MDS, the disaster-relief agency of Mennonite churches in the United States and Canada, began at a picnic in Hesston, Kansas in 1950. As Sunday school members gathered to share ideas and food, they expressed a common desire to “seek opportunities to be engaged in peaceful, helpful activity...just where we find ourselves.”
In 1950, following significant response efforts to tornadoes in Oklahoma and flooding in Manitoba, Mennonites began to further organize their practice of mutual aid. Two Sunday school class groups from the Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and the Hesston Mennonite Church formed a joint committee in Kansas and Mennonite Service Organization was born.
Through a series of “picnics in the park,” the Mennonite Service Organization began to define itself. Questions arose, widening the circle of interest. Who is available to help? What skills can we provide? Do we have carpenters? Cooks? Typists? Welders? Nurses? Airplane pilots? How quickly can we respond? These questions bred more questions, pushing the boundaries of the organization and enabling it to grow.
Historical Anabaptist Context
For generations prior to 1950, mutual aid was an informal practice performed by Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups who felt that their faith was best expressed in the day to day actions of caring for one another. Through spontaneous gestures of assistance such as the well-known barn raising and the lesser-known harvest bee, the Anabaptists put their faith into action when fellow church members or neighbors faced calamity.
In the event that a family lost their barn to fire, tornado or flood, the surrounding church community would band together to build them a new one. In a flurry of activity the women would organize food preparation as the men set to framing and erecting the new structure. After one day of work, a new barn would stand to represent the love of Jesus Christ and the power of collaboration.
With the passage of time, the Anabaptist theology of service developed to the point where it became increasingly important to articulate the differences between Anabaptist service and military service. As a people of peace opposed to military participation, the Mennonites found that disaster response was an opportunity to serve not only their own people, but their country as well. In 1940, the Conference of Historic Peace Churches formed the Christian Fellowship Services that produced a document that was given to the Federal Government in Canada and formed a basis for the Alternate Service Program during WW II. Similar Anabaptist efforts in the United States foreshadowed the formation of MDS through high levels of Mennonite participation in the Civilian Public Service System.
Mennonite Service Organization continued to grow, expanding out of the Midwest and into all of the United States and Canada. The name changed to Mennonite Disaster Service, more accurately reflecting the type of service carried out by volunteers. In 1955 MDS became a part of the Mennonite Central Committee, an inter-Mennonite relief agency. Training schools for field directors began. A mobile office was added in 1956. A film was produced in 1958. Rescue teams were trained and assembled in 1959. Radio equipment was added in 1960. By 1966 Red Cross officials expected MDS to show up at the scene when natural disasters occurred.
In 1993 MDS was incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, separate from Mennonite Central Committee but in keeping with the same spirit of Christian response. This was a year that saw an extraordinary amount of disaster activity as volunteers responded to the devastation of Hurricane Andrew and the Midwest Floods. Through the assistance and perseverance of the MDS network, the organization continued to grow and increase its disaster response capabilities. MDS currently involves more than 3,000 Mennonite, Amish and Brethren in Christ churches and districts.
To view our most recent Annual Report, click here: 2011 Annual Report
Our relationship with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)
MDS is responsible for organizing disaster response in Canada, the United States and their territories. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is responsible for organizing disaster response efforts in international settings.
The two organizations work together closely in determining how each can help the other in responding when this is beneficial.