River of Anabaptist story stirred by archival venue change

By Laurie Oswald Robinson

MCC representative Elfrieda Dyck just before the “General Stuart Heintzelman” lifts anchor in Bremerhaven, Feb. 25, 1948. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)

Mennonite Church USA—In the centuries-long flow of the Anabaptist story, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) staff members believe that the decision to transfer MCC’s archival collections from the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Goshen, Ind., to the MCC U.S. offices in Akron, Pa., is a short-term stirring of the waters for long-term benefit.

However, some Anabaptist historians and archivists are concerned that the relocation of a major portion of MCC’s historic records—all U.S. and international files dating before 1984—may unravel the holistic sense of the Anabaptist story, complicate researchers’ processes and compromise collection access. They’ve shared their concerns with Ron Byler, executive director of MCC U.S., and other MCC leaders.

Having weighed these concerns, MCC staff members maintain their conviction that the move will address imperative fiscal, logistical and relational issues. They plan to proceed with relocation of 1,200 linear feet of material from Goshen to Akron in late August.

Civilian Public Service camp 63, Marlboro, New Jersey: Conscientious objector serving drink at a state mental hospital (Marlboro State Hospital, New Jersey) during World War II. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)

“Working with the materials more directly will give MCC Records staff deeper familiarity with the materials so they can better help MCC use its history to serve its present and future needs,” Byler says. “And working more directly with researchers will give staff a better sense of who beyond MCC is studying our history and where our history is being cited.”

Byler also adds that MCC serves various Anabaptist groups in addition to Mennonite Church USA.

Other benefits of the archives transfer include cost savings and relationship-building, he says. MCC never turned over ownership of its records to the Mennonite Church USA Archives but rather housed them there for a linear-foot-based fee of $37,000 annually. According to Byler, the long-term savings will offset the short-term costs of relocation and remodeling needed for the new site.

Also, MCC’s New Wineskins revisioning and restructuring process created a new working relationship between MCC U.S. and MCC Canada Records staff. The relocation comes when new ways of working together are being established, he says.

PAX Volunteers around PAX Sign, Vienna, Austria, circa 1959: I-W workers serving in the PAX program through Mennonite Central Committee. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)

“A major future goal is to scan significant portions of our files and photographs so they can be easily accessed by MCC staff in every office and more readily made available to offsite researchers,” he said. “Having materials here will facilitate working at that project.”

Following the transfer, MCC will have its entire international and U.S. historical collection in one location: MCC U.S.’s former printing press room—soon to be installed with a fire-rated wall and door to ensure lockdown; a fire suppression system; an upgrade of the HVAC system; and archival shelving and lighting.

How best to care for the collection’s soul?

The careful storage of these collections is important, but not more so than preservation of the “soul” of the Anabaptist story, say various Anabaptist historians, archivists and researchers.

“Mennonites are a people whose identity is formed by story,” says John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen College and director of the Mennonite Historical Library at the college. “Our theology has been intimately connected with our history. So attentiveness to how we tell our story is profoundly important. How we preserve these records are not simply technical questions of keeping them dry and well organized. We also have a long tradition of gathering archival records in ways that enable historians to give the fullest possible account of our past.”

For example, the identity of the wider Mennonite church in the 20th century has been shaped significantly by MCC, he says. Through relief work, Civilian Public Service in World War II and the development of mental health institutions, MCC galvanized the wider Mennonite church’s involvements and helped it move from a more sectarian identity to engagement with the world.

Civilian Public Service camp 103, Missoula, Montana: Smoke jumper parachuting in Montana, 1943-1946 during World War II, to help put out a forest fire. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)

“By having all the collections located in one place, researchers could make connections easily between the work of MCC and the denomination and collections of individuals such as the late Orie O. Miller [an early MCC leader], which help to interpret MCC’s impact upon the wider church,” Roth says. “From my perspective, the decision to extract and isolate some MCC collections from the Mennonite Church USA Archives will make it more difficult for historians to tell a full-orbed, nuanced account of our collective story.”

Over her 18 years of researching Anabaptist peace history at the Archives in Goshen, M.J. Heisey, associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Potsdam, has appreciated both the guidance of archivists and the interplay among archivists, historians and educators she has found on the Goshen College campus.

“Archive collections are built, sometimes destroyed, and sometimes redesigned by successive generations,” she says. “This makes these collections fragile. Seemingly minor shifts make significant statements on the politics of the present. Having the MCC collection separated from other important and connected collections will affect a reading of the past and an understanding of the present.”

“Also, university students’ research can be a significant contribution to the vast untapped sources that Mennonites and Brethren in Christ have left behind,” she adds. “The housing of many of the most significant archives on college and university campuses is not by chance.”

Mennonite Central Committee Russian Famine 1920-1925: Registering abandoned children. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)

Colleen McFarland, Mennonite Church USA Goshen archivist, hopes the work of researchers such as Heisey will not be unduly restricted by differing access policies after the relocation, noting that 90–95 percent of the requests for access to MCC records have come from researchers not affiliated with MCC.

“MCC’s access policies are more restrictive than Mennonite Church USA’s and include screening researchers and requiring information about their final product,” she says. “As an archivist and professional working in a church-related sphere supported by donors, I believe that people have a right to know and that it is not in our place to decide whether their research is worthy.”

Desire for unity prevails

The Anabaptist story is full of examples of how dissimilar convictions caused forks in the river. But MCC U.S. and Mennonite Church USA leaders have faith that stirred waters will deepen the channel flowing with God’s greater story, albeit now from two locations.

“I don’t believe this move needs to affect the long-term relationship between us,” says Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA. “Mennonite Church USA is the largest supporter of MCC, and I expect that it will continue to be so. I am confident we will continue to find many areas of agreement and cooperation, such as our growing collaboration on immigration education.”

Byler agrees. “The New Wineskins process laid the foundation of a stronger relationship between MCC U.S. and Mennonite Church USA that better positions us to care for difficult issues,” he says. “Our difference regarding this relocation is testing that foundation. But I believe there is strong enough footing that can help us cross to the other side of this passage.”

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Images available:

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/MCC_Elrieda_Dyck_Heintzelman_Ship_0_0928.jpg
MCC representative Elfrieda Dyck just before the “General Stuart Heintzelman” lifts anchor in Bremerhaven, Feb. 25, 1948. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/MCC_Marlboro_672.jpg
Civilian Public Service camp 63, Marlboro, New Jersey: Conscientious objector serving drink at a state mental hospital (Marlboro State Hospital, New Jersey) during World War II. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/MCC_PAX%20in_front_of_PAX_sign_1959-60_1956.jpg
PAX Volunteers around PAX Sign, Vienna, Austria, circa 1959: I-W workers serving in the PAX program through Mennonite Central Committee. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/MCC_Jumper_Parachuting.jpg
Civilian Public Service camp 103, Missoula, Montana: Smoke jumper parachuting in Montana, 1943-1946 during World War II, to help put out a forest fire. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/MCC_Registering_abandoned_children_0386.jpg
Mennonite Central Committee Russian Famine 1920-1925: Registering abandoned children. (Mennonite Central Committee Archives photo)