Bolivian Mennonite women were not believed

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky’s piece on the Bolivian Mennonite rape trial was the most read and most emailed article on the site for two days after it was published, and the most emailed article again yesterday. Because of its popularity, it will appear in hardcopy in the upcoming TIME Magazine international edition. Clearly, it’s touched a nerve.

Another article by Friedman-Rudovsky on the same events recently appeared in The Christian Science Monitor: In Bolivia, rape trial pries open closed society of Mennonite ‘Old Colonies’. It’s troubling to read that it took so long for the women to be believed, and that their need to talk about what happened and receive counsel is still not being recognized the way it should be! It’s also troubling to hear, from other sources, that incidents similar to those alleged in the case are apparently still happening.

The story is by its very nature somewhat sensational, but I suspect that much of the interest in it, especially for the Mennonite community, is the ongoing and complex tragedy of what has happened to these women and girls. So I think we should view this extensive publicity as a good thing. Some Mennonites who comment on the articles worry that others will think all Mennonites are like that, etc. An understandable concern, I suppose, but really, we’ll simply have to live with that and ought to be turning our hearts and minds instead to how we might respond.

So what can we do? I’d suggest that we exert as much pressure as possible on our two broad Mennonite agencies — Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference — to make this need a priority. MCC already has a number of programs that connect to Bolivian Mennonites (Old Colony Mennonites in other countries as well), which we might support with increased giving and prayer.

But I think more could be done. After all, this story didn’t just break open in the last weeks because of Jean Friedman-Rudovsky’s fine work, but came to the attention of both the world and Mennonites some years ago. Sometimes it feels as if those who are speaking out on its behalf are also still not being believed!

It makes sense to me that MCC might be the umbrella under which to gather a wide array of resource people with interest and knowledge and ongoing connection — their own staff, for example, those from ministries like the Low German work of Family Life Network, Mennonites in neighboring Paraguay, anyone with an ability to relate to conservative and closed communities — and to sit down and do some solid further strategizing for this situation. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I think the wider Mennonite community — and the watching world — needs to be assured that this cry of women and girls in Bolivia, and their entire community, is being treated with the utmost urgency and seriousness. It needs to know that new programs and money will be initiated if there is any possibility at all of them being received. I’m wishing to hear someone say, “We’ll be the point people on this issue, talking to them and talking to you, our Mennonites constituency. And this is what we’re doing…”

The commitment of Peter J. Dyck

Peter J. Dyck. Photo credit: MCC


Peter J. Dyck (1914 – 2010), well-known in Mennonite circles for his work with refugees in post-World War II Europe and beyond, died in Scottdale, Pa. last week, at 95. 

He almost died as a child, in 1921, of typhoid and hunger because of the famine in Russia. Thanks to food assistance provided by the newly formed Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), he survived, however, and with his family was able to immigrate to Canada.

The memory of that food aid would later motivate him to serve with MCC in England during the war. After the war, he and his wife Elfrieda (Klassen), who was equally involved in their dynamic partnership, moved to the Netherlands to direct a huge relief effort. They also organized and led the transport of some 5,500 Mennonites in four ships to new homes in South America.

The couple worked with MCC and the Mennonite church in various capacities throughout their lives, but it’s the events associated with the refugee work that will probably remain most closely associated with their names. Certainly those stories of rescue and resettlement, full of drama and pathos, formed a significant part of my sense of how the world had unfolded during the brutal and turbulent years just before my birth. I’m not sure how they came to me, but it must have been through Mennonite periodicals, speakers, and books. Books like Helen Good Brenneman’s But Not Forsaken, and later Barbara Smucker’s excellent children’s novel, Henry’s Red Sea, about one of the most dramatic of the events, the movement of former Russian Mennonite refugees through Russian-occupied territory by train to reach a ship waiting to take them to a new homeland. Peter Dyck too was a great storyteller and did a great deal of public speaking, and with Elfrieda, co-authored a fascinating account of their postwar experiences, Up from the Rubble.

Yesterday, in the sharing time in church, one of the women in our congregation recalled with gratitude Peter Dyck’s life and service. She was three years old when her family crossed the ocean in one of those groups overseen by the Dycks. She also reminded us – as an encouragement to the younger generation – that Dyck was in his 30s when he was doing the work that made such a difference for her and so many others. I don’t know how aware the Dycks were at the time of the historical significance of their gathering and re-location of refugees. Perhaps they sensed it, but were probably mostly just busy giving their best intelligence, energy, and fortitude to their assignments.

Somehow it all begins to seem very long ago, and with the passing of Peter Dyck even longer. So I too commend Peter (and Elfrieda, who died in 2004) Dyck to our memory and the events of that era to our attention. I think there’s still a great deal to learn from those times, especially from watching ordinary people work out their commitment to compassion and service in complicated environments, and doing this, not only because they’ve been helped themselves, but also because that’s what Christian disciples do in a needy world.

* A report of Dyck’s death and fuller bio can be found at the MCC website, here. The article includes an invitation to share personal memories. Some have already appeared, to further round out and bless the legacy of this man.