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Part II: Orie O. Miller’s World-Wide Reach

May 31, 2016

Part II of Orie O Miller biography by John Sharp: Orie’s 5-year plans and how Mennonite work spread all over the world. Read Part I here.


When I was near the beginning of My Calling to Fulfill, I met a Ukrainian immigrant, Nadezhda, at my church’s clothes closet and told a bit of her story here. At bedtime that day, my reading included a section of Sharp’s book about Orie’s yearning to go to Russia at the end of World War I to explore how Mennonites and the church could help with disastrous post-war conditions there. Meeting Nadezhda and hearing her passion to also help those less fortunate was a reverse reach-out from Orie’s story—but, unfortunately, also a keen and grim reminder of how much suffering still goes on all across our world.

While I had long heard of “Orie Miller,” I had never read how he was first exposed to the world far beyond his and my common Indiana farmland heritage (plus his Akron, Pennsylvania connections). He was among the first nine Mennonite relief workers—along with hundreds from other religious groups—to go abroad in a program called “Near East Relief” in 1919, to Beirut. This was in response to the Ottoman Empire’s ethnic cleansing of Armenian and Christian citizens in Syria. Again I thought of the refugee crisis from Syria we have heard so much about—and especially prayed for—in these first six months of 2016.

So roughly one hundred years ago, (1915-1918), one million were left dead and a million more orphaned and destitute, according to Sharp’s biography. A U.S. ambassador urged Americans to act; funds were raised and thus began Near East Relief. Orie was not only part of that effort, once on the ground in Beirut he learned quickly from Red Cross Major James Nichol, chief of Syrian relief operations, about how to do relief work, especially how to “organize and delegate work.”

A frequent theme in Sharp’s biography is that Orie was more gifted in administration than doing mechanical work, or hands-on labor. But in that desperate setting, as he wrote home to his bride Elta, he was learning quickly how to assemble the trucks and cars that had been shipped over to help in the relief efforts.

The history of this period before World War II, that we may have read about hurriedly in our history books, is worthwhile reading just for a refresher course. Sharp not only sets the stage and scene, he includes details the history books often leave out—the valuable contributions of volunteers who help clean up and rebuild after wars.


Orie O. Miller, with his trademark business necktie
under his Mennonite plaincoat suit. MCUSA archives.

Orie accomplished so much in one lifetime because he was constantly thinking in five or ten- year plans. He would ask his children, grandchildren, and colleagues about their five or ten-year plans (and I’m sure there were times the children eye-rolled behind his back). And if an overseas mission administrator was overly excited to show Orie around and let him know what was going on, and would brag about having recently installed a generator, (where there was no electricity) Orie would help them think better by saying, “Well, you know, Mennonites always manage to get generators installed. I want to know what’s your five-year plan?”

Sharp does not gloss over the fact that with a man who made dozens of ocean voyages taking weeks and months for the crossings alone and, according to, Robert Kreider, “saw more of the world than Marco Polo,” there was no way he could be home for every ball game or recital by his children. (Ha, as if!) He kept promising to “be a better father” and spend more time at home. But the call of the church—and his God—was strong in his veins—or was it more exciting and challenging to sojourn in so many countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America over 60 years of active ministry? Still, he was living the way most men in those times lived—focused on career and calling,  leaving wife and children to cope the best they could with his frequent absences.

My colleague Steve Carpenter summarized many of the highlights of Orie’s accomplishments in an article in The Mennonite comparing and contrasting Babe Ruth and Orie Miller, who were born with in a couple years of each other. This list (I shortened and adapted slightly) focusing on Orie’s early life doesn’t begin to cover everything, but it’s a great introduction. For more you really need to read the book, or peruse John Sharp’s blog with a complete chronology.

  • At the age of 18 he taught for two years at a country school while taking classes part-time at Goshen College.
  • Between 1912 and 1915, he was enrolled full-time at Goshen College. By 1913, he was the principal and an instructor at Goshen’s School of Business while also serving as a licensed minister at Barker Street Mission in Michigan.
  • Upon graduation in 1915, Miller married Elta Wolf and moved to her hometown of Akron, Pa., where he became involved in his in-laws’ shoe business, beginning on the bottom as a shoe salesman. However,within two years he was helping direct the Miller-Hess Shoe Company, although Sharp frequently mentions the questions that his colleagues and father-in-law had about Miller’s frequent and extended absences from the business.
  • Two years later, in 1919, at the conclusion of World War I, Miller did relief work in Beirut, Lebanon. The following year, he pioneered Mennonite relief work in Russia. Soon thereafter, he helped establish Mennonite Central Committee. His association with MCC lasted more than four decades, and he served as its executive secretary from 1935 to 1958.
  • He simultaneously held positions on the executive committees of two of the Mennonite Church’s mission agencies currently known as Eastern Mennonite Missions and Mennonite Mission Network, Goshen College, Mennonite World Conference and numerous other church organizations.HallOfNationsCorrect

Dedication service of Hall of Nations at EMU, April 2016.

He truly deserves the many accolades he received in his lifetime and after—most recently a “Hall of Nations” was named in his honor at Eastern Mennonite University, where he never even went to school, (which I wrote about over on the Mennobytes blog). I had heard about much of his agency leadership but through this book I learned much about my distant cousin’s passion for mission. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that the breadth and reach of the Mennonite churches throughout the world owes much to Orie Miller—and God of course!

God’s providence should not be overlooked or understated. Orie would have been the first—absolutely the first, to want all the kudos to go to God.

But there was one fact that astounded me most of all, which I’ll share in a final wrap up on Orie coming up.

Part III – Biggest surprises in Orie Miller biography

To purchase the biography, click here.


What is in your five-year plan? Or perhaps you like to think in three-or ten years plans?

No matter what age you are, it’s great to have some goals and plans to keep you motivated, growing, and moving on! I’d love to hear your latest and perhaps inspire others. 


From → Faith, Writing Life

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