​David Ortman feeds a squirrel outside the unit house in one of the many slides present at the MVS Seattle celebration. Ortman was an MVS Seattle participant 1975-1977 and 1978-1980. Photo by Greg Thiessen.

By Travis Duerksen
Wednesday, November 20, 2019

NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – The Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) unit in Seattle welcomed more than 70 alumni and community members into the weathered three-story unit house Sept. 15 to celebrate MVS’s 50-year presence in the city.

Throughout the house’s eight bedrooms were opportunities for alumni to reminisce. Butcher paper taped on one wall served as a unit timeline, with markers available for anyone to write in their service years, or any other notable unit event. The living room coffee table served as a haiku station. One alumni-penned haiku read: “So many lentils! Sunset views from the back roof. Stinky compost bin.” Papers adorned every bedroom door, awaiting occupant signatures and a running pro/con list of each sleeping area. Old photos laid out across tables gave Kodachrome glimpses into a unit and a community that had changed and adapted over the last five decades.

The unit, started in 1969 through a partnership with the then newly formed Seattle Mennonite Church, officially closed after the 2018-2019 service term completed in July.

While those present at the September gathering acknowledged the bittersweet nature of the reunion, the overall tone was celebratory.

“There was a lot more joy than I expected,” Jessica Wright said. Wright, pastor of Evergreen Mennonite Church in Kirkland, Washington, is a Seattle MVS alum, and served with the unit from 2011-2013. “There was a lot of gratitude, not only for the way that the MVS program has shaped the lives of participants … but also for the way that it’s shaped the churches and this city.”

The first unit participants were conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, most working with the Seattle Mental Health Institute. When conscription for the war ended in 1972, the unit accepted a wider range of volunteers. This necessitated purchasing the three-story unit house in 1976, and a second, smaller unit house in 1980. While the second unit house closed in the mid-1980s, the three-story unit house remained an icon.

“It has a lot of bumps and bruises, but it seems like a classic MVS house to me,” Wright said. “It’s a big, old place.”

The house, which had many different color schemes over the years, is now olive green with white trim. The spacious backyard has borne witness to generations of gardens, fire rings, and chickens housed in homemade coops.

“For a lot of folks, that house, the physical structure, is pretty important,” Wright said. “I’m just glad to be able to come back one more time.”

Evergreen Mennonite Church and Seattle Mennonite Church served as co-sponsor congregations to the unit, and their members invited participants to services, retreats, and ever-appreciated home-cooked meals.

Members of the two congregations, some of whom were MVS Seattle alumni, served on the unit’s support committee, helping to nurture and manage the participants and the house.

“We honor the community built within these walls that has extended to community across the city,” Laura Schlabach, an MVS Seattle alum and Seattle Mennonite Church member, wrote in a piece read at the gathering. “For the role the MVS program has played in who we are today, individually and as a community, we give thanks.”






Travis Duerksen is a writer and multimedia producer for Mennonite Mission Network.



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