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