From scarcity to generosity
MCC volunteer was once an aid recipient
Growing up in Germany after World War II, everything was scarce.
“There was just nothing to buy – not even a pencil,” said Johanna Sutter, because the factories were in ruins and any production machinery still salvageable had been packed up and taken to other countries.
Much of Frankenthal – a city along the Rhine River where Johanna lived – was in ruins. Food was rationed and in short supply.
The house where Johanna lived with her parents, five siblings and a couple of aunts got cold during the winter. The only heat source was a stove in the kitchen. Her aunts lived there because their homes were destroyed in the war.
One day, a package arrived from Mennonite Central Committee. The Christmas bundle included clothing, school supplies and hygiene items.
Another encounter with MCC came when the pastor of a local church gave Johanna an MCC comforter. The pastor had heard that Johanna and her sister were sleeping on a matted-down featherbed in a cold room. The comforter featured a tag that read, “Mennonite Central Committee: In the name of Christ.”
That comforter provided more than welcome warmth. It made a profound and lasting impression on Johanna that people from across the ocean cared enough to donate and send supplies to help people like her.
And the fact that people she didn’t know had shown such compassion “in the name of Christ” nudged Johanna along a path of building bridges to help others in need.
Nadine Zook Miller, MCC Great Lakes Material Resource Coordinator, noted the impact of the donated comforter when she nominated Johanna for an Everence® Journey Award. (See related story.)
“She had never heard of anyone doing things in the name of Christ,” said Zook Miller, “but as she snuggled in with her new comforter that night, she decided she wanted to be like the people who help others and bring hope and comfort, and not like the people who drop bombs on others.”
Johanna’s connection with Mennonite Central Committee continued when she started working at an MCC children’s home in a city near Frankenthal when she was 16, learning a lot more about MCC and its efforts to help people around the world.
A few years later, she came to the United States as part of an MCC exchange program and stayed with a family in New Paris, Indiana.
After the exchange program ended, Johanna returned to work at the MCC children’s home in Germany for a few years. She came back to Indiana in 1956 and taught for five years at Clinton Christian School near Goshen.
Johanna then earned a degree at Goshen College and taught first and second grades for more than 30 years at a public elementary school near Nappanee, Indiana. In the early 1970s, she got her master’s degree in education from Indiana University South Bend.
She supported MCC during her teaching career, buying materials for and assembling Christmas bundles and school kits.
But when she retired from teaching about 15 years ago, Johanna shifted her support of MCC into a higher gear. She started volunteering many hours each week for MCC Great Lakes at the Material Resource Center in the Old Bag Factory complex in Goshen.
Zook Miller said, “She spends some of her time shopping for kit items that MCC sends overseas, using the designated gifts given to MCC. She finds amazing bargains without sacrificing quality by shopping sales and using discounts and coupons.”
Johanna said, “I’m a very intuitive person. My mind works like a computer. I know when the stores are going to have a sale.”
For example, one local superstore offers a buy-one, get-one-free sale on toothbrushes every so often. Johanna anticipates those sales and stocks up when they come along.
You could say that finding life’s necessities comes naturally for someone who grew up in a city devastated by bombs and fires, where residents stood in line for hours, holding their ration cards, hoping to get what their families needed to survive.
“After the war, you had to really fight to get food,” Johanna said.
Although she’s driven by a desire to stretch every donated dollar, that doesn’t mean she’s willing to buy just anything – the items Johanna places into MCC kits must meet her standard of quality.
“I want to give dignity to the people” who receive kits or bundles from MCC, Johanna said. “They should last a while.”
In addition to buying materials for school kits (notebooks, pencils, rulers, erasers) or five-gallon relief buckets designed to aid a family of four (towels, bars of soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, bandages, combs, fingernail clippers), Johanna helps oversee volunteers who come to the Material Resource Center.
She makes sure the cloth bags or plastic buckets are packed correctly. “I get things ready for the volunteers who come in,” she said. “I answer their questions.” The classroom may be different, but she’s still teaching.
Zook Miller said Johanna is instrumental in collecting resources in her home congregation – Assembly Mennonite Church – which donated 700 school kits and 70 relief kits in 2015.
“Every year, she gets up in front of the congregation and says she’s getting school materials for the kits” and invites members to contribute, said Eric Yordy, Everence Advocate for Assembly Mennonite.
And when Johanna has collected the materials, she helps children from the church put together the school kits. “The involvement of children is something she does really well,” said Yordy. “She’s passing those values of generosity to the next generation.”
Lora Nafziger, one of the pastors at Assembly Mennonite, said Johanna “embodies the opportunities we have for God’s abundance” after growing up in scarcity. There are more than 100 children at Assembly Mennonite and Johanna “knows all of them and what they like. For every child’s birthday, she finds something they’d like,” Nafziger said.
Johanna’s “very generous heart for people in need” is reflected in how she has turned MCC into what resembles a second career, said friend Kathy Meyer Reimer – “all because she believes in it.”
She knows from experience how circumstances can thrust anyone into a position of need, and how it feels to receive help from others who understand that, noted Meyer Reimer.
Johanna speaks to various groups to “give people an understanding of what it is like for the recipients of MCC assistance and how lives can be changed. This gives them the knowledge that their acts of generosity do make a difference,” said Zook Miller.
For Johanna, retirement has consisted mainly of overseas travel (Germany and Nepal are among her favorite destinations) and volunteering for MCC.
Some people buy homes in places like Florida or Arizona when they retire. That’s fine, but that’s not for Johanna.
“I wouldn’t be me if I stopped doing what I’m doing.”