Eyes, ears – and a voice – in Washington

by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach

MCC’s Washington Office is turning 50 this month. This week Ottawa Notebook shares reflections on those 50 years. This story was originally published on June 26, 2018 by Mennonite World Review

In the Feb. 27, 1968, Gospel Herald, Mennonite leader Guy F. Hershberger reflected on why there should be a “Mennonite office” in Washington. He noted the “emergency” in May 1967, when Congress nearly passed legislation that would have placed conscientious objectors under the purview of the military.

“We discovered that many congressmen did not know us as well as we — and they — thought they did,” he wrote.

This incident, along with the work of Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam during the war, helped to persuade Mennonites that they should have “eyes and ears” in Washington. And so, 50 years ago this July, MCC’s Peace Section opened its Washington Office, led by Delton Franz.

Some Anabaptists were not sure MCC should have an office in Washington, preferring to remain “quiet in the land.” But in reality, Mennonite leaders had been meeting regularly with U.S. government officials on the issue of conscientious objection. From 1940 to 1967, Mennonite leaders testified 13 times before congressional committees on the issue.

“Our traditional willingness to testify when our own interests were involved,” observed the executive committee of MCC’s Peace Section in 1966, “has led to suggestions that we should also be willing to testify when the rights of others are involved. Constituent groups have expressed a growing concern that witness to the state should be a dimension of our service of Christian compassion.”

In its early years, the MCC office focused on the draft, military spending vs. human needs, global economic justice, domestic poverty, racial justice and religious liberty. While we still work on some of these topics, there have been shifts. The office’s current priorities reflect MCC’s domestic and international work, including immigration, mass incarceration, North Korea, Nigeria and the Syria crisis. In each of these areas, there is still a great need for “Christian compassion” in the political sphere.

When the office opened, many saw it as representing “the” Mennonite voice in Washington. Of course, Mennonites have never been of one mind on political issues. Mennonite agencies and individuals have increasingly advocated directly with the U.S. government on issues ranging from health care to education to peace and security.

Our office is no longer just a listening post but monitors and analyzes policies, facilitates meetings for MCC staff and constituents and encourages church members to be advocates themselves. As we carry out these activities, we listen to and learn from churches and partners in the U.S. and around the world.

In its earlier years, the office saw one of its main activities as sponsoring seminars for Mennonites in Washington. Some seminars drew more than 100 participants. Today, we have found there is not as much demand for MCC seminars, as many more conferences vie for people’s attention. So we partner with other Christian organizations to sponsor “Ecumenical Advocacy Days” each spring and meet with school and church groups who come to Washington.

mcc-washington-hur

Hyun Hur of ReconciliAsian, Samuel Resendez of Iglesia La Roca and Rhonda Dueck of North Fresno (Calif.) Mennonite Brethren Church speak with California Rep. Judy Chu’s aides, Krystal Ka’ai and Rricha Mathur, as part of an immigration delegation in February. — Danielle Gonzales/MCC

Have we changed?

One concern expressed when the office was opened was that Washington would change Mennonites more than Mennonites would change Washington. It is a valid concern. Our staff take regular retreat days to remind ourselves of our rootedness in Christ and the reason we do this work.

But there is also some hubris in assuming our voice is unique and should not change. In his Gospel Herald article, Hershberger argued Mennonites have a “more sound theological base” than other peace groups.

Anabaptists do have important contributions to make to the discussions in Washington. But these days, it is frequently our ecumenical and interfaith colleagues who push us to think about what peace looks like.

We also have much that we can continue to learn about advocacy by and with — not just on behalf of — people who are on the margins. These voices are within our churches and outside them. This past February, many of the church leaders who came to Washington to advocate for better immigration policies spoke from firsthand experience.

MCC’s connections to communities directly impacted by U.S. policies provide integrity to our advocacy. On a recent trip to Lebanon, one of MCC’s partners said, “We partner with you not only for your [financial] support, but for your advocacy.” In recent months, MCC staff who traveled to Syria and North Korea were able to share their experiences with congressional offices.

U.S. policymakers may not always follow our recommendations, but they know us better than they once did.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach is director for the MCC U.S. Washington Office.

“In Search of a Better World:” A revolution of empathy

“We cannot remain comfortably detached from the painful realities and urgent challenges [of our time] … There can be no meaningful change if we choose to look down at the arena of anguish from thirty thousand feet,” Payam Akhavan, In Search of a Better World: A human rights odyssey, 5-6.

Today’s world is facing a seemingly never-ending stream of conflicts and human-made humanitarian crises. It is exhausting and disheartening to even follow the news and the stories of suffering. On top of this, the punditry and competing narratives – often steeped in self-interest and cynicism – brings further the division and dehumanization of suffering. It is difficult to even imagine a way forward.

At high-level decision-making tables in Canada and around the world, policy makers and pundits debate potential solutions. There are no shortages of experts, theories and summits, but the suffering persists. Of course, there has been significant globally-led change and collaboration aimed at alleviating suffering, yet so many crises protract for years or even decades, while new crises continue to emerge.

Dr. Payam Akhavan

Dr. Payam Akhavan Aug. 29, 2016 in Toronto. Photo by Peter Bregg CM, from McGill University profile

McGill International Law Professor and human rights activist Payam Akhavan, the 2017 CBC Massey Lecturer, has spent much of his career in these high-level bodies, addressing human-made atrocities. He has served as legal counsel on numerous international courts, including the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and in The Hague for the International Court of Justice.

Yet, Akhavan argues there is a significant element missing from many of these high-level conversations: addressing such crises from the foundation of our common humanity, coupled with a deep and personal knowledge of human suffering – moving forward with a revolution of empathy.

A resolution cannot fit in a neat policy package made “at thirty thousand feet,” comfortably detached from human suffering. The policy expertise is, of course, indispensable, but without a foundation of humanity and empathy, Akhavan envisions that even the most well-thought-out plans will fall short.

In his Massey lectures and accompanying book, In Search of a Better World: A human rights odyssey, Akhavan brings readers on a journey through his own suffering – fleeing persecution in Iran– to his career, encountering the aftermaths of atrocities. Through the lens of common humanity, he examines human rights laws, mechanisms for pursuing justice, and the Will to Intervene – for the long-run.

In the world of human rights policy, it is easy to be engulfed with analysis and punditry at the expense of humanization. There is a temptation to divide players into simple categories – “allies” and “enemies” –succumbing to the inevitability of conflict, all while making grand proclamations about the future.

Bringing perspectives and stories of common humanity to the table is not about warming the hearts of policy makers. Instead, Akhavan is calling for a significant shift in how policy ideas are conceived and developed, factoring in an understanding of suffering, with its complexities. It is about muddying the waters where policy options once seemed clear, and laying the foundation for the long road of change.

As I listened to Akhavan’s words I found myself nodding along, laughing, crying, feeling despair, but also a deep sense of solidarity and hope. I found it easy to make the connection with MCC and our work – first to embrace the Christian principle of recognizing that all human beings are made in the image of God. And second, in peacebuilding, engaging local partners, seeking just and genuine relationships.

Working in MCC Ottawa’s Advocacy Office, I regularly find myself engulfed in policy-speak and political commentary. Yet, it’s always been the human connections – visiting people face to face, hearing stories, seeing the image of God in everyone – that truly fuel my own passion and pursuit of justice and peace. An empathy-based approach is not about feeling warm and fuzzy inside. It is about seeking a common humanity, in all its complexities, and creating spaces to imagine the road to justice.

Violette Khoury

A perfect example from the ground: Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

“In a world of dizzying distractions and endless entertainment, where even suffering has been reduced to a spectacle, we must rediscover the profound power of the everyday, of heartfelt compassion, of the transcendent healing connections that transform our impoverished culture of indifference from the bottom up. The political pendulum swings intermittently from the superficial sentimentality of liberals to the populist rage of demagogues, and we imagine foolishly that we can trust those in power to bring about meaningful change. Such apathy is the best accomplice of evil in the world. We need to take more seriously the immense impact of our own empathy, of our own engagement – of our responsibility both to comfort those who suffer and to awaken those who suffer from too much comfort. Just as the oppressed must be made whole, so too must the complacent…The cure that a world groaning from emptiness needs most is a grassroots conspiracy of authenticity, implemented by transactions of selfless beauty,” Akhavan, In Search of a Better World, 333-334.

Moving together: Exploring our shared humanity

Today’s blog post is a re-post from MCC’s Latin America and Caribbean (LACA) blog, specifically a photo essay from MCC LACA’s Anna Vogt. In today’s political climate, it seems more important than ever to tell the stories of migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and people on the move in order to recognize and share our common humanity.

Moving Together

Come on a journey with us to explore our common humanity with migrants, their families, and helpers, across Latin America and the Caribbean. Throughout this photo essay, you will find links that lead back to our blog for more information about the stories and people, our neighbours, featured throughout.

Anna Vogt is the Regional Advocacy Support and Context Analyst for MCC LACA.

The scoop on the summit

by Charissa Zehr

This week Ottawa Notebook shares reflections on the recent U.S.-North Korea summit. MCC has three advocacy offices in North America working on different national and international campaigns. These offices are in Ottawa, Washington and at the United Nations in New York. Working for peace between the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea and the U.S. is one of the priorities of the Washington Office.

While much ink has already been spilled on the U.S.-North Korea summit of last week, it bears taking a closer look. First, let’s look at what is in the agreement between the U.S. and North Korea:

  1. A commitment to new relations between the U.S. and DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea) because the people of the two countries desire peace and prosperity;
  2. Joint efforts to build a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula;
  3. A commitment by DPRK to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and
  4. A pledge from both countries to recover POW/MIA remains from the Korean War and return those already identified.

The main objections are focused on what is not in the signed agreement. It lacks detail on how North Korea will denuclearize and prove they are not developing further weapons. The agreement gives no indication of initial steps or a mutually agreed-upon strategy.

The other objection is that President Trump “gave too much” without getting anything in return. This is largely a response to the president’s press conference statement that the U.S. will stop joint military exercises with South Korea. Many policymakers assumed this will also mean drawing down the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

peace-Park-at-DMZ

Photo was published by Third Way

But the summit is a positive step, moving us away from the brink of military confrontation. International negotiations require patience, time, and behind-the-scenes relationship-building. It was never reasonable to expect complete denuclearization in one meeting. This summit was the start of a long process.

While there aren’t many details in the signed document, this agreement allows for flexibility in subsequent negotiations, which is critical. It would be dangerous to set a narrow path to success without first building trust. Years of frozen relations cannot be thawed in three hours. At this point, the leaders are still learning to read each other and test if the other party is to be trusted.

From the beginning of their diplomatic engagement with South Korea and the U.S., the DPRK has been insisting on security assurances. North Korea has halted missile and nuclear testing, released American detainees, and destroyed its nuclear test site. President Trump’s decision to halt the U.S. military exercises is an appropriate reciprocal security guarantee, a trust-building gesture.

The decision to recover and return U.S. servicemember remains is a substantial commitment that is largely overlooked in the political analysis. Not only will this bring closure to thousands of families, it allows for U.S. and North Korean military engagement on a humanitarian issue. This helps lower tensions and provides a channel for communication between our two countries.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has long advocated for people-to-people engagement between the U.S. and DPRK with the hope that it would plant the seeds for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The engagement between our leaders has been a politically unorthodox, bumpy ride. We need to ensure that there is follow through on the commitments of the summit and that subsequent negotiations seek the peaceful disarmament of all parties involved. But we should welcome this critical step away from brinkmanship. It is only through face-to-face encounters that we begin to build bridges of empathy and understanding with our adversaries.

Charissa Zehr is the Legislative Associate for International Affairs for MCC’s Washington Office.

This post was originally published by Third Way on June 22, 2018.

 

Prayer for World Refugee Day

June 20 is designated by the United Nations as World Refugee Day — a day to commemorate the strength, courage and resilience of refugees around the world. MCC offers worship resources to mark World Refugee Day with listening, learning, prayer, and giving. The following intercessory prayer was written by Brian Dyck, MCC Canada Refugee and Migration Coordinator. May you be inspired to offer hospitality and hope to refugees. 

 

Refugee

Prayer of Intercession

Our loving and compassionate God, we know you grieve

where there is violence,
where there is oppression,
where there is hatred
in the world.

We know you stand with the refugees in our world today, just as you stood with our ancestors in the faith who were compelled to flee their homes,

like Moses,
like Ruth,
like Jeremiah,
like Paul,
and even like Jesus and his parents.

We pray for comfort for those who mourn. We hold before you

those who have lost their homes,
those who have lost their communities,
those who have lost their families.
We grieve with them and long to reach out to them
to bring your healing comfort.

We pray for peace, O God. We pray that those who bring war will change their ways and beat their swords into plowshares. We pray for meaningful reconciliation in broken communities where hate is sown in the soil of prejudice and watered by our indifference.

We pray for courage and wisdom as we look for ways to be your agents of comfort and peace in a world that needs your holy and healing touch. We pray this in the name of Jesus. AMEN

 

 

Bill C-262 and living into a new covenant

By Diane Meredith,  Co-Coordinator of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighbours Program.

It’s Wednesday night in early May at St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto.  I sit with reams of people in a nearby park, seeking solace from the busy streets and basking in the long-awaited warmth of spring. This day has been long in coming as ice storms are barely behind us. A talk on the Anishinaabek understanding of the sacredness of protecting the waters is about to begin inside the cathedral. I pull myself away and dash inside, surprised to find myself seated among a crowd of some 60 or so of us on this path of “reconciliation.”

Nancy Rowe, Giidaakunadaad, a traditional knowledge keeper and Anishinaabekwe (Anishinaabe woman) of the Credit River, begins to share her wisdom about the traditional territory around Lake Ontario/Niigaani-gichigami. Before she begins, Rev. Evan Smith of Toronto Urban Native Ministries (TUNM), extends her hand and offers her a red pouch of tobacco, as is the tradition when greeting an elder or someone offering wisdom. Nancy reaches out and accepts the pouch of tobacco—and a covenant is sealed.

I can’t begin to capture the fullness of Nancy Rowe’s teachings rooted in decades of oral history spoken by elders across Turtle Island. But when she shares this knowledge, I feel a loosening of the grip of a deep skepticism on my heart about the “reconciliation road” the churches profess to travel with Indigenous Peoples.

tobaccoHer explanation of this seemingly simple custom of offering tobacco breaks open a window into a winding long road of the history of the Anishinaabek worldview, including creation stories, forms of spirituality, and governance. Even in its enormity, we begin to grasp that her story is but a glimpse into an expansive worldview so many of us know nothing about. It is however apparent that the meaning of this act—of extending one’s hand to another to offer sacred tobacco—is “covenant.” It is a commitment made between the partners to honour ways of governance and the protocols of living in right relations between and within nations.

The act of sharing tobacco to seal a covenant, often through pipe ceremonies or through the exchange of pouches of tobacco, is a long held ancient Indigenous tradition. It was an act that was extended by Indigenous peoples to the settlers in their first meetings. It seems as if these agreements were made with sincerity. Yet tragically history tells us they were as readily broken with a ferocious greed that explains where we are today.

When this tobacco (in Ojibway called “Semah,” one of the four sacred medicines) is extended and accepted, a spiritual covenant rooted in reciprocity (mutually agreeing to give up something to create something else) is activated, says Nancy. “I am here,” she says, “away from my grandchildren, because I believe this teaching with you is also very important…We are the only ones…humans, who don’t follow the original instructions from Creator as to why we are here… Everything in creation before us agreed to help us being here to fill our purpose… But are you willing to give back? Is there reciprocity?” she challenges.

Bill C262 posterOn May 29th MP Romeo Saganash’s Private Member’s Bill C-262 will be read for the third time in the House of Commons.  Soon after, it will be voted on. The Liberal Government states it will support the bill. This bill calls for the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). This declaration was drafted by Indigenous Peoples worldwide over a 30-year span.  Consisting of 46 articles, covering all aspects of life, UNDRIP is a universal international human rights instrument that outlines the minimum standards governments should provide to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples. Bill C-262 will ensure that the Government of Canada, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples in Canada, takes all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the rights as outlined in the UNDRIP.

Tabled in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation 94 Calls to Action called on the Government of Canada, civil society, and the churches to implement UNDRIP in at least twelve of its articles. In 2017 Anabaptist Leaders in response to the TRC Call to Action #48 said: “In our ongoing efforts to seek right relations with our Indigenous neighbours, MCC also commits itself to using the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a guide for right relations and reconciliation. We affirm the principles of self-determination, equality and respect embedded in this Declaration…”

Nancy Rowe’s teachings remind us of the sanctity of covenants based on reciprocity, and the importance of respecting the spirit that dwells within and between these agreements. The treaties, she explains, were a simple example of ancient systems of Indigenous governance and natural laws that were shared with newcomers. “What are you doing to support Indigenous-led healing initiatives of Creation and our society? Everything is about reciprocity and relationship. The enemy of life is greed,” says Nancy.

Like the warmth of summer after long winter storms, justice for Indigenous Peoples is too long in coming. As Ovide Mercredi, Cree leader and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has stated, “The days of the status quo or business, as usual, will not lead to reconciliation.”[1]

Indigenous hands are being extended once again to settlers – here and now. The passing of Bill C-262 into law will ensure the rights of Indigenous People are respected. Bill C-262 is an opportunity to live into a new covenant that will break the inertia and the broken promises of the past. When enacted into law, it will become a dwelling place for the spirit of right relations to thrive between the Creator, God’s creation, and one another.

Rebekah and Jane Sears during march

TRC event in Ottawa 2015 MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

With the passing of Bill C-262 many changes will come; and society, government and church will most surely have to accommodate them. The road to reconciliation demands such change. But I am fully confident that, in this act of reciprocity, all partners in this covenant relationship will benefit for generations to come.

 

 

[1] Kathleen Martens, APTN News “Ovide Mercredi report rips Ontario Law Society on handling of Keshen file,” March 24, 2018.

 

The power of apology

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced that his government would make a formal apology for Canada’s failure in 1939 to provide asylum to the 907 Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany on board the MS St. Louis; 254 of those Jews later died in the Holocaust.

ms st. louis

Refugees aboard the St. Louis as they arrive in Belgium, 1939 COURTESY AMERICAN JEWISH JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE

When the formal apology is issued later this year, it will be the 5th one Trudeau has made to a group of people since his government was elected in 2015.  The other collective apologies include:

  • May 18, 2016 to descendants of passengers of the Komagata Maru, a Japanese vessel carrying 376 Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu passengers who were denied entry into Canada in 1914;
  • November 24, 2017 to former residential school students in Newfoundland and Labrador (they were not included in the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement);
  • November 28, 2017 to LGBTQ Canadians, especially civil servants, and members of the military and security services, for “state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection.”
  • March 26, 2018 to current leaders of the Tsilhqot’in nation for the 1864 hanging of five Tsilhqot’in chiefs who were acting to defend their land.

According to Trudeau, he has made these apologies to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and to provide the possibility of healing for survivors, descendants and their communities.

Not surprisingly, Trudeau’s apologies have evoked much debate. Among the many questions and challenges posed are:  How can one generation apologize for the mistakes and failures made by a previous generation? Do these apologies (and the compensation associated with them) open the floodgate of demands for more apologies? Does too much apologizing cheapen the apology?  Aren’t apologies simply “shallow, empty, meaningless” acts?

It is important to grapple with these challenges and to avoid the pitfalls of bad apologies. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the power of apology.  If offered with integrity and sincerity — and based on profound listening, solid research, careful wording, and a commitment to make amends for the harmful behavior — an apology can be an important turning point in a longer journey of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

For people of Christian faith, apologies should be a no-brainer. After all, at the centre of Christian faith is a commitment to the One who calls us to repentance and new life; who forgives our sin and urges us to forgive the sins of others.  An apology can be a vital symbol of acknowledgement, confession and repentance. It can contribute to forgiveness and even reconciliation.

Churches and church institutions should always be ready to offer apologies for acts of moral failure, even if those actions happened many years ago. Yet as Jeremy Bergen points out in his book, Ecclesial Repentance, in 2000 years of church history, it is only in the last century—in particular, the past 25 years—that churches have issued apologies for their own actions.

Indeed, churches still often resist acknowledging and making apologies for past failures. Just recently, the Pope declined to issue an apology for the Catholic Church’s involvement in Indian residential schools here in Canada. His refusal prompted the House of Commons to ask him to reconsider. And as the Hon. Hunter Tootoo, MP for Nunavut, stated during debate: “An apology is not only the right thing to do but is the Christian thing to do.”

Mennonite Central Committee Canada –  the relief, development and peace agency of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches – has offered three formal apologies in its 55-year history.

500_anniversary_columbus

The first, in 1984, was offered to Japanese-Canadians for the ways in which Mennonites in British Columbia had benefited from the confiscation of land belonging to Japanese-Canadian citizens interned during the Second World War. The second was offered to Indigenous people in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. It acknowledged that Mennonites had denied the full humanity of Indigenous people, remained silent about the cruel treatment inflicted on them, and sanctioned the conquest of their land.

The third apology dates from 2014, when MCC Canada, together with several Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominational leaders, offered an expression of regret at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Edmonton. The leaders uttered remorse for the participation of their communities in attitudes and acts of assimilation, paternalism and racism.

With the first two apologies, MCC established a special scholarship fund, and an education and social enterprise fund, respectively, to demonstrate its commitment to help make things right.  With the third apology, the signatories simply emphasized a pledge to deepen relationships and to work for reconciliation.

Time and history will bear witness as to whether MCC’s apologies were authentic, meaningful and contributed to healing and reconciliation, or whether they were just empty words. They will do the same for the Prime Minister’s apologies. Perhaps a regular reminder of these apologies is a way of ensuring they do not simply disappear into the “dustbin of history.”

Ultimately, there is power in apology. Those who say “we are sorry” with heartfelt sincerity and appropriate actions validate those who have suffered deeply. They contribute to renewed relationships and to healing, peace and reconciliation. They demonstrate, not weakness, but strength.

May there be more such apologies.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.