Edna Hunsberger’s witness against war
by Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office
Edna Hunsperger was a trailblazer.
Most young women like her, growing up in the 1930s in a rurual (Old) Mennonite Ontario community, anticipated early marriage, child-bearing and a life working on the family farm. But Edna wanted an education and she wanted to serve others. She persuaded her parents to allow her to enter nurses training in Kitchener-Waterloo. She graduated as a nurse in 1937, the first Mennonite from her community to do so.
Two years later Canada was at war and in a short time there was a call for nurses to enlist in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp. Several of Edna’s friends responded to the call. They encouraged her to do the same.
But Edna identified with the nonresistant convictions of her church community and knew that she could not enlist. At the same time, she did not want to be called a “yellow belly” or a coward – charges often aimed at young Mennonite men who sought exemption from military service as conscientious objectors (COs).
An invitation from Mennonite Central Committee resolved Edna’s dilemma. In 1941 MCC had begun a war relief program in England, and it wanted two Canadian nurses to serve in convalescent homes.
Almost as soon as she heard about this need from her minister, Edna said yes. She saw this opportunity as a way of meeting human need, while also serving her country. Arriving in England in 1942, she remained until the war ended, caring for seniors and children affected by the devastation of war.
Edna, and her companion Elfrieda Klassen, were the first two Canadian women to join MCC’s emerging international relief service program. And they were on the forefront of women’s involvement in MCC service as a witness for peace.
MCC’s relief service program – later known as voluntary service or, simply, service – emerged as a direct result of the war and the alternate service required of Mennonite men who registered as conscientious objectors. Even before the war was over, some people began to suggest that service offered voluntarily through MCC should continue after conscription ended. After all, if Mennonites said they were about preserving life rather than taking life, they needed to demonstrate this at all times. Indeed, engaging in service was a way of giving an authentic witness for peace—something which simply refusing to go to war could not do.
One leader put it this way:
“If our nonresistance is something only on paper it has no real worth. Our task is not only to not shed blood, but to preserve life and to help those in need.”
During the war, women in Canada and the U.S. were not required to do military or alternative service by the state as men were. Nevertheless, many felt an “inner compulsion” to share in expressing their own commitment to peace and to preserving life. From the outset of the war, women’s groups were actively engaged in sewing garments for relief purposes.
But many wanted to do more – they wanted to actually serve in contexts of war suffering and need.
In 1943 a group of Mennonite women in the U.S. – calling themselves “CO girls” — requested MCC establish service units for them at psychiatric institutions, as it had for men. MCC did so, with some reluctance. This initial experiment evolved into MCC’s summer service and voluntary service programs, which expanded rapidly across the U.S. and Canada.
At the same time, a growing number of women joined the relief service program overseas, caring for victims of war, poverty and disaster in many parts of the world. Indeed, in the first decades of MCC’s service program, almost twice as many Canadian women served as men: 604 to 341. Moreover, in 1950 alone, a full 40 percent of all MCC’s U.S. and Canadian service workers overseas were single women, twice as men as single men.
Historians have offered a variety of reasons why women chose to join MCC service in such significant ways. There isn’t room here to explore those. Suffice it to say that in response to the conflagration of the Second World War, many Mennonite women eagerly embraced MCC service as their way of resisting war and embodying peace. That contribution has not been adequately recognized.
Times have changed since Edna Hunsperger left for England in 1942. Canada has not had conscription since the Second World War, and so pacifist Christians have not been forced to uphold their convictions in a wartime context for decades.
Additionally, within MCC, the strong link between service and peace – the idea that one engages in loving service as a way of resisting war and embodying peace — has long disappeared. Peacebuilding has taken on different and more specific meanings today. Moreover, the opportunities for service – giving several years of one’s life to tending to human need with little financial reward – are not there like there were in the post-war decades. MCC is also more conscious of the “downside” of service: service can, for example, feed impulses that are colonial and paternalistic and build on a foundation of white privilege.
There are some good reasons for the shifts.
And yet, despite the changes, the question Edna struggled with is still worth asking, especially in the context of Remembrance Day: “If my friends and neighbours are prepared to do military service to defend the country, what will I do to witness to another way?”