This week MCC Canada is celebrating its 50th birthday. The wider MCC system is nearly 100 years old, but MCC Canada itself is marking a half century this year.
I spent the past two years writing a history of MCC in Canada in anticipation of this 50th anniversary. I poked around in archives, reading letters, minutes and reports, I scanned numerous periodicals, and I interviewed dozens of people. I was trying to unearth the story – no, the many stories – that constitute MCC Canada’s history. It was an enormous challenge and also a great privilege.
History is not very “cool” these days. And yet, I believe that knowing something about our history – as individuals and families, churches and institutions – is very important. Here are four reasons why I believe people associated with MCC Canada need to know its history:
- So that we know our roots and understand how they have shaped an identity. We as individuals are all a product of our history. We have been formed by the people, the places, and the contexts into which we were born. I am who I am, in large measure, because of circumstances, influences, and choices which preceded me. The same is true for an institution like MCC. We know MCC as we know its history.
- So that we remember those who have gone before us. MCC Canada would not be what it is today, if thousands of people had not given sacrificially of their money, time, wisdom and imagination to make the organization what it is today — if they had not transformed a committee into a movement. We do well to remember the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds the work of MCC in Canada.
- So that we can say thank-you to those who have given us brilliant ideas and pioneered innovative responses to need. Those who articulated a vision for restorative justice and provided practical ways of expressing it. Those who dreamed up the Canadian Foodgrains Bank as a way of offering an emergency response to hunger. The men who negotiated a refugee sponsorship agreement. The women who gave us thrift shops and Ten Thousand Villages (formerly, Selfhelp Crafts). The Ontarians who created the iconic peace button: “to remember is to work for peace.” Thank-you!
So that we are kept humble and learn from our mistakes. When we face the past with honesty, we hopefully recognize the situations where we have failed, where we have lacked courage, and where our work has been tainted with attitudes and practices that do not reflect the reign of God. If we do not know the past, we cannot learn from it.
Knowing our history does not mean living in the past. Nor does it mean that we resist change – far from it. It does mean that as we face the future, we can move forward with intentionality. We can let go of certain things, because they are not essential to who we are. We can embrace other things because they are core to our identity. We can adapt in ways that have integrity. As we learn our history, we can make deliberate choices about the future, rather than drift according to whatever wind is blowing.
Mi’kmaq theologian Terry LeBlanc tells the story about a young boy walking into a deep unknown forest with his grandfather. The young boy was terrified of becoming lost. As they walked forward, the grandfather looked back regularly. When the anxious boy asked what he was doing, the grandfather replied, “We look back so that we know from where we have come. We look back so that we do not get lost.”
By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office. Her history of MCC in Canada, written under the auspices of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, will be published by CMU Press in November.