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.


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.

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.

Itinerant preaching

Author: Johannes Dyck

Johannes Fast, a Mennonite Brethren itinerant preacher, was one of te key people in helping to re-establish congregations in new places with new people after World War II. He was born in 1886, in Mariental in the colony Alt-Samara in Russia, and died in 1981 in Dshetysai, Kazakhstan. The preacher-to-be was born into a large family. His parents, both former widowers, created a blended family of thirteen children from their previous marriages. Together they had more children in the next years and their number grew to twenty-two.


Vocation and theological training

After finishing the village school, Johannes started an apprenticeship with his elder brother, a carpenter. In 1908 he started a three-year term with the non-military forestry service in Gross-Anadol in South Russia. Here, on May 4th 1908 he experienced a conversion and in 1910 he delivered his first sermon. Between 1911-1913 he studied at the Bible School St. Chrischona in Switzerland. After returning home he became a preacher at the Mennonite Brethren church in Alexandertal, conducted a choir, founded a youth association in 1920 and served as an itinerant preacher. In 1913, he married Agathe Driedger. She died in 1926. In 1927, he married Wilhelmine Enns. That marriage lasted till 1976.


Fast’s mission tested

In March 1931, Fast and his family were deported to the Far East where he spent the next decades, until 1954. A year later he moved to Temirtau in Kazakhstan from where he visited many believers scattered around Central Asia, Siberia, and the Ural, preaching, teaching, baptizing, ordaining, and founding churches. When the oppressions became stronger in 1958, the authorities started a campaign against him, but in the end they did not put the seventy year old preacher in prison.


Sermons: Fast’s way of seeing

From 1967, Fast lived in Dshetysay in South Kazakhstan. Here he joined a church that consisted mostly of Germans, where he continued his work in spite of progressive blindness. In 1970, he started to write down sermons for widows, which were in turn copied by their readers. The almost blind and aged preacher continued to write, and produced two books with sermons for every day as well as a volume of sermons for different occasions. His writings are the most comprehensive collection of sermons written by a Mennonite in USSR after World War II.


See more about Johannes Fast in the German Mennonite Encyclopedia Online ( 


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.


From ‘Armengutskasse‘  to Swiss Mennonite Mission (SMM)

Author: Pierre Zürcher

Mutual aid is important in current Mennonite congregations, as it was in the past. Whenever a Swiss Mennonite church was founded, an ‘Armengutkasse‘, a charity fund was set up to assist the poor and needy. This fund was sourced from the voluntary donations and legacies of individuals or childless couples. Although the bishop of the prince bishopric at that time had the legal right (the droit d’auboine) to take possession of these legacies, he often benevolently relinquished this right because he recognised that the Mennonites were taking good care of the poor in their midst. The archives of the Swiss Mennonite Conference have preserved numerous handwritten account books from 11 Mennonite churches; the oldest entry is dated 1715.


Mennonite and non-Mennonite recipients

 The churches’ charity funds supported people in a large part of the country, covering the entire Jura and extending into the Basel area as well as across the border into France. Individual cases of non-Mennonite recipients of this support are also recorded. Some entries from the account books in the Swiss Mennonite Conference archives give interesting insights. Deacon Christen Tschantz records in 1768 that he received for the ‘Armengut‘ from Bürki’s last will and testament 300 crowns. Another charity fund treasurer reports: ‘On 11th September I received 91 francs from Ueli Lehmann before his death, for the poor, in 1859‘. And finally, single elderly people were often able to live with Mennonite families in their old age. These families were paid room and board by the ‘Armengutskasse‘.


Swiss Mennonite Mission (SMM)

 The Anabaptist ‘Armengutkasse‘ indicates the importance of mutual aid in Swiss Mennonite congregations – long before governments introduced social welfare. It is therefore no surprise that sometimes people were suspected of joining Mennonite churches just because they were attracted by this kind of a social security system. After World War II, the Swiss Mennonites founded their own organisations for missions (SMEK) and aid (SMO); since 1998 these are united in the Swiss Mennonite Mission. In recent history aid projects have been organised repeatedly. For example, in 1974 a large shipment of 50 tonnes of powdered milk was sent to famine-struck Chad. Over the years projects of this kind have taken place a lot, often in cooperation with the aid organisation of the North American Mennonites, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).






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).