Common Witness: A Story of Ministry Partnership between French and North
American Mennonites, 1953-2003. By David Yoder Neufeld. Elkhart, Ind.:
Institute of Mennonite Studies. 2016. Pp. 167. $24.
Immediately after World War II, North American Christians began to send
missionaries abroad, and some of these went to Europe. Confident, buoyed by
their countries’ military victories, they typically practiced an evangelism designed
to convert lapsed and lost Europeans. Within a few years North American
Mennonite Christians also began sending missionaries to Europe where French
Mennonites were willing to collaborate with them. The North Americans, who had
been conscientious objectors an ocean away from combat, had suffered little from
the war; their French brothers and sisters had suffered grievously. The North
Americans were eager to serve and open to embrace a vision of mission that would
appropriately address the religious and socio-cultural realities of war-torn Europe.
The French were ready to work with the North Americans to give expression to
this vision of the gospel in their national capital, Paris.
In Common Witness David Yoder Neufeld tells the story of fifty years of this
collaboration. It is a complex story, but he tells it well, enabling the large narrative
to emerge and the main issues to be clear. And he is fortunate to have colorful
characters to write about: North American missionary administrators J. D. Graber,
John Howard Yoder (Graber’s assistant in the early 1960s), and Wilbert Shenk;
Pierre Widmer, the most influential French Mennonite leader of his era, and the
visionary Anne Sommermeyer; French administrators Ernest Nussbaumer and
Victor Dos Santos; and a succession of gifted North American missionaries.
Neufeld’s characters faced challenges that were tougher than they had anticipated.
As they faced these, they needed to work well with each other despite cultural
differences, and their mission boards—in France the newly founded Mission
Mennonite Française (MMF 1954), and in North America the older Mennonite
Board of Missions and Charities (MBM)—needed to collaborate effectively.
Especially, both MMF and MBM needed to earn the trustful interest of the French
Mennonites, primarily rural folk living in Eastern France, in missionary activities
in distant, urban, poly-racial Paris where there was historically no Mennonite
church. As I read Neufeld’s account three things stood out.
First, the range of achievement of these Franco/American Mennonite
collaborators in mission is astonishing. In fifty years they planted three churches
in the Paris area, which is not so astonishing. But consider what they did in
addition: they defied the intolerance of French culture by pioneering
compassionate sheltered workshops for large numbers of developmentally
disabled people in Paris, Hautefeuille, and elsewhere; they negotiated with
government agencies to secure state subsidies for church-administered programs for people with disabilities; they provided assistance to thousands of international
students (many of them people of color) who had difficulty finding housing, some
of whom received accommodation in Mennonite-operated student centers; and
throughout they engaged in teaching, dialogue, and missiological thinking that
eventually culminated in the work of the Paris Mennonite Center, which moved a
growing number of French people to find a theological home in Anabaptism.
Second, the missional style of these French and North American collaborators
is distinctive. Throughout they operated humbly, patiently, ready to change
course in response to local initiatives, open to wait until the right moment. Further,
their approach was holistic, a whole gospel witness so that, as an MMF document
of 1967 put it, “preaching in deed may accompany preaching by word.” And most
notably, the style of these collaborators was synergistic—French and North
Americans in Paris worked together, sustained by mission boards that were
convinced that collaboration was not only theologically imperative; it was also
Third, the French/North American collaborators rarely achieved precisely what
they wanted. As missionaries sensitive to the missio Dei, they believed that they
encountered God who was already at work, and they showed flexibility in
adjusting their priorities accordingly.
For example, in Paris in the mid-1950s pioneer missionary Orley
Swartzentruber began his ministry with Bible study that led to the founding of a
church in Châtenay-Malabry, anticipating that this would lead to dialogue with
other Christians about peace and ecclesiology. But it was the vision of Anne
Sommermeyer, a founding member of the congregation, that took precedence,
leading to work with developmentally handicapped people that gave newlyarrived
missionary Robert Witmer ample scope for his exceptional spiritual and
entrepreneurial gifts. Sheltered workshops proliferated; theological talk-shops
progressed more slowly.
A second example: in 1965 Mennonite Central Committee was interested in
founding a peace center in Paris that would encourage conscientious objection in
France and foster theological thinking about peace. At MCC’s invitation Marlin
Miller visited Paris to explore this possibility. The response of MMF’s constituency
to the idea was “lukewarm.” But in 1968 MBM appointed Marlin and Ruthann
Miller to Paris (under MMF supervision) not only to engage in peace dialogue but
also to learn to know African students and to explore the most effective ways to
help them survive in the city’s inhospitable environment. Soon after the Millers
left in 1974 Foyer Grebel opened in Paris, a student center jointly administered and
funded by MMF and MBM and staffed by their appointees; in this center
theological dialogue also would take place—a demanding double assignment that
“could make more visible the reality of Christian unity across national and
theological boundaries” (Larry Miller) and could also lead to burnout!
A third example: a Mennonite center. There had long been a vision of a center
that would foster Anabaptist studies and missional reflection on postChristendom
culture in Europe. Already in 1954, in an article written in Belgium
and published in the MQR, missionary David Shank had proposed the foundation
of such centers in European cities where Mennonites could dialogue with other Christians in a setting in which Anabaptist history and theological insights were
honored. Upon his arrival in Paris in the mid-1950s, Swartzentruber was attracted
to the vision. So also were the progenitors and animators of the Foyer Grebel in
the 1980s and 1990s in the midst of the intensities and emergencies of student
work. Only in 2003, when the second Mennonite church in the Paris region, Église
Protestante Mennonite de Villeneuve-le-Comte, left the building in which it had
been born, was the Centre Mennonite (under the guidance of Neal and Janie
Blough) able to devote itself solely to its primary aim—to “develop, together with
the French Mennonite Conference, a relevant missiological approach in a highly
urbanized and secularized context.” After fifty years, Anabaptist theological
reflection and advocacy had its proper place, always in collaboration.
Fourth, even in the one major initiative of these fifty years that was not allowed
to develop, collaboration remained a central part of the story. By 1977, Robert and
Lois Witmer had become involved in evangelistic efforts in and near Châtenay,
during which they became friends of participants in the Catholic charismatic
renewal. A Catholic sister invited Bob to lead a Bible study group in her home;
soon this group was meeting in the basement of the Châtenay church. Friendships
developed and matured; and a vision developed of a “therapeutic village” in
which local people with acute social and spiritual needs could experience ministry
and support in a setting more attentive than would be possible in a congregation.
The Witmers asked for support for the initiative from MBM and the MMF. There
ensued a period of intense discernment. Wilbert Shenk for MBM sensed that the
proposal for the inter-confessional therapeutic community was “too good not to
be implemented”; French Mennonite theologian Claude Baecher was also in favor
of it. But there were hesitations from some in the Châtenay congregation, and also
among MMF supporters in eastern France. In 1983, to the Witmers’ grief and
grievance, MBM decided not to proceed with the vision locally; and by the
following year it was clear that it would not be implemented elsewhere in France.
The reason was deep in the tradition of the MBM-MMF partnership: collaboration.
According to Shenk, whatever MBM might have preferred, the decision
“privileged the preference of its partners in an attempt to protect the existing fruits
of the partnership’s past efforts while leaving open the possibility for future
This is an important book. All who read it will be grateful to David Yoder
Neufeld. As he has demonstrated in an article in the October 2016 issue of MQR,
he is one of the tiny group of emerging authorities on sixteenth-century
Anabaptism. In this book he shows his adaptability, his historical craft, and his
felicitous writing. The research undergirding Common Witness is impressive:
Neufeld’s work with the sources—interviews, the French Mennonite periodical
Christ Seul, the archives of the MMF and MBM, and Robert Witmer’s indispensable
private archive—is meticulous. Using these materials, he thinks lucidly, sorts out
issues, sees what is significant, and attempts at all times to be fair. At times I
wished for Neufeld to engage the French and American Mennonite partners with
greater theological depth; and I would have liked to see him adopt a global
framework for North American missionary efforts—how did what MBM was
doing in France fit in with what it was doing in West Africa or Japan? But
Neufeld’s book will not only interest Mennonites; it will also speak to all Christians who care about innovative forms of mission. The story that Neufeld
tells is a bilateral story, a story both French and North American. The theme of coworking
that courses through the story is a deep New Testament theme all too rare
in mission history. May the Mennonite collaboration recorded in this book provide
inspiration, point to precedents, and resonate widely.
From The Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 2017. Used with permission.