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.
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?