Ontario Mennonites and Christian Peacemaker Teams

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Ron Sider, 1970s. Photo from Mennonite Church USA Archives-Elkhart, HM4-299

In 1984 Ron Sider, an Ontario native who grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, gave a speech at the Mennonite World Conference sessions in Strasbourg, France. In it he called for a nonviolent peacekeeping force to move into areas of violent conflict. This developed into Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in 1986, with initial leadership from the binational Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, and Church of the Brethren. The Mennonite Brethren were part of the early discussions but then withdrew their sponsorship. Hedy Sawadsky of Vineland, Ontario, was on the founding steering committee. Gene Stoltzfus became the first staff person in 1988.

In the 1990s the organization took on the motto “Getting in the Way,” based partly on the New Testament meaning of “The Way” (the name followers of Jesus gave their movement in Acts 9:2) and partly on CPT’s clear confrontation of injustice. Other denominations and denominational peace groups later joined CPT.

Ontario participation in CPT has been extensive, and has involved both assimilated Mennonites and non-Mennonites. In 1989 CPT in Canada initiated protests of low-level military flights over Innu territory in Labrador. In 1995 a long presence in Israel and the West Bank began. In August 1997 MCC Ontario asked CPT to consider establishing a local team to respond to violence affecting aboriginal communities in Ontario. Since then CPT Ontario has organized numerous visits to First Nations communities and advocated for First Nations in many land claim controversies. The most widely publicized CPT mission, however, was in Iraq: in 1990 CPT sent its first delegation to Iraq.

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George Weber talking with Mexican soldiers. CPT photo

In January 2003, George Weber of Chesley, Ontario, was killed in an auto accident while on another delegation in Iraq. Then in 2005, four CPT members were kidnapped and held for several months near Baghdad, including James Loney of Toronto and Harmeet Singh Sooden of Montreal.

Christian Peacemaker Teams was not endorsed by theologically conservative Mennonite and Amish groups. They saw CPT as clear evidence that assimilated Mennonites had left traditional Mennonite peace positions. In the broader public, MCC and CPT’s involvements in Iraq, Israel, and Palestine were not always seen favorably. While some saw their work as courageous efforts to maintain dialogue with people most North Americans considered the enemy, others considered them naive or one-sided in their political views.

Some critics may have seen Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Peacemaker Teams as cut from the same cloth; in fact, however, they had an uneasy relationship, particularly as CPT more frequently chose sides in most conflicts while MCC was less inclined to advocate a political position. Nonetheless, many early CPT leaders and volunteers had their first international experiences working for MCC.

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CPT member, Stephani Sakanee, in a vigil at the Kenora courthouse. CPT photo

By 2007 CPT’s sponsoring bodies has expanded to include the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilians), Every Church a Peace Church, Friends United Meeting, On Earth Peace, and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. In 2017 Pierre Shantz, an Ontario native now living in Colombia, is on the CPT steering committee.

Ongoing CPT projects in Ontario have focused on First Nations justice issues in Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishnabek (Grassy Narrows), Kenora, and Haudenosaunee Territory (Brantford, Six Nations). These have not been continuing projects, but have involved periodic delegations to stand in solidarity with the local community. More information is available on the CPT website.

To learn more about Mennonites and social action, read In Search of Promised Lands.

 

 

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