Community life and public well-being

Author: Alle G. Hoekema

In the 1920s and 1930s the ‘Gemeentedagbeweging’ (Congregational Day Movement), a spiritual renewal movement, built several  retreat centers. These fellowship homes (‘Broederschapshuizen’) fulfill an important role, both for Mennonites and for society in general. They are a special part of the Mennonite identity. Recently, in the Elspeet home, ‘Mennorode’ a new, ecological chapel was built. Another form of fellowship can be found in the so-called ‘Inloophuizen’ i.e. Walk-in houses,  an open house where marginalized or homeless people and refugees without legal identity papers can find a peaceful retreat.

Orphanages, almshouses and schools

During the seventeenth century the Dutch Mennonites founded orphanages, built courtyard almshouses for poor widows, and practiced other forms of support for the destitute. The larger congregations became especially active in these fields. Since the Mennonite orphanages were mostly small, a lot of individual attention could be paid to the orphans. After WW II, the government took over these care institutions. In several cases, the original foundations still exist, helping with needs and activities of young people within society. Only one congregation, Haarlem, had two Mennonite primary schools, which at the beginning of the twentieth century were renowned for their modern teaching methods. They closed  in 1958.


Homes for the aged

Some congregations still have one or more almshouse courtyards. In addition, from the1930s onwards, modern homes for elderly people were built. All these homes are now dependent on government regulations and subsidies, which has led to an unfortunate loss of their former Mennonite identity.


‘Society for the Propagation of Public Well-Being’

Other fields of social care that Dutch Mennonites were active in were public education and the improvement of public health in poor parts of the big cities. The Society for the Propagation of Public Well-Being (‘Maatschappij tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen’) was founded in 1784 by Mennonites and other social activists. In line with the Enlightenment ideals, the aim of its local branches was education of the people and the spreading of good literature. The input of Mennonites is small nowadays. During the nineteenth century influential Mennonite individuals, especially in Amsterdam, were also involved in the foundation of public bathing houses and other facilities for the working class. When after  WW II the Netherlands became a welfare state, the influence of the church declined rapidly. However, it may well be that  the role of the churches, including Mennonites, in care in society will have to increase again in the future.

Peace in the city of Berlin

Authors: Martina Basso, Marius van Hoogstraten

For Mennonites, peace is at the heart of our theology. But peace can mean different things in different times and places. This is why, in 2009, the Vereinigung Deutscher Mennonitengemeinden (VDM) took time to think about what the peace witness means today. As a result, they wrote a ‘Declaration on Just Peace’. In addition to a theological part, this Declaration also described practical ‘proving grounds for peace and non-violence’. That is why they also founded Berlin Mennonite Peace Center.


A culture of Peace

The work we do at the Berlin Mennonite Peace Center builds on this Declaration and is intended to show what a ‘culture of peace’ could look like – what being a ‘Peace Church’ in a large and diverse city, and an important capital, could entail. In the Declaration, the VDM wrote that ‘The task of peace is not restricted to ending violence. It also seeks to establish structures that will contribute to a just and long-lasting peace’.


What does Peace mean concrete?

For us, it means we work on the following things: Building networks to prevent violence: we accompany a network of people and organizations in an inner-city neighborhood of Berlin. We also prevent violence through sports (karate for girls), and create spaces for people of different cultures and/or religions to meet and connect. We cooperate with the Brethren in Christ in Zimbabwe to learn together about conflict transformation and raise awareness about the difficult situation in Zimbabwe. We also make the witness for peace known in wider society and in other churches. We organize prayers for peace and continue to look for a ‘spirituality of peace’ that crosses confessional and religious borders. We support and advise Mennonite congregations and institutions in their peace work.


The social concern of the Mennonites

Author: Martin Podobri

Why are there so many different churches, when they believe in the same God? One of the reasons is, that some churches have a different view on the practice of religion.

Social care after World War II

One reason why the Mennonites in Austria exist is that they have a clear focus on social care. After WW II there was a large food crisis in Austria. Every Austrian only got food with 600 – 800 calories per day (today's healthy average is about 2000 calories per day), and in 1946 only 40% of the food was produced in Austria. Many social organizations brought food to Austria. One of these organizations was the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). And so the Mennonites came to Austria. In the following years the Mennonites founded churches and this was the beginning of the Mennonite conference.


Social care today

Gerda Gewessler, the coordinator of ‘Operation Christmas child’, received boxes with goods from the allied soldiers when she was a child. Now she is thankful that she is in the position to give a gift to poor children and bring Christmas alive for them. Still today the Mennonites in Austria are very active in social care. The church in Linz for example is one of the largest collecting points of this Operation, by Samaritans Purse. In the year 2012 they collected nearly 4000 boxes!


Members of the church in Wels started the association ‘Essen und Leben’ (Food and Life). They saw that there is a need for this in their town. It has grown very quickly and now they give out food to hundreds of poor people every week. The church is also involved in the ‘Christlichen Familienarbeit’ (Christian family work), a mission organization, which helps families in crisis. Especially women with children who need ‘a roof over their head’ can find a home there.


Many of the church members in Vienna are teachers. So they give private lessons in the church and in this way they help children, especially those with a foreign background. 


These and many more things are going on. The Austrian Mennonite conference is very small. There are only 400 members in 5 churches. But a lot of social care is taking place in the conference. And this is why it is good, that the Mennonites exist in Austria.


Public Charity

Author: Nataly Venger

Social projects run by the Mennonites were an example for all of Russian society on how to solve social problems in a civilized way. Providing unprecedented services for the rehabilitation of unprotected social groups, the Mennonites introduced new standards of life, that indicated the ethical maturity, humanity and economic status of their communities.


Serving the community

The Mennonites in Russia were an economically prosperous ethnic and religious group. According to Mennonite ethics, wealth was considered a responsibility. The money had to ‘act’ and be used for useful things. The concept of charity had a social content, related to the goal of serving the community. The financial means of the congregation were used in the running of the institutions that were called  ‘institutions of public charity’ in Russia.


Schools, hospitals and nursing homes

The activity of the institutions was related to the social rehabilitation of the community members who needed support from the congregation. Because of a high level of intermarriage in Mennonite society, a considerable number of people were suffering from mental illnesses. By 1914 a few establishments that were important for the community had been founded. They were: ‘The School for the Deaf and Mute’ in Tiege, the hospital ‘Bethania’ for mentally ill patients and a nursing home. The running of these institutions was financially supported by the richest people of the communities. Like ‘Bethania’, the ‘School for Deaf and Mute’ was 50% paid for by private donations.



The idea for the establishment of ‘Bethania’ was brought up by the Ekaterinoslav congregation, which consisted of the largest Mennonite dynasties of industrialists and public figures (the Thiessens, Toews, Fasts, Ezaus and Bergmans). A charitable foundation was set up to start the project. Donations were anonymous, and the hospital fund soon reached 262.000 rubles. For people in need treatment was free of charge.


Mennonites and (non) Mennonites

The hospital was located in Alt-Kronsweide (Chortytza). It opened in March 1911, and it had treated 53 patients by December 1912. Although most patients were Mennonites, members of other ethnic groups were also given access to treatment. ‘Bethania’ was run by a Council, led by the famous entrepreneurs J. Suderman and J. Lepp. The fund  reached 93.514 rubles and the budget reached 37.956 rubles in 1911–1913. A year's care for one patient cost 300 rubles. Fifteen patients got free treatment. Another medical building with a laundry, and a steam boiler was built in 1915.


Photo: John A. Lapp, C. Arnold Snyder eds.: Testing Faith and Tradition. A Global Mennonite History: Europe. (Good Books, PA, 2006).


Visiting the Hospital

Authors: Jean-Paul Herzog and
Mireille Peterschmitt, Sara Herzog 

Every week, Fabienne from Strasbourg and Odile from Sélestat enter and leave hospitals or clinics in their respective towns. They go there to meet and listen to patients, families and staff who are there. In these establishments where the people experience suffering and care, grief and joy, life and death, Fabienne and Odile are hospital visitors. Their ministry is an expression of a community involvement which wishes to reach those suffering isolation: either in a single visit or through long-term support. Their visits also introduce another Visitor, the Lord Jesus Christ who accompanies them in their daily ministry.


A matter of being present

In the French hospital establishments, our visitors are complementary to other hospital staff, desiring to take care of the human being as a whole. In our French secular society, hospital visitors have to prove that they have a legitimate reason for their presence in the situations where they are. Gone are the days when it was taken for granted that Christian visitors could circulate unhindered through the hospitals and clinics. As well as being  places where people from different social classes meet, hospitals and clinics today are the meeting places of people of different faiths and religions. Visits to patients vary considerably depending on their culture and religion. Finally hospitals and clinics are also the place where many questions are asked. Today tensions can be felt in the medical field due to human relationships, technical and economic reasons. Visitors have their part to play regarding ethical discussions and they can they can sometimes guide patients to those who can meet  their needs better, maybe outside the establishment. Our two visitors have more than enough work to fill their time.


For 23 years, working with the Alsace and Lorraine Protestant Churches’, chaplaincy service Compassion in Action sends, accompanies and supports salaried chaplains and several volunteer visitors. Mennonites in Strasbourg and in particular the Strasbourg Mennonite Church initiated our small charity. Neighbouring evangelical fellowships also participate. Our hearts are full of gratitude to God for his faithfulness and help, and this venture of faith and service continues today.

From individual to organized compassion

Author: Frédéric de Coninck

How can we explain why many people in favour of individual compassionate actions towards those in need have reserves immediately we initiate discussion concerning structures dealing with these problems?

Social Services

Author: Theo Hege

As part of  the Mennonite churches of France Mennonite social services were born from the massive social action of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in France which began during World War II.

Helping the disabled

In 1945-1946, its leaders urged Mennonite churches to be involved in service to the neighbour. This approach made it possible to continue the early work after the withdrawal of the MCC thanks to the creation of ‘l’Association Fraternelle Mennonite’ and ‘l’Association du Mont des Oiseaux’: the purchase of the Valdoie property to install a child institution in Valdoie, near Belfort in 1950 and, the following year, the acquisition of a second children's home at Mont des Oiseaux, near Wissembourg.  The Mont des Oiseaux turned into a home for the care of children and adults with psychological or mental disabilities.


Furthermore, the American Mennonite missionary action, relayed by the association ‘Mission Mennonite Française’,  began around 1953 in Châtenay-Malabry, and  founded a local  Mennonite church. At the same time, it welcomed a local initiative to care for mentally handicapped children. The joint growth of this diaconal service and evangelism didn't happen without difficulty. The association ‘Les Amis de l'Atelier’ was created in 1961 and then grew into a Foundation in 2011.


Support-center and foreign students

In 1966, the 'Mission Mennonite Française' initiated  the creation of  a work and accommodation support-center. Today, the association has changed its name and is called: ‘Association des Institutions du Domaine Emmanuel’ (AEDE). The whole of the institutions and services comes down to these figures: 91 institutions and services, 4.188 beneficiaries, 2.633 employees. Financing comes essentially  from public funds.

Also,  the ‘Mission Mennonite Française’ opened a residence for foreign students in 1976. It ran until 1998. In 1995, the Mennonite church of Montbéliard opened  a small emergency accommodation  facility with a capacity of 12 studios.  It is the  ‘Maison d’Acccueil de la Prairie’.


In 1977, at the purchase of the building to host the new Mennonite church in Strasbourg, a small residence with seven rooms  for students opened.  Today in 2014, it has expanded to 14 rooms and 9 studios.

Committed to the disabled

Author: André Hege
Translator: Christopher Mobbs 

Two Foundations in the Paris area, ‘Les Amis de l’Atelier’ and ‘Domaine Emmanuel’ are closely linked to French Mennonite history. These groups have helped or guided 4.000 people in 70 institutions and services.



This activity was initiated in 1950 through the friendship between Mennonites and a family with a disabled child.  Something had to be done about  the situation of the child, and in a small prefabricated building with neither water nor electricity a group of children started meeting. This insignificant initiative was developed into something more substantial through the creation of a first ‘Assistance through Work’ Centre in Chatenay-Malabry and then a second Centre with accommodation for disabled people in Hautefeuille, in the countryside East of Paris.


Little by little, with government funding, our development has progressed. We have become more professional, seeking to better understand the individual needs of each person and to personalise their care.  The accommodations are adapted to assure maximum community integration. Home support services have now been added for those who can, with the right care, continue to live at home.


Both Foundations have created Centres specifically built and run for older disabled people. The ‘Domaine Emmanuel’ has developed special facilities for those who are mentally disabled after a mental illness.


Brotherly love: Accepting different points of view

Some of our homes provide full time medical care for those who need more intensive care. The two Foundations now have facilities for those suffering from severe disabilities. Both, working with Medical Institutes, welcome disabled people and in particular autistic children. Through these services we spread a message of respect and consideration which we pass on to disabled people.


We want to show consideration and respect to everybody, helping them to become responsible for their own lives as much as possible. It is also our aim to integrate disabled people into a normal work situation whenever possible. Providing somewhere to live and work creates integration and reduces the feeling of isolation.


We believe that brotherly love is increasingly being affirmed and revealed through our willingness to accept different points of view. Our experience must always remain appropriate to today’s needs and must show both creativity and adaptability.


Our websites (in French)

Welcome to the church

Authors: Madeleine and Bernard Huck
Translator: Louise Nussbaumer 

I was encouraged by one of my friends to come to a Sunday worship in this Mennonite assembly. I am an African woman, I don't know many people and am living in a difficult family situation. My husband has no stable job and this makes him nervous sometimes. I have five children; the youngest is a very small girl. And my oldest sons are a cause of concern.


As a church, we quickly loved this woman and shared her burdens. We gave her a paid job, maintenance of the premises.  Her home life  is hard ; her husband is violent;  Sometimes she escapes her home and spends the night on the church floor. ‘At least, I have peace here’, she said later.

We took care of her youngest daughter when she was away on a trip to see her family.


She is a regular at Sunday worship and attends the women’s group. She drinks in the Word of God which acts in her heart and the grace of God transforms her little by little.

Her family life is better now, after the police intervened, and her husband has now calmed down once for all.


She has won hearts in the church. When someone is ill, she is worried; she chooses the verses which go straight to the heart of people. She calls up to ask for news.

Our church has nominated her for the post of deacon and she accomplishes her role perfectly.  She says that I am her ‘bosom sister’ and it is indeed what she is to me.

An acquaintance of mine who knows her well enough confided to me that one Sunday, as the Holy Communion was being distributed, this sister approached to give her the bread and the wine. She was deeply moved.  To God alone the Glory !


This testimony might suggest that to welcome, to integrate, to support and to induce growth throughout the years requires great art. In fact, it is very simple. You must have a heart full of compassion. Compassion is not pity, but love. Something natural, which runs smoothly, which doesn’t ask questions. But above all, there is the power of God, the  ‘Fixer of the breach’, the One who raises and gathers. The Father who makes sure his children, albeit different from one another, are able to welcome one another, understand one another  and love  one another.

The Prairie Welcome Centre

Author: Daniel Widmer

The Montbéliard district includes Sochaux, where the original French Automobile manufacturer Peugeot is situated. Forty years ago it had a staff of 40.000 but now that's only 11.000. Unemployment in this area is high and many people find themselves in difficult circumstances.


To help out, the Montbéliard Mennonite church, especially under the leadership of Etienne Klopfenstein, took the local people in difficulties to their hearts. Initially volunteers spent the night with the homeless in a State Social Centre or helped the Salvation Army to offer hot lunches.


Creating a Centre

The church members quickly realised this was insufficient, and a new idea started to circulate; create our own Centre to accommodate some of these homeless, mainly unemployed people. An abandoned dairy was purchased in 1994 and completely restored by both building firms and volunteering church members. This Centre, situated near ‘la Praire’ (the Mennonite Church in  Montbéliard), is named after  the neighbourhood where it is situated. The Centre was opened in 1996, offering 26 residents temporary accommodation in studios for one or two people. The management committee was chaired by Etienne Klopfenstein until his death in 2012. One salaried staff member provides a permanent presence, and another, working with the social services, helps the residents find appropriate accommodation normally in around 6 months.



Each weekday from 2 – 5 p.m. in the Centre’s large meeting room, volunteers bring cakes and coffee and provide a friendly atmosphere in which residents can relax and share their problems.  Lionel, a past resident, but now a member of the Mennonite Church in Montbéliard shared this testimony with the members before his baptism in 2013:


I left home at the age of 18, as I wanted to live my own life. I found a job and at the beginning everything seemed fine. Unfortunately due to bad company, I became a drug addict, lost my job and found myself unemployed on the street for three years. [... ] Two people from the Centre befriended me and gave me a gospel [...]. One of the centre’s weekly visitors read the Bible with me and taught me about God. I then realized that there was a solution to my aimless life. God loves me as I am: this is revolutionising my life.


Goals and concrete examples

Author: Sylvia Shirk

The Relief Fund, founded in 1977, is the helping arm of the French Mennonites, reaching out to persons whose situation of temporary or more long-term distress has come to our attention.



The year 2013 was marked by a new action for Syria. In an email in September, the  MCC representative for Lebanon, thanks the French and Swiss Mennonites for their ‘marvelous and continued support, and for your prayers for the Syrian people. The kits were received and distributed by a wide variety of churches  serving displaced people forced to leave their homes...’.

Since the beginning of the conflict, more than 3.500 hygiene kits, 200 blankets and a sum of €15.000 were shipped in two containers as far as Jordan and to Syria.  In 2013, the Swiss Mennonites joined in to fill the container with buckets.  These donations come from individual gifts.  The cost of shipping the containers (about €8.500) was covered by offerings taken at the concerts of a group of young artists from one of the churches. One congregation in the North of the Alsace handled the sorting, preparation and the shipping of the French contributions.



Since its beginnings the Relief Fund has promoted a Christmas project to benefit a need that is more chronic but no less critical. This year a school project to benefit Hazara women and children of Afghanistan caught our attention.  Founded ten years ago by people who came from one of our churches, ‘Le Pelican’  created its first day center in Kabul for Hazara children in 2003.  The project grew quickly and was extended to include another hundred women and girls (literacy and sewing lessons), as well as professional training in bread making and in small restaurant business, and a class in sign language two years ago.  In 2007, the Relief Fund provided for the acquisition of equipment for the bakery.


Seven years later, the donations contributed to the creation of a centre in Bamiyan, using the same model as the one in Kabul. In November, Jacques, co-founder of ‘Le Pelican’ died. But Ariane is not giving up. Her testimony:


The Pelican’ had to position itself on this plateau where there is nothing but a poor population, without any resources:  no school, no business, no clinic, no electricity, no water ... they lack everything. So then it will be easy to help them!