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.