II. [ASP, 208]

For many COs , their wartime duties encouraged a lifetime of service.

JReimer Wed, 01/20/2016 - 15:15

Life of Service - Page 4

Life of Service - Page 4

Menno Klassen, for example, devoted his whole life to peace and relief efforts.  

“After the war I volunteered three and a half years with MCC [Mennonite Central Committee]. During the first 6 months I was in charge of the food collection centre in Winnipeg, from where canned goods were shipped to war sufferers in Europe. We also processed donations of wheat from Mennonite farmers throughout Western Canada, milled it into flour and shipped it to Europe to help relieve hunger there. The next 3 years were spent in agricultural service in the Mennonite colonies in the Paraguayan Chaco. Soon after my return to Canada, I began serving as a member of Manitoba Peace and Social Concerns Committee under MCC.


“Since then, my wife Aggie and I have been deeply involved in a number of other peace, justice, environmental and human rights projects. For our vacation, we have taken educational tours to Jamaica and Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua, the Mexico/U.S. border where we studied the refugee and migrant labour situation, the Philippines (with MCC), Paraguay and Bolivia. We have learned to understand and identify with these people in their struggle for dignity, economic and social justice and peace.

“After returning home, we found ourselves interceding for them, the free speaking and working for the unfree. On each trip we learned that much of the suffering of the people in the world stems from unjust, self-seeking North American foreign policies. We have been trying to explain this to the Canadian public through slide presentations, letters to editors of various newspapers and to our Members of Parliament. As members of Amnesty International we have written letters and wired complaints to third world governments that violate human rights, urging them to change their inhuman policies.

“After doing this intercessory work for some time, we decided to call our home “The House of Intercession.” The footer on our letterhead features the words of a familiar song: No one is an island, no one stands along. Each one's joy is joy to us, each one's grief is our own. We need one another, so we will defend each one as our sister or brother; each one as our friend.” [ASP, 110-111]

John L. Fretz served four and a half years in forestry camps and other alternative service. He doesn't regret a minute: “If I had to do it over again, I believe I would do the same thing.” Although he would have liked to have chosen another type of alternative service, he knows that “our type of service was probably the best that could be arranged in the short time available to set up the program with the government.” Even though the service wasn't his first choice, it was generally beneficial to Canada and the COs.

“Most of us became more aware of the scriptural teachings on peace and nonresistance, and the importance of love and reconciliation, in the face of violence. As a result of my experience, I wanted to do more positive service, so I spent a two-year term in MCC relief work in France …. Service such as in MCC is a more positive kind of witness." [ASP, 79]

Fretz includes a direct challenge at the end his story: “Perhaps more effort should be made to form an ongoing church-operated peace-corps type of service which would be an alternative to military service.” In many ways, the Mennonites have already done that.

 David Goerzen suggests that after high school young people should do some voluntary serice. Do you think this is a good idea?

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 09:33

Life of Service - Page 5

Life of Service - Page 5

Alternative service work exposed conscientious objectors to people and situations completely foreign to them. Their work in native communities is one example of this.

Mennonite Pioneer Missions, now known as Native Ministries, grew directly out of the service of conscientious objectors. Some teachers who refused to go to war taught in northern communities for their alternative service.

  Henry Gerbrandt tells how he got the school going in a northern Manitoba community.

This contact brought Mennonites and Native Canadians closer to together and inspired Mennonites to continue working in these communities after the war.

George Groening and his wife Nettie travelled north in 1944.

“In summer 1944 I was given a choice to return to forestry work or go to teach on an Indian Reservation at Norway House. Seeing it as an opportunity to broaden my experience, I opted to teach at the Indian School. Nettie and I decided to get married so she could join me. We were married August 13, 1944 and two weeks later we were on our way to Norway House. I was to be the senior teacher and Nettie would assist with children at the residential school. Learning to know the Native people was a very good experience. I was deeply impressed by some of their elders. The schools, however, left much to be desired – no records of previous work and no supervisor or inspector to check up on our work. I often wished there would have been someone to ask how to do things.”

Groening experienced a deep sense of frustration with the situation. He knew that something needed to change.

“I was disappointed in how the organized church and the Department of Indian Affairs viewed the Native people. They were treated like possessions and seemingly had no say in what was done. I felt that the Native people should have had more say about their education and welfare system, as well as more control of the justice system. Taking young six to eight-year-olds out of their homes for a whole year was very painful, since these children felt extremely lonely.”

These experiences stayed with Groening even after he had finished his CO service. A few years later, he began working with Mennonite Pioneer Mission to improve the situation in Manitoba's native communities.

“In retrospect, I gained a deep respect and love for our Native people. For this reason, I served as chairman of the Mennonite Pioneer Mission Board, later known as Native Ministries Board, for 12 years. We worked to improve teaching and health care, and at Pauingassi, helped build new homes for the entire settlement.” [ ASP , 98]

George Groening was one of many people who made up Mennonite Pioneer Missions. This outreach continues today under the name Native Ministries.

But how exactly did this ministry start and what are they doing today?

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 09:43

Life of Service - Page 6

Life of Service - Page 6

Mennonite Pioneer Missions had its roots in the Bergthaler Mennonite Church of Manitoba. In the 1930s, people from this church felt the need for their own mission program. In 1938, they held a missions festival. Two years later they formed the Bergthaler Missions Committee to investigate areas of need and potential service. Their first attempt was a school for orphans in Mexico called “The Home of the Good Shepherd”. This mission ended after a few years because of disagreements and problems with the Mexican government. Even while the Mexican school was nearing its end, the Bergthaler church was planning a new mission. This time, they looked closer to home. (Mennonite Pioneer Mission list of representatives.) 

Twenty-seven Mennonite COs had chosen northern teaching as their alternative service. When they returned home after the war, they had told church leaders of the desperate situation. These communities, the COs said, needed for social and missionary help.

  In the last portion of this clip Henry Gerbrandt connects the CO expereince with the founding of the Mennonite Pioneer Mission.

The Bergthaler Mennonite Church accepted the challenge and established six missions in northern Manitoba between 1948 and 1960. They were Matheson Island (1948), Pauingassi (1955), Loon Straits (1955), Cross Lake (1956), Manigotogan (1957), and Bloodvein (1960). Some of these communities had Anglican, United, or Roman Catholic churches, but they did not have regular services or resident priests. Historian Peter Fast describes what the COs had seen in these communities. 

“After the war, these men saw the need for a true Gospel witness. Many were alarmed at the type of Christians produced on old established church mission fields. A form of godliness was produced, steeped in formalities and rituals. This situation gave these men all the more impetus to seek ways and means of challenging the neglected Indian and Métis with the Gospel of Christ.” (Peter Fast, “Mennonite Pioneer Mission: A Venture of Faith, p.3)  (Read the purpose statement in the Mennonite Pioneer Mission publication).

Some of the natives were technically part of other churches, but they didn't see their religion as connected with their everyday life. For this reason, the Mennonites felt justified in sending missionaries to these people. Besides being an opportunity for spiritual witness, the Mennonite church also wanted to improve the living conditions in these communities.

Jake and Trudie Unrau started the mission on Matheson Island. In 1948, it was home to 175 people. They relied on traditional sources of income such as hunting, trapping, and fishing. The Unraus worked to improve the religious and social lives of the people. (see sample sermon notes)  They organized the building of a church and started religious education. Mennonite Pioneer Mission also sent nurses to Matheson Island and encouraged teachers to volunteer. The Unrau's took interest in the host culture and used an English-Cree primer and vocabulary.  (See sample pages).

In the 1973, the name of Mennonite Pioneer Mission changed to Native Ministries. The terms “pioneer” and “mission” were no longer acceptable. For many people, these words had unhappy connotations and implied a superior sender speaking down to an inferior receiver. This understanding did not accurately reflect the nature of the program, so the name changed to Native Ministries. This change emphasized the equality of all Christians.

Despite the name, this had been the intention from the beginning. Jake Unrau noted that he had much to learn from the natives. Even though he had more formal education, he found that he was learning as much as he was teaching. In Cross Lake, Ernie Sawatzky spent three weeks on a trapline and attended traditional native dances to try to understand the people better. This effort to understand native culture instead of condemning it earned Sawatzky the respect of the people. In Manigotogan, a Métis community, Jake Unrau organized the Wanipigow Producers Co-op in 1963. This allowed fishers to sell their fish at higher prices by presenting a united front.  

Perhaps the most successful mission was in Pauingassi. This small community on Lake Winnipeg did not have formal reserve status. The government had not provided a school and the members of the community were isolated from the outside world. Only one person in the community spoke English. The rest spoke Saulteaux (pronounced Soto). Alcohol abuse was a problem, as was low employment.

Henry and Elna Neufeld, former students at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg went there to serve in 1956. Not only were they teachers and preachers, but they also dispensed medical and legal advice, and worked as mechanics and labourers. The most important reason for their success, however, was their willingness to learn Saulteaux so they could speak to the people in their own language. By 1976, the resident missionary presence had ended. A number of natives had been ordained as church leaders and now they were leading the church in Pauingassi and reaching out to other native communities.

Today, Native Ministries continues in a number of communities. It is committed to both spiritual and social transformation. Although the name has changed, the mission has remained the same from the time of the COs.

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 09:52