Book review: ‘Re-Envisioning Service’

Jul 31, 2017 by

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The greatest success of the Civilian Public Service era is not the effect it had on the church during World War II, as significant as that was. Rather, its crowning achievement was the resulting ethos of service that has been a primary identifying characteristic of Anabaptism for the past 70 years. Prior to 1941, service to God and God’s people was largely limited to pastoral ministry and mission work, with some church administration and college teaching mixed in.

"Re-Envisioning Service"

“Re-Envisioning Service”

But with the war came a more expansive understanding of the world’s needs and the church’s role in addressing them. Many of the 16 Mennonite and Brethren writers in Re-Envisioning Service were among the first inheritors of these new perspectives on discipleship from their wartime predecessors. The book, a collection of short memoirs, offers welcome insights into how the writers — now retired but hardly inactive (although two have died) — came to spend the bulk of their adult years in service as a vocation.

For example, the stories of Mennonite Central Committee’s relief work and refugee resettlement prompted H.D. Swartzendruber in 1950 to join MCC’s postwar efforts in Europe. That set him on a 40-year career in international relief and development, primarily with Church World Service and later as a consultant to the United Nations, USAID and a host of nongovernmental organizations. “I believe it safe to say . . . that our [MCC] experiences, at whatever level in whatever place we worked, changed our worldviews . . . and we are all the better for it,” Swartzendruber writes.

Several authors note the influence of being “seagoing cowboys.” Others found their calling in higher education, helping to nurture students but also serving a church in transition by grappling with important scholarly issues such as the relationship between science and religion, attitudes toward the state and political involvement, and lessons from historical research.

The most remarkable account in the book is that of Bertha Beachy, who has long been part of the church’s vanguard. As an Old Order Amish teenager, she felt called to serve when the missions impulse, originating in part with returned CPS workers, began to course through some quarters of the Old Order Amish fellowship in the 1950s.

To prepare for her life’s vocation, Beachy entered Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., in 1953. “When I explained to my father why I wanted to study,” she writes, “he smilingly said, ‘I think you should be a preacher!’ ” Beachy would become a leading proponent for women in leadership during her 25 years in Somalia and Kenya, serving with Eastern Mennonite Missions and MCC, and in the United States.

She also became an advocate for Christian-Muslim relations, a message that’s never been more important, given current world conditions. “I have sought to accept Muslims for who they are and what they believe. . . . God loves Muslims as God loves this Amish woman,” Beachy writes.

Re-Envisioning Service is the third book from the Anabaptist Center for Religion at Society at EMU, an organization of retired scholars and church workers living in Harrisonburg. The first two volumes are also collections of memoirs, written by ACRS members. As a result, the books significantly lack diversity.

So for Re-Envisioning Service, the ACRS sought to expand “beyond the EMU campus, and even the Shenandoah Valley,” according to editor Ray C. Gingerich, professor emeritus of theology and ethics at the school. Unfortunately, the ACRS fell far short of its stated goal.

The solution was to include members of the Church of the Brethren. Their stories are certainly worth telling. But five of the six Breth­ren writers have significant ties to the Shenandoah Valley, mostly as students and/or faculty at Bridgewater, the Breth­ren college located just 10 miles from EMU.

That Church of the Breth­ren geographic homogeneity is compounded by the fact that, despite Gingerich’s assertion, all 10 Mennonite writers have notable Shenandoah Valley connections. The group includes three Eastern Mennonite High School alumni, seven former EMU students (not counting the Breth­ren writer who graduated from Eastern Mennonite Seminary) and four former EMU faculty or staff members. One worked for the Mennonite Church agency Mennonite Broadcasts in Harrisonburg. In addition, five writers currently live in the city, as did a sixth when he died.

Needless to say, each Mennonite comes from an MC background. And the addition of Breth­ren writers doesn’t really expand the cultural and religious diversity. In Re-Envisioning Service, they tell of speaking Pennsylvania Dutch, wearing plain clothes and other similarities with much of the former Mennonite Church. Some even share familial ties.

That undermines the book’s claim that it “offers wide-ranging accounts of Mennonite and Church of the Brethren women and men.” It’s yet another example of the belief prevalent in the former MC portion of the church that, intentionally or not, “Mennonite” is the same as “Mennonite Church.”

Subsequently, the stories and contributions of other Mennonite and related groups get left out. A glaring omission is mental health care, the widely recognized and much celebrated legacy of CPS. But its postwar leadership came from the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Brethren, not the Mennonite Church.

GC and MB members, coming from more culturally engaged and less isolated backgrounds, can offer different perspectives on the call to service. So can the Beachy Amish, on the other side of the spectrum, who were also affected by the CPS era.

The ACRS is already at work compiling another volume of memoirs, this time adding Quakers. It’s a worthwhile project. But before expanding beyond Anabaptism, the center needs to remember that it has yet to serve other Mennonites.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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