The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

The title of this post comes from ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” back in my younger years. For some reason I associate it with sports pundit Howard Cosell, but Google tells me it was Jim McKay who intoned this every week.

Today is a personal experience reflection about the New Hamburg Mennonite Relief Sale this year–the 51st annual sale held this past Friday evening and Saturday.

Relief-Sale-CoverMy wife, Sue Clemmer Steiner, and I decided we wanted to buy a wall hanging to complement some of the other quilted wall hangings we’ve purchased over the years. We set ourselves a budget and drove out to the sale on Friday night to look at the quilts, get our bidding card and reserve two seats not too far from the front so that we would have a good view of the bidding.

After walking through all the quilts on display, and seeing and talking with many folks we hadn’t seen in a while, we decided on three possibilities.

By far our first choice was a wall hanging pieced and hand quilted by two of Sue’s retired female minister friends. It had a fall theme and colors that would go well in our living room.

Plan B was a wall hanging with a fairly traditional pattern that was machine quilted, but was quite attractive.

There was another interesting wall hanging with striking colors, but it was earlier on the auction list than our first choice, so we decided we’d not bit on it.

After all this careful analysis we stopped for homemade ice cream at one of the food booths before heading home.

The first wall hanging that interested us was about 75th or so on the list, so we didn’t bother to arrive at the relief sale until about 9:30 Saturday morning. We found our seats and settled to watch and wait. The first quilts seemed to be going for lower prices than we remembered in some years, but then things warmed up.

Three spots before the “striking colors” wall hanging came up, a full-sized bed quilt made by women at the Floradale Mennonite Church went for $6250. That seemed to wake the bidders up. Our “striking colors” wall hanging shot past our budget limit quickly, so we congratulated ourselves on our wisdom.

Finally our wall hanging came up. I waved our bidding card when the bidding started at $100. I kept pace until we suddenly were sitting on our maximum bid. But the other bidder kept going to the next level. So we were the disappointed underbidder.

The only consolation was that after the auction’s “feature quilt” sold, twelve lots after the agony of our defeat, the whole crowd stopped to sing “Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow.”

Then we waited another 18 lots for our “Plan B.” Again I took our bid up to the budget limit, or maybe even one beyond, but again we were outbid.

Wall-HangingSo what to do. Sue went back to look through the items remaining for auction, and found a lap quilt that would help us remember the many cats that had shared our lives for 40 years.

After we had both eaten baked potato lunches carried in from a nearby food booth, we waited for item #168, “Cat Nap” by Dianne Robertson. Finally our lot came up, and our winning bid did not need to approach our budget limit. So we were thrilled.

Before heading home, we stopped and each had a fruit pie with ice cream to celebrate.

We got home in time to hear that the Toronto Blue Jays were winning their fifth straight game.

It was a good relief sale.

How does it compare with your relief sale experience?

Mennonite-Muslim Dialogue – a Review of Events

Assimilated Mennonite conversations with other faith groups increased considerably in the 1960s. These Mennonites began to send observers to events sponsored by the World Council of Churches and similar ecumenical organizations in 1961. A series of Believers Church conferences that included Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, and others began in the 1960s and accelerated during the 1970s and later.

After Vatican II (1962–65), conversations began between Mennonites and the Catholic Church. Mennonite graduate students began to study at Catholic institutions like Notre Dame University in Indiana and St. Michaels College in Toronto.

Intentional dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics began in the late 1990s; perhaps the best-known forum was Bridgefolk, “a movement of sacramentally-minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics,” established for shared conversation and worship at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and other locations. These meetings often included Ontario Mennonite participants.

In more years there have specific academic conversations with Lutherans.

Mennonite academics also began to hold dialogues with non-Christian faith groups. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) had worked in relief efforts in Muslim-majority countries for years. In the early 1990s MCC carried out relief work in Iran after devastating earthquakes in that country. MCC then began to initiate student exchanges with Iran.

The Shia (Shi’ah) seminary in Qom, Iran, the world’s largest, has about 50,000 students. The Imam Khomeini Institute, which is attached to the Qom seminary, offers graduate-level training in the humanities to a small number of people who are already imams, or Islamic clerics. The Institute also sought wider dialogue, particularly with Christian theologians.

Under a formal agreement, Mennonite Central Committee sent Christian scholars to Qom for two-year terms. The Khomeini Institute particularly stressed that it wanted scholars who were very strong in their Christian faith because their purpose was to explain Christianity to Iranian students. In exchange, the Imam Khomeini Institute sponsored two Iranian students to come to Canada and to earn doctorates at the Toronto School of Theology.


A. James Reimer. GAMEO photo

These exchanges led to a series of academic conversations between Mennonite and Shia Muslim academics beginning in 2002, initially at the Toronto School of Theology, with the deep involvement of Conrad Grebel College theologian, A. James Reimer. Quite remarkably this first dialogue took place when the events of 2001’s 9/11 attacks remained fresh in North American minds.

The first conference addressed “The Challenge of Modernity”; the second, held in 2006 in Qom, focused on “Revelation and Authority.” The papers for the first two conferences were published in the Fall 2003 and Winter 2006 issues of the Conrad Grebel Review.

The third dialogue in May 2007 took place at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, and attracted considerable media coverage. Macleans magazine raised an alarm in an article that portrayed naive Mennonites meeting with thugs, and protesters threatened to overwhelm the event.

Although all of the Muslim scholars attending the 2007 conference had doctorates from schools in North America or Britain, opponents tried to get Canadian authorities to deny them visas. According to Macleans, opponents contended that the Khomeini  Institute “[was] a training ground for the Islamic regime’s most repressive elements.”

Representatives of MCC and Conrad Grebel invited the protesters to a meeting on the evening of May 23 to express their concerns. Arli Klassen, then executive director of MCC (Ontario) recalled, “They felt that if we knew about the human rights abuses in Iran then we would automatically cancel the conference. They were shocked to discover that we do know about the abuses, and we were intending to carry on with having the dialogue.”


Riot Police at Mennonite-Muslim Dialogue. Photo by Jen Konkle, Conrad Grebel University College

Riot police from Toronto were brought in and attendees remember police stationed on the roof of the college’s academic building. The initial public meeting was canceled in the face of protesters shouting down the speakers. (See Canadian Mennonite coverage and an article by Jim Coggins in for more detailed commentary on the event.)

Ultimately police action was not required, and the formal conversations continued the following day as scheduled. The event at Conrad Grebel took place eight months after Mennonite Central Committee had facilitated another controversial meeting at the United Nations in New York between North American church leaders and then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The essays from the third dialogue were published in 2010 as On Spirituality: Essays from the Third Shii Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue.

Despite the 2007 controversy, further dialogues took place: the fourth in Qom, Iran, in 2009 and the fifth in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2011 without incident. The papers from these conferences were published as Peace and Justice: Essays from the Fourth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue  and On Being Human: Essays From The Fifth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian DialogueThe sixth dialogue took place in Qom, Iran in 2014. The seventh dialogue is scheduled for Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2017.

Inter-faith consultations are a preoccupation of highly assimilated Mennonites only. Other Mennonite groups regard them as having no value and possibly dangerous in compromising Mennonite understandings of faith.

To learn more about Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands.

The Pre-History of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario – Part III

In Part I and Part II of this topic, we reviewed  inter-Mennonite cooperative efforts in the years before Mennonite Central Committee Ontario was formed in the early 1960s. These included the Russian Aid Committee of the 1870s, cooperation in communicating with government during World War I, formation of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization, and cooperation in settling Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

In this last post of the series we’ll look at two projects related to World War II.

Conference of Historic Peace Churches

World War II was when Ontario inter-Mennonite cooperation really blossomed. In 1939 the  Non-Resistant Relief Organization (NRRO), which had been founded in 1917, was satisfied to stick with raising funds for relief, and hesitated to push discussions with the government about possibilities for alternative service in the event of war. The NRRO’s leadership was the same as it had been in World War I, and thus was well-respected, but quite elderly.

Jesse B. and Naomi Martin

Jesse B. and Naomi Martin, ca. 1950. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

This passive approach did not suit younger leaders who were still in their 30s and 40s. These included J. Harold Sherk of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, E. J. Swalm of the Brethren in Christ, and Jesse B. Martin of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. They established a new organization called the Conference of Historic Peace Churches, which included all the Anabaptist groups as well as the Quakers.

After significant struggles they successfully negotiated, in cooperation with Mennonites in western Canada, the establishment of  alternative service work camps that were not under military administration.

The first camp in Ontario was at Montreal River in northern Ontario. The alternative service camps brought lay members of the various Mennonite groups together in a shared experience, and introduced them to a wide variety of non-Mennonite groups who had an aversion to war. Later, many Ontario men served in British Columbia as fire fighters and groomers of ski trails.

Montreal River ASW Camp

J. Harold Sherk (light suit), Religious Director for the Montreal River camp, leading Sunday school. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.


Material Aid in World War II

Cora Cressman, Marguerite Rempel and Clara Nafzigerworking in material aid at First Mennonite Church. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Meanwhile, back in Ontario, the women were producing material aid to be sent as relief to England, and later to the European continent. This was initiated by sewing circles, but became part of the larger relief effort organized by the U.S.-based Mennonite Central Committee. This effort included women from various of the Mennonite groups.

Mennonite Central Committee’s Canadian Office

Orie Miller, the executive director for the U.S.-based organization that began in 1920, decided at the end of 1943 that Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) needed a bi-lingual (English and German) Canadian office to handle material goods intended for relief,  do publicity and handle donations, serve as a clearance center for Canadian volunteer applications,  and serve as a liaison with the Canadian government. Office space was rented from a controversial doctor, who was also a spiritualist who held séances next to the MCC offices.

Cornelius J. Rempel

Cornelius J. Rempel, first director of MCC’s Canadian office. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Cornelius and Marguerite Rempel (Marguerite was pictured on the picture above) became the couple in charge of the office. Rempel was a banker by profession, and well suited to the role. Support staff came from both Ontario and western Canada, and many of the young women who served in this role went on to overseas service after the war.

Alice Snyder and Harvey Taves

Alice Snyder and Harvey Taves, 1963. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

The Rempels resigned in 1950, and after a couple years of interim leadership, a new young leader for the office from Manitoba was identified. This was Harvey Taves, who brought a vision for voluntary service and an expanded peace witness to the role. He initiated VS programs in Newfoundland, and in a number of Ontario psychiatric facilities. He also initiated the Ailsa Craig Boy’s Farm in 1955.

Harvey Taves shepherded the transition from Kitchener being MCC’s Canadian office to the formation of MCC Ontario, and the construction of the original building at 50 Kent Avenue in Kitchener in late 1963. He died two years later at the early age of 39.

For more information on Mennonite Central Committee, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Read Part I

Read Part II