1971: “Say in your country…we just want peace”
“In speaking in this country about the people of Viet-Nam, I can truly and honestly speak for them only when I keep repeating the message of the immediate need for peace, as they always did in talking with me. On the day I left Quang Tri, a friend from the Cam Lo Camp pleaded with a fierce intensity in his eyes as he said: ‘Say in your country….We just want peace so we can raise food to eat, that’s all.’” –Kevin Byrne, returned MCC Vietnam volunteer, testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Refugees in April 1971, May-June 1971 Memo
1977: Firsthand account of torture in Argentina
Patricia Erb, 19-year-old daughter of Mennonite missionaries in Argentina, lived to tell of her abusive treatment by the repressive Argentine government. In Washington, she met with more than 40 members of Congress, and her experience was mentioned in a floor speech by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho). Sen. Church introduced the amendment that terminated all U.S. military aid to Argentina.
1978: Ugandan bishop calls for embargo
Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions (EMBM) friend, Ugandan Bishop Festo Kiveugere, escaped under cover of night from ruthless “President for Life” Idi Amin. EMBM requested that the MCC Washington Office set up meetings for the bishop with members of Congress. Rep. Don Pease (D-Ohio) and Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) sponsored legislation that imposed an embargo on Ugandan coffee sales to the U.S., an initiative which isolated Amin and contributed to his ouster.
1986: A different perspective on El Salvador
Several years ago, a phone call from Jim McGovern, foreign policy aide for Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), began a special Capitol Hill-MCC El Salvador connection. Having been asked by the congressman to “find out what is really happening in El Salvador,” Jim was encouraged by an acquaintance to get in touch with the Mennonite personnel in El Salvador.
Jim McGovern’s eight-day visit to El Salvador and his subsequent report led Rep. Moakley to invite some 60 House members and their staff to a briefing by [MCC El Salvador staff] Blake Ortman in June 1986. Several members of Congress and more than 30 legislative aides filled the briefing room.
Jim McGovern has subsequently been instrumental in the study visits of other congressional staff members to El Salvador, each of whom have also met with MCC staff. A different reality-perspective is breaking through about El Salvador on Capitol Hill, and MCC workers in El Salvador are making a significant contribution to that understanding.
–Delton Franz, writing in March 1989. Since Rep. Moakley’s retirement in 1996, Jim McGovern has represented the 2nd district of Massachusetts in Congress.
1999: A little child shall lead them
A baby birthed the idea for one of the most memorable advocacy projects during my years in the MCC Washington Office.
MCC Iraq service worker Wanda Kraybill visited Capitol Hill in January 1999 to talk about the devastating humanitarian impact of U.S.-promoted sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. Wanda showed pictures of the food boxes that Iraqis received under the UN-administered oil-for-food program, touted by many U.S. policymakers as the reason sanctions were not that bad.
Sen. Patty Murray’s legislative director Ben McMakin, who had just become a father, was outraged when he saw the small amounts of infant formula Iraqi babies were receiving. “My baby couldn’t survive a week on that amount of formula,” Ben fumed.
This interaction hatched the idea of sending a food box to every member of Congress. Perhaps if lawmakers would see firsthand the Iraqi rations, it would make a difference.
During the week of August 6, 1999–the ninth anniversary of when sanctions had been imposed–the MCC Washington Office organized a campaign to deliver a food box to every member of Congress. MCC constituents delivered 170 boxes to district congressional offices. MCC staff assembled the remaining 365 boxes for delivery on Capitol Hill.
Each food box contained a week’s worth of food rations–flour, rice, sugar, lentils, cheese, cooking oil, tea and salt–and a letter inviting members of Congress to use this as their diet for a week.
Almost immediately, we started receiving calls from congressional offices. Some were grateful that MCC had highlighted the flaws of oil-for-food. Sen. Murray circulated a letter urging her colleagues to remember the children suffering under “the weight of sanctions.”
Other offices expressed anger at being confronted with the choice between eating the Iraqi rations and wasting food. “Why didn’t you send the food to Iraq?” demanded some offices, who missed the point that we were targeting a public policy.
To my knowledge, no members of Congress chose the Iraqi diet, but one member did organize a “food boxes pickup” on Capitol Hill so the food could be shared with D.C. Central Kitchen, a local organization that targets the cycle of hunger and poverty.
Congress did not vote to end the sanctions–sadly, that didn’t happen until after the 2003 Iraq war–but using the biblical tradition of visual prophetic advocacy did spark an important debate on Capitol Hill.
- Daryl Byler was director of the MCC Washington Office from 1994 to 2007.
2018: Church leaders call for better immigration policies
Seventeen leaders from Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Church USA congregations advocated for better immigration policies at 30 congressional offices, in late February.
As the faith leaders returned to the Washington Office after their Capitol Hill meetings, many reported that their meetings were positive. Some said their legislators support a “clean” Dream Act. Others mentioned that, while their legislators did not agree with their policy positions, their aides, nevertheless, listened to their recommendations earnestly. –From an MCC News Service article by Cherelle Dessus, March 2018
Some things never change…
From the moment of apprehension by the police, through the bail bond dilemma, the long wait for trial in the city jail, being represented in court by the District Attorney, to the sentencing by the judge–through each step of this pre-conviction process, studies have found [African-Americans] to suffer disadvantages far in excess of the inequities experienced by white [people] in similar circumstances. –Sept-Oct 1971 Memo
Most U.S. officials acknowledge that a settlement of the critical Middle East situation can never be attained without a settlement of the Palestinian refugee’s plight. –Sept.-Oct. 1974 Memo
The placement of some kind of restriction on handguns remains highly controversial and will probably remain so. Legislators and other interested groups need to look carefully at this issue and hopefully recognize fact from fiction. –Nov.-Dec. 1981 Memo
…and other things do
Seminar participation will be limited to 40. A block of reservations, sleeping 4 to a room is being held at Hotel Continental @ $5.00 per person per night. A $5.00 registration fee plus $7.25 covering 3 luncheon and 1 dinner meeting will be charged. –Sept.-Oct. 1970 Memo
Telegrams are an attention getter and especially useful just before a vote. By telephone you can send a Public Opinion Message – 15 words maximum for $2. –March-April 1976 Memo