Do we still believe in mutual aid?

Helping neighbors in times of need will never be outdated

May 27, 2019 by

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Mutual aid has been for Mennonites a pearl of great price. By banding together to help each other, Mennonites succeeded in crossing oceans and mountains to live on the frontier in Christian communities. Knowing they could depend on assistance in time of need was worth more than money in the bank.

A barn raising is the classic example of mutual aid. — MWR file photo

A barn raising is the classic example of mutual aid. — MWR file photo

Beginning in the 19th century, as frontier Mennonite communities matured and stabilized, informal congregation-based mutual-aid plans were organized into companies that served an entire community and later multiple communities.

The dramatic community barn raising gave way to assessments by which the entire community would bear a loss. The first such company was organized in Ontario in 1859, followed by Bluff­ton, Ohio, in 1866.

The model worked and spread across the church. In 1957 How­ard Raid, with a newly minted doctorate in economics and soon to become a professor at Bluffton College, devoted a summer to locate and get acquainted with these scattered mutual aid plans. In a trip covering 9,000 miles, some on dirt and gravel roads, he located and visited with 39 organizations from Pennsylvania to British Columbia.

Each of these plans was different, but all were motivated by a verse of Scripture, often displayed in a wall hanging: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). When needs arose, church leaders saw mutual aid as an acceptable alternative to insurance. Insurance was still regarded as worldly, part of an “unequal yoke” (1 Cor. 6:14).

New risks and needs

This is beautifully illustrated by a group of men who gathered in a barbershop in Goodville, Pa., in 1926 to find an answer to the risk brought on by the automobile. The discussion was not going anywhere until one suggested, “Why don’t we organize a company to serve this need like the mutual aid plan we have for fire and storm?”

Thus it was that Goodville Mutual Casualty Co. was organized 93 years ago.

Another illustration grows out of a meeting that Orie O. Miller, then executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee, called in 1943. The purpose was to devise a plan to assist more than 5,000 conscientious objectors who would be discharged when the war was over. Although men discharged from the military would have a package of benefits awaiting them, these men would return from alternative service with little more than the clothes they were wearing. To address this need, the leaders agreed to create a new organization, which soon became known as Mennonite Mutual Aid, now named Everence.

Essential companion

Peeling back the layers of mutual aid and its role in the Mennonite church reveals a neglected story. Over the centuries, mutual aid has been an essential companion of the church, the broad outlines of which are summarized in this timeline:

— 17th century: Mutual aid is minted in Switzerland as Mennonites struggle to survive persecution.

— 18th and 19th centuries: Mennonite pioneers in the United States and Canada form mutual-aid-practicing communities. They have little, but they have each other. As they move west, mutual aid is part of their survival kit.

— 20th century: Mennonites in Russia and Ukraine survive years of trial by standing with and helping each other before immigrating to Canada, the United States and Germany.

— 1920: MCC is organized to help Mennonites in Ukraine suffering due to the Russian Revolution.

— 1926: Lancaster Mennonites, concerned about liability due to the automobile, form Goodville Mutual Casualty Co.

— 1943: Mennonite Mutual Aid is created to provide low-interest loans for men returning from Civilian Public Service. A series of mutual-aid initiatives make MMA a household name.

— 1952: Goodville Mutual expands beyond Pennsylvania, extending its charter to serve Mennonites in Virginia.

— 1954: The Association of Mutual Aid Societies is organized. It serves as the mutual-aid rallying point for 50 years.

— 1957: Mennonite Indemnity Inc. is organized to reinsure 25 mutual-aid companies insuring properties against fire and windstorm.

— 1966: MMA is organized as a nonprofit fraternal benefit society.

— 1969: Mutual Aid Sharing Program, formerly Mennonite Major Medical Pool, is organized in close association with MII to provide Mennonite mission organizations with major medical reinsurance.

— 1993: Resource Partners is organized in close association with Mennonite Indemnity to provide insurance products for peace-church institutions.

— 1994: MMA Praxis Mutual Funds is introduced, with ethical investment guidelines.

— 1996: Three Pennsylvania mutual aid companies merge with Goodville to write multi-peril policies.

— 2001: Ten Midwest based mutual aid companies join Mennonite Indemnity to create MutualAid eXchange, or MAX, headquartered in Overland Park, Kan.

— 2009: Mennonite Financial Federal Credit Union, formerly headquartered in Scottdale, Pa., joins MMA as its banking associate.

— 2010: MMA and Mennonite Financial Federal Credit Union adopt a new name, Everence.

— 2013: German Mutual, an Ohio-based mutual company, affiliates with Goodville Mutual.

— 2017: Everence surpasses $3 billion in funds managed on behalf of members, including $1.2 billion in Praxis Mutual Funds. Additionally, Everence and its members have generated more than $1.2 billion in charitable impact since its founding in 1945.

Timeless principles

The Bible-based practice of sharing within community has survived changing times because it is based on timeless principles.

First, mutual aid comes from the heart of the Bible. Among many references, one stands out: When asked, “Which commandment is greatest?” Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart . . .” And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–40).

Second, our Creator has embedded compassion in the human spirit. Richard Leakey, an anthropologist, writes: “People help each other all the time, and they are motivated to [do so] not by repeated calculations of the ultimate benefit to themselves through returned favors but because they are psychologically motivated to do so.”

Mutual aid is not outdated,  nor will it ever be. The question is this: Do we as a people and as  a church still believe in mutual aid and practice it, whether in spontaneous and organized forms?

Can our mutual aid companies continue to practice the unique features that distinguish mutual aid from commercial insurance?

Do we have the creativity to invent ways of linking historic mutual aid principles to contemporary issues?

Finally, a penetrating question doubles back on each of us: Do we buy mutual aid services only when they are cheaper? If so, where is mutuality in that?

Do we as a church assign importance to building community? Do we help each other and our neighbors in times of need?

In addition to serving in administrative roles during a 34-year career with MCC, Edgar Stoesz was CEO of Mennonite Indemnity, 1957-1995; CEO and later chair of Goodville Mutual Casualty Co., 1962-1976; and MCC representative to the Association of Mennonite Aid Societies, 1960-1995.

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