At the first North American event celebrating the centennial of Mennonite Central Committee, Tabor College unveiled a treasure from MCC’s history. A wooden case on the stage of the Shari Flaming Center for the Arts displayed a medal like the winner of a race might receive.
But this 98-year-old artifact signified something far more important—the gratitude of Ukrainian Mennonites who received food from MCC in 1922 when they were suffering from famine and war after the Russian Revolution.
Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor, told the story of the medallion — and of Hillsboro’s role in MCC’s founding — to about 500 people at MCC’s centennial launch event.
The medal was crafted of lead melted down from bullets that Mennonites dug from the walls of their homes and picked up from the streets of their Ukrainian village. Artist John P. Klassen melted the lead to create a token of appreciation to North American Mennonites whose new “central committee” had delivered the aid that saved them from starvation.
“He took what was evil and made something good and beautiful,” Goertzen said. “It was made of lead, not a precious metal, but it meant so much.”
In July 1922, people from the villages of Khortitsa and Rosental presented the medallion to P.C. Hiebert, a Mennonite Brethren minister and Tabor College professor who was one of the organizers of MCC.
Those who presented the medal apologized for its lack of material value, but to Hiebert “it was made of the most precious metal in the world,” Goertzen said.
Hiebert, who served 33 years as MCC’s first chairman, treasured the gift as a symbol of Christian love and gratitude.
The Center for MB Studies has owned the medallion for years but hasn’t displayed it. Now the case, made by Tabor craftsman Colby Hett, gives it a place of honor. He made the case from southern yellow pine from the Mary J. Regier building, originally the women’s dormitory, built in 1919-20 on the Tabor campus.
One side of the medallion depicts an aid worker giving food to children, with the inscription, “Chortitza-Rosental 1922.” The other features a steamship on the water, with the words, Dank den Brüdern enseits des Ozeans (We thank the brethren across the ocean) and Wir waren hungrig und ihr habt uns gespeiset (We were hungry and you gave us food), quoting from Matthew 25.
The story of the medallion will be featured in a second MCC centennial event. A children’s musical, Swords into Plowshares, will be performed July 25, 2020, at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana. The musical is based on a children’s book by Lisa Weaver, Swords into Plowshares: The Story of John P. Klassen’s Mennonite Central Committee Medallion, published in 2014 by The Lion and the Lamb Peace Arts Center at Bluffton (Ohio) University.
Klassen was the link between the medallion and Bluffton.
After years of terror and deprivation in Ukraine, the young artist’s life took a dramatic turn. He was among the Mennonite refugees who escaped the Soviet Union in 1923, immigrating to Canada with his wife and infant son. In 1924 he accepted an invitation to join the faculty at Bluffton College, where he taught for 34 years.
Kauffman Museum at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., has a similar medallion, given to Christian Krehbiel, a General Conference Mennonite relief worker with MCC in Ukraine in 1922-23.
In addition to the story of the medallion, Goertzen told of Hillsboro’s role in the events that led to MCC’s founding. On July 19-20, 1920, five men met at the home of P.C. Hiebert to discuss how to respond to the desperate need of Mennonites in Ukraine.
A delegation of four men from Ukraine had stopped in Newton, Kansas, a week earlier with a plea for help. They had escaped just before the Red Army swept across Ukraine. Their tour of Mennonite communities across the United States had produced no unified response from Mennonite denominations, who rarely cooperated on anything.
The five men who gathered on the porch at Hiebert’s house — on what is now the Tabor campus — represented four branches: Mennonite Brethren, Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church. All agreed the separate relief projects of their churches could not adequately respond to the unprecedented suffering.
“They called for a united effort,” Goertzen said. “They said we have to come together if we are going to help our Russian brethren.”
The five organized a more widely representative meeting on July 27 at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., where MCC was born. It was Hiebert who suggested the “Mennonite Central Committee” name.
“It was supposed to be just a temporary name,” Goertzen said. “But you know what? It worked.”
This far by faith
Michelle Armster, executive director of MCC Central States, said she would have loved to be “an ant on the porch” at Hiebert’s house during the historic meeting. Five men from Mennonite churches who disagreed on issues such as the mode of baptism— immersion or pouring?—decided that, regardless of such differences, they were going to work together.
She cited their breakthrough as an example of the event’s theme, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.”
“By faith the brothers in America came together, put aside their differences and agreed to live out the call of Jesus,” Armster said. “By faith, I believe God has a plan for MCC for the next 100 years.”
The U.S. national centennial celebration will be June 19-20, 2020, in Akron, Ephrata and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
This article by Paul Schrag was first published in the March 9, 2020, issue of Mennonite World Review and is reprinted with permission.
Paul Schrag is the editor of Mennonite World Review, an independent biweekly newspaper based in Newton, Kansas, that serves the global Anabaptist world.