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Why Are Mennonites So Well Known for Service? What I Saw at Mennonite World Conference

August 5, 2015

Last time I wrote a bit about why I wanted to go to Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, Pa. in July. While there, I loved the fact that at this MWC, as is the case at most Mennonite Church USA conventions for many years, those who would rather DO than just listen and talk are able to translate their beliefs into concrete service.


I also loved that the facility, the Farm Show Complex, has to be hosed down as it moves from farm and animal venue (they can house 5,000 large animals there) to people. I heard one conference-goer exclaim, “I wonder how much power washing it took to get it clean?”.

Richard Kauffman, an editor at Christian Century and long time resident of Pennsylvania who grew up going to the Farm Show Complex, wrote in a post on Facebook about the MWC’s search to find a suitable venue for the event. I asked his permission to share part of his backgrounder here, where he spoke of hearing friend Larry Miller, former executive head of Mennonite World Conference, reflect on how the decision was made to hold the event at the Farm Show Complex (also the annual site of the Pennsylvania Mennonite Relief Sale):


Larry Miller, left, with Rainer W. Burkart, a German Mennonite pastor.

“After having MWC a number of times in a row in Southern Hemisphere locales in a deliberate attempt to move the center of gravity toward where the church is growing and away from the European-North American orbit, it was decided to hold it again in North America. But then the question arose as to what kind of place.

[They didn’t choose] a big inner city convention center where people have to stay in expensive downtown hotels. Harrisburg was good because it is close to large communities of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ who can serve as hosts and help in all the logistical work. The Farm Show Complex, in comparison to many convention centers, seems much more modest yet spacious and is really seeming to accommodate our needs quite well.”—Larry Miller, as quoted by Richard Kauffman.



One of those needs or desires was to offer participants opportunities for action—both in half-day service assignments in the local area, but also right on the grounds. Here are the descriptions of the service projects that were planned. I wonder if other national or international denominational conferences offer this service dimension—certainly a part of their faith experience, but I do not have enough experience with other such meetings to know.

Mennonite Disaster Service set up a site to frame walls for two homes for people who’ve lost theirs. I loved seeing the inside of the disaster recovery trailer: the kind of organization many a homeowner would LOVE in their shop, garage or basement.


It looked and felt hot out there on the macadam of the Farm Show Complex, so pounding a few nails was not for the faint of heart (I spied one woman among the six or so workers when I did a quick walk by).


Mennonite Central Committee set up their amazing cannery on wheels.


Placards told the larger story, and I’m told that green beans and corn (what else, in July?) were processed in the facility that week, but I did not see it in action.


Later I learned this was the first time the cannery was used for veggie packing (3500 cans!). I was a little disappointed to learn though they used frozen beans purchased through a local grocery. (Well, okay, that would have been a lot of ripened green beans to find, pick, and get to Harrisburg!)

SewingMachinesEditedFinally, for those wanting a sit down job inside, there was a massive comforter making effort, and even quilting (see last two photos). Here is a photo essay of sorts, including instructions to the crew who set up the machines loaned from the Hinkletown Sewing Machine Shop, SetUpInstructionsSewingMachines    and helpful steps in daily organization of 80 volunteers! Instructions CuttingOutPieces CuttingOutPieces2LayersBatting

ComforterKnots   HinkletownSewingMachinesQuilting LogCabinQuilt

Monthly sewings, on a much smaller scale. produce much more than conversation and camaraderie in many Mennonite, Brethren and Conservative churches throughout the U.S. and Canada.

All of this, in retrospect has one huge theme running through it and its not just service, relief, love, or Christian help. It is O.R.G.A.N.I.Z.A.T.I.O.N. and truly that is a key behind what makes this work. MCC and MDS are smart enough to know that too many volunteers can be as unhelpful as too few. For this week, instructions indicated that: “During each time slot, we will have space for 84 people to make comforters, 20 people to prepare corn for canning and 30 people to help build houses with MDS.”

When my parents visited the various countries and relief sites in 1967 after going to MWC in Amsterdam, they reported how Christian helping agencies were so much better organized and efficient in getting donated and purchased goods and foods distributed than the governmental agencies there. Dad was both fascinated and appalled to learn that so much of the seed or grain shipped at that time to help feed the hungry rotted in the warehouses or holds of ships because of lack of organization on the ground to get the materials to people who needed them. Dad was touched to see how after bags of seed were divvied out to recipients, on one distribution platform he watched as first one man gathered up what was left over, and then a second cleaned up what even the earlier scavenger had left. True story? I cannot vouch for it or prove it now, but Daddy told it to dozens of organizations and churches who invited him and my mother to come and share their learning in the year following their trip around the world.

That penchant for well organized service helps to make MDS and MCC so successful and consistently win praise from local people and media alike. Personally, one of the most frustrating and common aspects of doing a day of volunteer work in a new setting is the amount of time you spend doing nothing—people standing around until they have clear direction, instruction or specific work assigned for the day—and the tools to get it done. If I’d had more time there, I likely would have opted for cutting out squares or shapes for comforters—especially with the time-consuming organizational part all taken care of!


I loved seeing even men, who sounded like they were talking Spanish—tying comforters, and the finished piles of many blankets to warm and cheer folks around the world.*


I would be remiss not to mention that what I also saw at Mennonite World Conference were faces–some familiar:

My former Mennonite Media boss, film maker Burton Buller (left);


Former Mennonite Publishing House editor, J. Lorne Peachey, one of my first editors, passing out the nifty recycled registration bags:


MennoMedia’s former board chair, Melissa Miller (far left), a pastor near Winnipeg;


Some new sisters in the faith from Zimbabwe I spoke to briefly and got permission to show their outfits, white blazers and hats–traditionally worn for special church occasions like baptisms or celebrations;


Some European Mennonites–two German pastors, one Mennonite and one Lutheran (I’ll write about their workshop in a final post from MWC);


And too many old friends (some from high school) and former colleagues too numerous to mention.

Truly for many, these meetings are like family reunions–a family that now reaches around the world. As Larry Miller hinted at above,  about 81% of baptized believers in MWC member churches (including Brethren in Christ) are in Africa, Asia and Latin America; only about 19% are located in Europe and North America. The Mennonite/Anabaptist world has shifted.

Thanks be to God.

*Find many more MWC photos of people engaged in all of the service activities on the MWC Facebook page.


Which service activity would you choose? Comforter making, canning or building?


Any stories or shout outs about well-organized service activities? Any service disaster stories? (Be kind, don’t name names.)


My very first book was written about a year of voluntary service near Hazard, Kentucky, and published by my current employer, MennoMedia/Herald Press. You can still get used copies on Amazon!

On Troublesome Creek: A True Story About Christian Service in the Mountains of Kentucky

  1. Thanks, Melodie, for this intimate, behind-the-scenes, glimpse of MWC.

    I’d probably gravitate to the MDS building. I spent a week with them in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Would love to do more.

  2. Menno Simons’ 16th century “manifesto” which I have published on my blog permeated all of the service actions of my family members.

    One example only: Grandma Longenecker collected dozens of eggs from farmers for MCC pickup, her sewing machine needle bobbed up and down constantly making baby sacques, comforters, and blankets for the needy of the world. Her home decades ago became a haven for refugees and immigrants from around the world. Even now, someone who would otherwise be adrift without shelter is occupying Grandma’s gorgeous Victorian bedroom.

    How blessed we are to have been granted such a heritage.

    • What a wonderful addition and “witness” for this post, Marian. I totally agree about the blessing of this heritage.
      A follow up question–so this is your mother’s mother? And the Victorian bedroom is in your mother’s house that you show from time to time?

  3. Caro - Claire Wiles permalink

    This was so interesting to read and I intend to share it with a couple from our Baptist church here in Orillia Ontario Canada who several times a year head up teams to go to the USA to work on short term construction teams associated with the Mennonite committee..

    Some of our grandchildren and our son in law went on several of these teams over the year
    We also have a thrift store (celled Care and Share) back where we lived before our move that was also run by the Mennonites and I have several friends who have volunteered there and others who work on the quilts.

  4. Great to see a comment from you, Caro-Claire: one because it means you are feeling up to poking around online, and two, I love the examples you share. I do think the key to positive and effective volunteer experiences is good organization. Don’t you? We have people in our community on waiting lists to volunteer for the local Gift & Thrift Shop (similar to your Care and Share).

    Best wishes & thanks for being in touch and sharing.

    • Caro - Claire Wiles permalink

      Hi Melodie
      I shopped at Care and Share for years before we moved and over the years kept several of our grand kids in clothes from there too .
      They recently moved into a lovely new location and when I am down that way I still like to go in an poke around.
      Although I really don’t need much these days , I still manage to find something to come home with The most recent purchase , a great clock radio, just the right size for my night table and with GIANT digital time numbers that I can see easily if I wake up in the night!
      I did get backed up in my mail the past week or two and I am still playing catch up!

      • I know what you mean; I can walk to our Gift and Thrift on my lunch break and look around, and often find suitable picture frames for all the photos of my grandsons I’m suddenly enjoying! My daughter was home last weekend and wanted to go there to “feed her hobby” of collecting fabric remnants for various projects, and she found some, but my husband also found some things he thought he could put to good use!

        You sound like my mother wanting a clock with giant numbers. 🙂 Nice find!

      • Caro - Claire Wiles permalink

        It is always fun t come home with a little treasure from these stores that you know would cost a whole lot more if you had to go and buy them new ,
        One of the things I always like to look for are fancy little glass dishes (example candy dishes , relish etc.)
        Often there are some really beautiful old glass ware that I know would be very expensive to buy new
        We have may church bridal showers and although I always buy a nice new gift, I usually have my little box of glass treasures and I put one into the parcel as a little keepsake for the couple as well. Quite often they are very unusual and if I didn’t have enough of my own , I would be tempted to keep them myself! (the price is usually just a dollar or two!

  5. Caro - Claire Wiles permalink

    I was trying to find something on the internet to share about our Care and Share and found them on Facebook under Care and Share in case you want to have a look at it Hu
    gs Caro

  6. Athanasia permalink

    I have never been. I would want to work with the comforters, my husband with the building.

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