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A history rich in giving, caring

Book marks 50th anniversary of MCC

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More than three decades after she spent a summer microfilming the early records of Winnipeg relief and development agency Mennonite Central Committee, the stories that first intrigued Winnipegger Esther Epp-Tiessen about its origins are now available in a more accessible format.

Epp-Tiessen's book, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada, will be officially launched at a history conference at the University of Winnipeg on Friday, Dec. 13, at 7:30 p.m. That's 50 years to the day the Canadian arm of the organization was founded in Winnipeg.

"I wrote it for supporters and potential supporters," she explains of the 328-page book, which details the beginnings and development of the non-profit organization, known in Winnipeg and beyond simply by its initials.

"I know history isn't a particularly cool thing these days, but I'm hoping it will twig the interest of younger people."

The Altona-born Epp-Tiessen has a long personal and professional history with MCC, stretching back to her 1980 MA thesis on its origins and including 20 years of working for the organization in Canada and the Philippines.

After a decade of employment in MCC's Canadian head office, located on a river property in Fort Garry, Epp-Tiessen took a step back from the day-to-day operations to take the long view of an organization that describes itself as the relief, development and peace arm of Mennonite churches.

"It is an organization and it is an institution, but it is much more," she says in an attempt to define MCC.

"Some people call it a people's movement because of the way it involves people in terms of service, sponsoring refugees, hosting international guests, supporting thrift shops and relief sales and participating in advocacy campaigns."

About 14,000 Canadians volunteer each year in MCC's thrift shops, relief sales and other local initiatives. The national office employs about 50 people.

MCC is a complicated, multi-layered entity, with five autonomous provincial offices and a large network of independently run thrift shops. The organization had its beginning nearly a century ago in Akron, Pa., where the American branch still has its headquarters.

MCC's reputation in providing relief during natural disasters, such as the recent typhoon in the Philippines, has attracted donors from well beyond traditional supporters in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, says executive director Don Peters.

"I think (our donor base) is quite broad, specifically with disasters," says Peters, adding the work of MCC extends well beyond disasters to include justice, peace-building and community development.

Donations and other income in the 2012-13 fiscal year topped $52 million. In its first year, donations to MCC were a modest $150,000.

Over the last half-century, MCC has brought together many brands of Mennonites to work for a common cause, says Royden Loewen, chairman of Mennonite studies at the U of W.

"MCC is a big unifier of the very, very diverse Mennonite community," says Loewen from Cambridge, England, where he is researching a book.

"But it also is a polarizer, because MCC is considered more progressive (than some conservative groups)."

Epp-Tiessen acknowledges the challenges of serving a diverse constituency in her book and doesn't shy away from addressing personality conflicts and institutional growing pains.

"The mythology is that MCC can do no wrong, I think," says the author, who has previously written a history of the town of Altona.

The two-day conference at the U of W is not affiliated with MCC but is sponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, which commissioned Epp-Tiessen to write the book.

"It is a critical analysis of this organization," says Loewen of the two-day free conference, which is open to the public.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 D15

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