Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Ontario's Conference of Historic Peace Church Families and the "Joy of Service"

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Ontario's Conference of Historic Peace Church Families and the "Joy of Service"

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay briefly examines the family relationships of four executive leaders of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches (CHPC) in order to raise questions about the gendered nature of service. Following a review and interpretation of the oral and biographical sources, the essay describes ways that the mothers and wives of these leaders influenced and supported their non-resistant beliefs and their ecumenism; in particular, it shows how their wives provided an environment that allowed the CHPC executives to participate in what J. B. and Naomi Martin called the "joy of service." (1) Although women are rarely identified in the written records, interviews and other biographical materials suggest that women not only provided the context for their husbands' public work, but they also reflected theologically on their role in way that minimized the great personal costs entailed.


Early in 1944 Harold and Mila Senor Sherk were travelling down the highway with their four children. The three teens--Iva, Arthur and Harold--sat in the rear of the car, with little Mildred perched up front between Harold Sr. and Mila. The Sherk children have never forgotten the moment when their mother turned around and told them that Daddy was going to be travelling to India. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) had asked him to spend two years there to help in its relief program. Harold was a Mennonite Brethren in Christ pastor and he and Mila had served in a half-dozen Southern Ontario parishes in their eighteen-year marriage. More recently, Harold had agreed to become secretary of Ontario's Conference of Historic Peace Churches, and he had spent the past fifteen months as a chaplain for the conscientious objectors assigned to the alternative service camp 80 kilometers north of Sault Ste. Marie. (2) The family lacked a solid community base, and now they would be left behind while Harold travelled halfway around the world.

This vignette illustrates assumptions about gender roles that have undergirded the work of the church. Mennonite history has long focused on the theology, the ideas and the work of the leadership, while paying little mind to the women who labored silently in the background. (3) As historians Kimberly Schmidt and Steven Reschly recently have pointed out, "the development of an Anabaptist vision of women's history is in its infancy." (4) Historians concerned with Mennonite women are turning to the "highly developed and self-conscious field" of women's history, as they attempt to understand both women's contributions to Mennonite history and the historical context. (5)

Historians of Mennonite women are taking up the challenge to pursue questions of "what women do and think," raising them to equal prominence with the classic historical questions that have addressed "what men do and think." (6) Studies such as Marlene Epp's Women without Men on post-war Russian Mennonite refugees to Canada, and Rachel Waltner Goossen's Women against the Good War on American female conscientious objectors during World War II, have employed feminist analysis to show how gender is socially constructed, and even how "gender roles were transformed" during times of war. (7) Their work illustrates that gender identities--masculinity and femininity--are more than opposites. These authors show that the meaning of men's and women's thoughts and actions can be understood only in relationship to one another and to the societal events surrounding them. (8) By asking questions about what women did and thought, we can incorporate them into the historical narrative.

The idea for this paper emerged while Linda Huebert Hecht and I were conducting interviews for the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario history project. Heating about the Conference of Historic Peace Churches' work during World War II from the perspective of members of the major leaders' families, raised new questions. As Epp has noted, while "the collector of stories holds the power of synthesis and interpretation, . …

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