by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach
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.
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.