On April 4-5, thousands of people will come to the campus of Fresno Pacific University for the 41st annual West Coast Mennonite Relief Sale & Auction, one of over 40 such events that take place each year across the United States and Canada. The purpose of the sales is to raise money for Mennonite Central Committee, an international organization of Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and other churches that provides relief and assistance to people around the world suffering from poverty, conflict, oppression and natural disaster. Altogether, over $5.5 million was raised by all the sales in 2007, with an average of 85 percent actually sent to people in need.
Though Mennonite relief sales as we know them today did not begin until the 1940s, the case can be made that the origins of the West Coast auction date back to 1922. On June 30 of that year Mennonites of the Reedley/Dinuba area gathered at the farm of John K. Warkentin, south of Reedley, bringing with them items to be sold at auction. The proceeds from the auction were to be given to a new organization known as Mennonite Central Committee, which had been organized in 1920 to provide relief for fellow church members in Russia suffering from the ravages of civil war and famine. The auction that day raised $1,750, most of which was cabled to Russia the next day for use by MCC workers there.
While this event might be considered the original Mennonite Relief Sale, it was a one-time event. No subsequent sales for MCC took place in the following years. Furthermore, probably none of the organizers of an MCC relief sale in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a quarter century later realized they were reviving an idea begun in the San Joaquin Valley.
The Pennsylvania group founded the Gap Relief Auction in Lancaster County in 1948, thus beginning the modern era of Mennonite relief sales. By this time the mission of MCC had expanded considerably since its origins in the 1920s. No longer focused simply on helping fellow Mennonites, it now provided assistance to people from many countries regardless of their religious affiliation. The relief sale could be a way for people in North America to support and publicize that work.
Mennonites in other regions followed Pennsylvania’s example during the next several years, establishing relief sales and auctions across several Midwestern states. The rapid spread of these events caught the attention of Mennonites on the West Coast, and in 1966 the West Coast Mennonite Relief Committee began discussing the possibility of organizing such a sale in this area. The first West Coast sale took place on April 20, 1968, on the grounds of Richland Packing Company near Dinuba. It included a quilt auction, food booths, rummage sale and a Ford tractor that was auctioned for $900. Total receipts from the first West Coast sale were $17,600.
The sale grew rapidly in the following years. In 1976 net proceeds exceeded $50,000; by 1980 they had more than doubled that amount. As early as 1974, the sale organizers began to struggle with the need for more space. Numerous alternative locations in Fresno and Tulare County were considered, and in 1982 the sale moved to the campus of Fresno Pacific University. The event has continued to grow—what once could be contained in the gymnasium and adjoining Green now extends to almost every corner of the campus. New items for sale and events have been added over the years, including used books, international handcrafts, plants, an art show, children’s activities, a “run for relief” and a wide assortment of ethnic food booths, revealing how far the Mennonite family has grown beyond its Dutch and German roots. The 2007 sale brought in over $200,000, and the total proceeds of all West Coast sales since 1968 now exceeds $5.2 million.
In the 60 years since modern relief sales began, they have become an important means of supporting the work of Mennonite Central Committee, of communicating about its work to the larger community and of bringing local volunteers together to work on a common goal. Sales combine the feel of an old-fashioned country fair and rural auction with the important task of helping people in need around the world. As the North American relief sale website asks, “Since when is helping people around the world this much fun?”
Kevin Enns-Rempel is a history professor at Fresno Pacific University and archivist at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.