In 1920, the Russian Revolution and famine had taken a severe toll on inhabitants. Mennonites living in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine) sent a letter to Mennonites in the United States asking for help.
The letter found its way to Orie Miller, a Goshen College graduate living in Akron.
“Brethren! Help us, we are perishing!” it read. “Famine is raging more and more and suffering is increasing daily, yes, hourly.”
The letter sparked the beginning of Mennonite Central Committee — a nongovernmental worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches that responds to basic human needs and works for peace and justice. This year, MCC marks 100 years of service. It is a feat as unexpected as it is profound.
“I don’t think anyone dreamed (MCC) would be around 100 years later,” said Bruce Campbell-Janz, MCC’s East Coast executive director. “Like many organizations, it was (established) for a specific reason, a specific issue. I think they thought they would help these sisters and brothers in Ukraine and that would tie it up.”
Today, MCC employs nearly 1,200 people and has a budget in excess of $82 million. It operates in 53 countries, has 453 partners and operates 648 projects that range from humanitarian disaster relief to helping develop sustainable communities around the world “in the name of Christ.”
On Saturday, Jan. 18, MCC will kick off its yearlong celebration doing what it has always done — working to help others. Volunteers in the United States and Canada will sew 6,500 comforters for distribution as part of what MCC is calling the Great Winter Warm-Up.
Campbell-Janz, who has worked on MCC Africa programs, said those who receive the comforters often are overwhelmed.
“The idea ... that someone who doesn’t even know me, has done something to help me,” he said, leaves a lasting impression of the organization.
This centennial year will include a number of events culminating in Celebration 2020 — a three-day festival, June 19-21, in Lancaster County that will include a two-part 100-mile bike tour, an ultimate Frisbee tournament and storytelling. On Sunday, June 21, 100 speakers will address congregations at 100 churches in the region.
Throughout the year, stories will be added to an online collection and will be available at mcc.org/100-stories. An academic conference on “MCC at 100” will be held Oct. 23-24 at the University of Winnipeg and Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
MCC also is encouraging people to offer an extra financial gift through the “New Hope in the Name of Christ” fundraising campaign this year.
The request from Russian Mennonites in 1920 prompted Miller, Arthur Slagel and Clayton Kratz to form their own assessment team to see what could be done for their brethren half a world away. Initially denied entry to Russia, they established a base in what is now Istanbul. They eventually received permission to provide food and equipment to Mennonites in southern Russia in 1922.
The relief mission, however, was accompanied by tragedy. Kratz was arrested by the Red Army, accused of being a spy and imprisoned. It is not known if he was executed or died in prison. He is one of four MCC members who have lost their lives to violence since 1920. A residence hall at Goshen College is named in his honor.
Although MCC incorporated in Pennsylvania in 1937, the organization remained largely dormant until World War II.
Ken Sensenig, assistant East Coast executive director, said while World War I and the ensuing Russian Revolution led to the creation of MCC, “it was World War II that made it grow up. MCC became an international volunteer organization in the 1940s.
“Ironically,” he noted, “this is an organization dedicated to peacemaking, but it was birthed in the throes of war.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, MCC expanded to become what Campbell-Janz called “more of a classic nongovernmental organization working on development projects in Africa and Asia and Latin America.”
While known for its response to disasters — it provided more than $21 million for victims of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, $19.5 million for Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and nearly $64 million to victims in the ongoing war in the Middle East — Campbell-Janz explained that is only one part of MCC’s mission.
MCC also aids with sustainable community development — education, health, access to clean water, agriculture — and works to strengthen justice and peacebuilding initiatives throughout the world.
“It is true we have peace projects — we have started peace clubs in schools in Africa — but peace is woven through everything we do,” Campbell-Janz said.
One way the organization promotes peace and understanding is through cross-cultural programs. MCC supports two yearlong programs — the International Volunteer Exchange Program in which young Christian adults from other countries volunteer in the U.S. or Canada and live with a local person or family — and the Serving and Learning Together program for young adults from Canada and the U.S. to serve internationally in fields like education, agriculture, health care, information technology and peace.
As members of an ethnically diverse denomination, MCC staff members help resettle immigrants in this country, including those at the U.S.-Mexican border, and work in the U.S. prison system.
MCC has spawned two organizations — Mennonite Disaster Service and 10,000 Villages — that are now separate entities. And MCC is supported by the Thrift Shop network.
Among the unique aspects of MCC, Campbell-Janz said, is the support it draws from diverse Anabaptist groups — from Amish to Old Order Mennonite to black-bumper Mennonites to progressive congregations — that often differ on theology.
The organization is supported by seven different denominations, including Mennonite Church USA and Lancaster Mennonite Conference, which broke away from MC USA three years ago.
“That’s part of that ‘central committee,’ that we’ve been able to work from,” Campbell-Janz said.
That willingness to work with each other, despite theological disagreements, he suggested, is a testament to the work MCC does in the name of Christ.