Author: Glick, Ike
Date published: May 14, 2012
During World War II, the historic peace churches in the U.S. negotiated alternate service options for conscientious objectors. In Canada, such opportunities are still offered via Mennonite Voluntary Service (VS) units in Lethbridge, Alta., Winnipeg, Montreal, and, most recently, Edmonton.
The VS unit in Edmonton was established last September as a result of two converging interests of Holyrood Mennonite Church. The congregation was searching for ways to enhance its community relevance at the same time as it was brainstorming possible uses of its parsonage. Since recent pastors have chosen to reside elsewhere, the most favoured option was to house a VS unit that would serve in a variety of city service agencies while also participating in the life of the congregation.
It's hardly a coincidence that Holyrood's six-member support committee for the VS household is comprised of VS alumni with positive memories of their own experiences. Wth the help of First Mennonite and the Lendrum Mennonite Brethren congregations, the five-bedroom home was fully equipped within six weeks, including furniture, kitchen utensils, towels, linens and comforters.
Our first two volunteers have come from Germany, sponsored by Eirene, a German agency. David Kubovsky serves at Ten Thousand Villages, while Simon Schneider works with residents in one of several L'Arche homes. Graduate student Chris Lougheed is part of the household this year while recruitment continues for three more agencies: the Mennonite Central Committee Thrift Store, the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and Habitat for Humanity.
A history of VS in Alberta
Voluntary Service in Alberta is not new. Between 1955 and about 1970, nearly 100 young volunteers from across North America embraced a variety of opportunities in mostly aboriginal communities. Some taught in existing schools, while one assisted several isolated communities to negotiate for schools with the Department of Education. Still others set up and managed a dormitory so children isolated along the Northern Alberta Railway line between Lac LaBiche and Fort McMurray could attend school at Anzac.
VS personnel became involved in a variety of other "presence" ministries. This involved nurses, a physician, bush pilots, boys and girls club organizers, youth leaders and gardeners. Initiatives in socio-economic development were also undertaken to provide local employment and marketing assistance for products derived from bush land resources, including aboriginal leather crafts, canoes, wild berries, fence posts, fish boxes and chicken crates.
That some also taught Sunday school resulted in a stern warning by a visiting priest in one community to "beware of the wolves that have come among you." This was during an era of considerable ferment and reform within the Roman Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The council convened by Pope John XXIII had profoundly positive impacts both within and beyond his church. It was amazing, yet truly gratifying, how quickly- without e-mail, Facebook or Twitter- the influence of the Pope became apparent in a softening of attitudes even in Alberta's northern hinterland.
We are told that light is a more efficient medium of communication than sound, that we remember more of what we see than of what we hear. No surprise, then, that the Light of the World communicated in the "vernacular" of our existence, so that we could see God's way of life in human form, in order to help us comprehend God's intentions about the quality of life for the human family. As a "presence" ministry, VS has been a means of communicating in the light mode, of giving bodily presence to non-physical values. In numerous settings of chronic disadvantage, through a variety of services, the good news of God's caring has been translated into visible actions that offer hope in these situations.
The advantages of VS
For the volunteer, an MVS household provides an experience in group living with the bonus of self-discovery, the former providing immediate stimulus for the latter!
The apprentice must learn that help is not necessarily helpful just because it is voluntary, because intentions are noble, or because doing things a certain way worked back home. Perhaps the most important discovery is that effective helping, like other forms of communication, involves exchange. VS provides opportunity for venturing and adventuring. Its legacy for volunteers has been its influence on lifestyle priorities, subsequent training and career choices.
The church has been described as an organization that exists for the benefit of non-members, but, like salt and leaven, it requires "presence." Most VS-ers affirm that the "benefits" flow both ways.
Ike Glick, a bush pilot for VS in the 1950s and '60s, and his wife Millie are on the Support Committee for the new VS venture at Holyrood Mennonite.
By Ike Glick
Special to Canadian Mennonite