by Linda Espenshade/MCC
One hundred years ago, Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) initial efforts to help people in dire need of food in southern Russia did not go as planned.
Clayton Kratz, Orie O. Miller and Arthur Slagel, the first representatives of MCC, travelled from the U.S. in the fall of 1920 to deliver food and clothing to people in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine). The three men were responding to Russian Mennonites’ pleas for help, which led to the creation of “a central committee” to co-ordinate responses from Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren.
After they established a base in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), Miller and Kratz travelled to Russia and planned a response with church leaders. While there, they witnessed the devastation and listened to the stories Mennonites told about repeated pillaging by armed groups that had left many families destitute and terrified.
“The people only have the clothes left that they carry on themselves and cannot buy others, have no soap to wash either these clothes or themselves, have no horses left with which to put out crops, and hardly enough food ahead for the winter. They are not at all sure that the worst is over” (Orie O. Miller, as quoted in Voices from MCC’s beginnings).
Once Miller returned to Constantinople, he sent Slagel and a $30,000 USD shipment of food and clothing on a Greek ship to Crimea, a peninsula that was the gateway to southern Russia. Kratz had stayed in Russia, and Miller had rented a warehouse in Crimea and had hired staff to transport the supplies.
But a few weeks after the ship sailed, Miller learned that Russia’s Red Army was in control of southern Russia and Crimea, and no relief supplies could enter safely.
Miller didn’t know where Kratz, Slagel or the shipment were. He had made promises and commitments to people in Russia, but now it seemed there was no way to reach them.
One hundred years later
In January 2020, people in the city of Beirut, Lebanon, were struggling. Massive political demonstrations in 2019 revealed the dissatisfaction of the Lebanese people with their government. Schools closed and the value of Lebanese currency dropped as inflation rose.
The COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse, causing shops to close, employment opportunities to dry up and health needs to increase. Syrian and Palestinian refugees and Lebanese people who already were living in poverty had even fewer resources than before.
And then, on Aug. 4, an improperly stored supply of ammonium nitrate exploded in the city’s port, causing death, injuries and devastation of property throughout the city. This included the Karantina neighbourhood, where many refugees, migrant workers and impoverished Lebanese people live.
“It looks like a war zone,” said Garry Mayhew, an MCC representative with his wife Kate Mayhew for Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, after surveying the damage the next day.
Just like 100 years before, MCC had to figure out how to respond to the needs of the people in crisis when the way forward wasn’t clear.
Lebanon wasn’t the only place where MCC needed to determine and adapt its response. In countries around the world where MCC works, COVID-19 increased the need for healthcare and food while MCC and partner organization staff needed to protect their own health.
At the same time, the pandemic affected MCC’s funding sources as donors’ finances were impacted, relief sales were cancelled, and thrift shops were temporarily closed. Once again, MCC’s leaders were wondering how they would continue supporting the people they had promised to help.
Back in 1920
Although Miller couldn’t get MCC’s supplies into Russia right away, he could help the refugees pouring into Constantinople, Mennonites among them.
Miller added MCC’s support to that of other organizations that were providing child care and transportation to refugees. He opened a home for Mennonite and Lutheran men, providing them with an English tutor and helping them to apply for visas to get to the U.S.
He was relieved when Slagel returned with the supplies. More volunteers from the U.S. arrived and Alvin J. Miller took over co-ordination of MCC’s work in Constantinople in early 1921. MCC continued to help refugees by establishing a hospital, a children’s shelter and a women’s home.
Kratz, however, had been abducted soon after he and Orie Miller parted on the first trip to southern Russia. He is believed to have been killed, but his body was never recovered.
Through persistently working with numerous government officials, MCC was able to get food into southern Russia by Christmas 1921 and continued shipments in 1922. At the peak of its response in March 1922, MCC was providing 25,000 daily food rations to Mennonites and others.
MCC sent tractors and seeds to help farmers get crops in the ground and the feedings continued until the first harvest of 1923. Contributors gave $2.45 million USD to support the Russian response.
“It came almost miraculously from far away America, from friends they had never seen or known, from someone who wished them well,” A. J. Miller is quoted as saying in the book Feeding the Hungry, by P. C. Hiebert and Orie O. Miller. “It was love reaching out its strong hands across the waters and the plains; across oceans and continents.”
MCC continues to share its supporters’ love despite the pandemic.
In Beirut, MCC and its partners have adapted their food distribution system by setting up appointments, using masks and physical distancing to protect the health of the recipients. Homes and small businesses will be rebuilt, and children are receiving support for their emotional and social health.
Around the world, MCC’s health programs have been strengthened through teaching COVID-19 prevention techniques, distributing hygiene and sanitation supplies and making clean water available.
Training for peacebuilding, healthcare and farming techniques have gone virtual, where possible, or take place individually or in outdoor group settings where people can spread apart.
Initial responses in Canada included providing comforters and some emergency food support for Indigenous communities, providing resources for faith communities and individuals about intimate partner abuse and advocating for the release of low-risk offenders from prisons where COVID-19 is likely to spread quickly. MCC also provided information about the pandemic to Low German communities in Canada and internationally through the Mennonitische Post.
MCC’s work continued with the support of its constituents who also adapted to COVID-19 by turning relief sales into virtual auctions, creating new fundraisers for families and increasing individual donations.
COVID-19 is making MCC’s work more challenging, as is true for many organizations, with budget and staff position cuts and suspension of new projects. In-person centennial celebrations were cancelled or have become virtual, like the national Celebration 2020, which was live-streamed on October 17.
“For a century, whenever unexpected challenges have arisen that might prevent good work from being done, MCC’s staff and partners have time and again found creative and effective solutions,” said Rick Cober Bauman, MCC Canada executive director. “And we have seen those same creative solutions, and that same resilience against challenges, as we and our partners adapt to providing relief amidst the coronavirus.”
Note: Most of the historical information used in this article came from John E. Sharp’s book My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story.