About this Project:
Remembering MCC Vietnam and 65 Years of Walking Together: The MCC Vietnam Story
I arrived in Hà Nội in the fall of 2018 with a crisp three-month-old college diploma and little idea of what life would really be like in Việt Nam. Like many other young Mennonites, I had decided that service with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) would be my first step after university, and, looking back, I’m extremely grateful for the mentors, friends, and experiences that led me to Việt Nam. After a year of working in Hà Nội as an editor with MCC partner Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới—which translates to World Publishers—I was invited by MCC to stay on for another year to help commemorate MCC Việt Nam’s 65th anniversary.
The Shape of this Project
When I was hired to work on this project, I knew I wouldn't be able to tell the comprehensive story of MCC's 65 years in Việt Nam as I would hope to—I did not have three years, fluency in Vietnamese, and a research team (nor, had I had those things, would I have had much of a readership). What I did have was many alumni in North America and dozens of Vietnamese friends, former staff, and partners eager to reflect and share about their time working with MCC Việt Nam, and I was more than happy to help them tell their own stories. That effort has become this website.
Once I'd been on dozens of calls, sent and received hundreds of emails, taken part in countless interviews and conversations, and reviewed most of the many books written by and about MCC Việt Nam alumni, I felt much more secure in taking the proverbial pen into my own hand to try and draw a line from the beginning of MCC Việt Nam to the present. That effort became 65 Years of Walking Together: The MCC Việt Nam Story. Telling the complete story in both English and Vietnamese was a challenging goal, but doing so in order to show and share just how fully we relied on our Vietnamese friends and partners was also incredibly rewarding.
The path to completing these projects, however, was not always a straight one. This was by far the largest history or writing project I'd ever taken on, and I made some rookie mistakes: I recorded several dozen hours of interviews that ended up not being high enough quality to share publicly; I set incredibly optimistic deadlines for myself and nearly burned myself out; and I asked people the wrong questions.
There were also many hurdles that were outside my control. Along with everyone else in the world, I was forced to cancel all travel plans and in person meetings for several months due to the CoVid-19 pandemic. Then, when I was more than three-quarters of the way through my term with MCC, the unfortunate reality of the CoVid-19 pandemic and economic collapse in the U.S. caused MCC to make some hard decisions about its global programming. MCC Việt Nam was one of several international programs selected to be phased out. Though I remain deeply saddened by the necessity of this decision, it made the importance of my work even more clear.
The stories told in The MCC Việt Nam Story and here on this website are far from insignificant: MCC and the broader Mennonite community were able to partner with a country and people whom we were told to fear and hate, and we were all changed for the better. And that should never be forgotten. At a time of rising tensions between China, a "communist" country, and the U.S., stories of successful, peaceful, person-to-person collaboration and cultural exchange with Việt Nam are more needed than ever. Reminders of the horror of war, though painful, should also remind us what we are working against.
There is hope and there is power in these stories: they are proof that we can move mountains together.
What is MCC in the context of Việt Nam?
When I tell Vietnamese people that I’m Mennonite, or that I work for MCC, I am usually asked, “What are Mennonites? What is MCC?” and “What has MCC done in Việt Nam?” The bulk of this project focuses on that third question; for context, I will just briefly address the first two here.
MCC is a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on relief, development, and peacebuilding. Although it is funded by Mennonites and other Christians, it does not seek to spread religion, but rather to share financial and physical resources with people in need, regardless of race, religion, or political belief. We do this because we believe it is what Jesus wants us to do.
Mennonites are one expression of the Christian tradition, with roots in the Anabaptist reformation that began in Switzerland in the 1500s. Mennonites came to believe that loving God means choosing one’s faith as an adult, that following God means being willing to sacrifice money, time, and comfort for the good of others, and that God calls his followers to truly ‘love their enemies’ as the Bible says. Mennonites believe that participating in any form of violence, especially as part of the military, is against Jesus’ teachings, and that active steps toward preventing violence should be a part of every Christian’s life. Mennonite theology has spread across the globe, and there are now more than two million Mennonites in 86 countries, including about 10,000 in Việt Nam.
MCC was founded one hundred years ago in 1920, when Mennonite communities from across the US and Canada came together to send food and farming equipment to starving Mennonites living in Ukraine. This collaboration between more than a dozen different church groups—all of whom fell under the Mennonite umbrella but hadn’t collaborated until this point—soon expanded to helping people in need across the globe. Today, MCC operates in more than 60 countries.
MCC began working in Việt Nam in 1954 and has been the longest-serving NGO in the country. MCC was one of the first two American NGOs to arrive in 1954, one of only two to continue to work in Việt Nam throughout 1975, one of only a handful to defy the US embargo and work in Việt Nam from 1975-1995, and one of the first three NGOs to open an office in united Việt Nam in 1990. This book provides more detail about these events, and more importantly, about the work of Vietnamese people that MCC has been able to support during the last 65 years.
Still, this project is merely an introduction to MCC Việt Nam’s work. Since MCC primarily operates by supporting local efforts rather than directly administering projects, fully measuring MCC’s contributions is difficult and—ultimately—unnecessary; what is clear is that MCC has equipped Vietnamese people and organizations over the years to work for the good of their fellow citizens, the world, and MCC’s understanding of justice.
MCC Việt Nam’s story, though I happen to be sharing it, is not a story of North Americans arriving in Việt Nam to tell people what to do; rather, it is a story of collaboration and growth for the common good—walking together, learning from one another, and working hand in hand for peace and justice. MCC, and more broadly the Mennonite church, has been deeply changed by this partnership with Việt Nam. The relationships with and experiences of Vietnamese staff and partners during and after the American War pushed many North American Mennonites to actively oppose U.S. policy and to use their voices to advocate for an end to the war, and, later, an end to the embargo. Where many North American Mennonites once did not see it as their place to engage with their national governments, advocacy against unjust political actions is now a central part of MCC’s work.
It is also important to acknowledge that I bring my own biases to this project. Many Americans have worked on projects that claim to be about Việt Nam when they are really about the American War, all but ignoring the 3,000 years of recorded Vietnamese history before Western intrusion, the 45 years since 1975, and, most egregiously, the people, language, culture, and reality of this marvelous country. Việt Nam is not a faceless, mysterious place that defies understanding, as it is sometime portrayed in the west; it is one full of smart, opinionated, proud, hardworking people who have welcomed, challenged, and befriended me every day for the past two years. I’ve done my best to include accurate Vietnamese and MCC history, but errors and omissions are also unavoidable.
Regardless, I hope that this project—just like MCC’s work in Việt Nam during the past half-century—contributes to growing worldwide peace and understanding. May it serve as a reminder that people, working together, can lessen even the heaviest of sufferings.
One of my favorite Vietnamese sayings is that a grain of rice when hungry means more than a bowl of rice when full. I hope MCC Việt Nam’s few grains of rice inspire you as they have inspired me.
This is a modified version of the preface to 65 Years of Walking Together: The MCC Vietnam Story by Caleb Schrock-Hurst, The Gioi Publishers, 2020. Used with the author's permission.