Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Research Note: "Ayuda a Los Ninos": Mennonite Relief Work in Spain, 1937-1939

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Research Note: "Ayuda a Los Ninos": Mennonite Relief Work in Spain, 1937-1939

Article excerpt

Abstract: North American Mennonites have done a considerable amount of relief and evangelistic work in many parts of the world in the twentieth century, often with these two endeavors performed by separate church agencies. One exception, however, was the work of the (Old) Mennonite Relief and Service Committee in Spain during the 1930s. During the Spanish Civil War, the committee extended material aid to suffering citizens; but the committee also hoped that a Mennonite presence in Spain would lead to evangelism work among the Catholic population. This was perhaps the first time North American Mennonites considered doing evangelistic work in Europe. The article discusses the relief efforts, which likely saved many lives, and offers an explanation for the failure of Mennonite evangelism in Spain at that time.

Mennonites have a long tradition of responding to human needs. Already in 1710, Dutch Mennonites responded to the plight of their persecuted Swiss brethren and sisters by creating a Special Committee for Foreign Needs. (2) In the late 1890s, (Old) Mennonites and the General Conference Mennonites in the United States established the Home Foreign Relief Committee and the Emergency Relief Commission, respectively, to provide relief to India where many were experiencing starvation. Later on, in 1917, (Old) Mennonites established the Mennonite Relief Committee for War Sufferers, which established a Near East Relief program in the early 1920s. In 1926 that group's tasks were assumed by a committee of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities--the Mennonite Relief Committee (M.R.C.). In 1920 various Mennonite groups established Mennonite Central Committee (M.C.C.) to assist starving Mennonites in Russia. M.R.C. and M.C.C. maintained close contact with each other, and often the same individuals, such as OrieO. Miller, served on both committees. (3) In the early 1930s M.C.C. helped some Mennonites who had fled the Soviet Union and were living in Germany to resettle in Paraguay and Brazil. While M.C.C.'s work with Russian Mennonite immigrants and other similar relief work is generally well-known, M.R.C.'s relief work in war-torn Spain, beginning in 1937, has received comparatively little attention.

Although Mennonite relief work in Spain was initiated primarily to meet the social and economic needs of a country divided by war, material aid was also a means to a larger goal of beginning evangelistic work in this part of Roman Catholic Europe.

THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR

By the early twentieth century, Spain had declined as a major European power. It had lost most of its empire and had fallen behind other Western powers in terms of economic, social, and political development. The nobility, the army, and the Roman Catholic clergy still held firm control over the country. Yet during the opening decades of the twentieth century, a new middle class and industrial working class--whose members espoused liberal, constitutional democracy and social and economic reform--evolved. Other Spaniards embraced Socialism, Communism, or even syndicalism or anarchism. At the same time, Spain also faced strong demands for regional autonomy by ethnic minorities such as the Catalans and the Basques.

The political unrest and social violence generated by these tensions came to a head in 1930 when the dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera was forced to resign, followed by the abdication of King Alphonso XIII the following year. Free elections in 1931 resulted in a Republican victory and the formation of a republic. The drafting of a new constitution and other fundamental reforms such as the separation of church and state and the nationalization of property that had once belonged to the Roman Catholic Church soon followed. After an electoral setback in 1933, the left-wing parties won again in 1936 and formed a so-called Popular Front government that included Socialists and Communists.

Shortly after the 1936 elections, however, right-wing conservatives mounted a counterattack against the new regime. …

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