Doug Hostetter ’66 walks past the United Nations headquarter building on an almost daily basis, entering and leaving his small office in the basement of the Church Center for the United Nations, a 12-story building across First Avenue from the iconic UN building. (Photo by Jon Styer)

A challenging mission at the United Nations

The United Nations system contains about two dozen graduates of Eastern Mennonite University – most of them alumni of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) featured in the current issue of Peacebuilder magazine – but a handful have emerged from our undergraduate ranks, including Doug Hostetter ’66.

Hostetter is not on the payroll of a UN agency, but he is a familiar figure at United Nations headquarters in New York City as a result of his eight years of leading Mennonite Central Committee’s UN office. Staffed by three, including Hostetter, this office has “consultative status” with the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

Hostetter has access to some UN facilities and all open meetings, enabling him to present the views of MCC and its partner organizations on humanitarian, human rights, and peace issues. He sometimes arranges for off-the-record meetings where people who might not ordinarily meet can talk to each other.

This is round two for Hostetter with the UN. From 1971-80, he served the United Methodist Office for the UN as their resource specialist on peace, Asia, and Latin American issues.

Early in October 2013, Hostetter met with the editor and designer of Crossroads in his small office – where he sits less than 10 feet from the office intern – in the basement of the Church Center for the United Nations, a 12-story building across First Avenue from the iconic UN building.

Injustice of Security Council set-up

Hostetter spoke of the frustration of seeing cynical, self-serving and narrowly nationalistic considerations – especially at the UN Security Council level – block steps to mitigate violent conflict and address suffering, as he feels has been the case in Syria since March 2011.

“One of the problems with the UN is that it was set up by the victors of WWII, and they gave themselves a privileged position [in the Security Council],” he explains. “Almost all the resolutions that come before the Security Council are drafted in closed door sessions and through ‘horse trading,’ where the Permanent Five work out deals to suit themselves.”

Nevertheless, Hostetter sees value in what MCC seeks to do – “to bring the voice of people at the grassroots to the UN system.”

Several weeks after this interview, Hostetter conveyed a message from leaders of the Syrian Orthodox Church to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, containing an appeal for the UN to negotiate safe passage for the Red Crescent (similar to the Red Cross) to reach the wounded and safely evacuate families from several war-zone communities in Syria where MCC had been providing humanitarian assistance.

MCC, through Hostetter, pointed out that this appeal was in line with a UN Security Council presidential statement earlier that month, which included this sentence: “The Security Council calls on all parties to respect the UN guiding principles of humanitarian emergency assistance and stresses the importance of such assistance being delivered on the basis of need, devoid of any political prejudices and aims.”

Foundational lessons learned in Vietnam

Hostetter has a long history of advocating on behalf of those suffering from war. He began as a conscientious objector in the late 1960s, opting to do alternative service with MCC in Vietnam rather than being drafted into a military role there.

In an October 2011 talk at EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement, Hostetter spoke of his evolution as a young man in Vietnam from feeling that anybody not belonging to his stream of Anabaptism was not a true Christian to appreciating and loving the Catholics, Buddhists and other non-Mennonites with whom he did humanitarian work in Vietnam. He stopped trying to be an evangelist using words – “language is misunderstood but lives are very seldom misunderstood.” And he developed awareness of the understandable socio-economic motivations for conversion to privileged religious groups.

“In Vietnamese, there is a saying,” Hostetter told the Interfaith Engagement group. “When your rice bag is empty, adapt your religion to feed your children.” Hostetter expressed understanding of this survival strategy: “It’s very pragmatic and it works.” Thus, he noted, many Vietnamese became Catholics under French rule, and many became Protestants when they realized the dominant role of Protestants in the U.S. military system.

In response to this awareness, Hostetter started focusing on living his faith: “If you live with love and compassion, it is understood across cultures and religions.”

Trying to uphold nonviolent alternatives to war and oppression, Hostetter went from Vietnam to working in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. He has been heavily involved in reconciliation, citizen diplomacy, work camps and people-to-people exchanges with citizens of the former USSR, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bosnia, and Israel/Palestine. He has been employed by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Mennonite Central Committee. In 2003 he was ordained as Peace Pastor at Evanston (IL) Mennonite Church.

Support for Help the Afghan Children

Suraya Sadeed, an Afghan-American graduate of CJP and author of Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse (published in 2011), credits Hostetter with displaying cultural and religious sensitivity when, immediately after 9/11, he accompanied her to Afghanistan on a relief mission with her organization, Help the Afghan Children (HTAC).

“We carried $130,000 from HTAC, AFSC, MCC, and the Muslim Peace Fellowship that we used to purchase 239 tons of food and blankets in Tajikistan,” recalls Hostetter. “There we hired 23 10-ton trucks that we accompanied across the Amu Darya River to deliver the lifesaving supplies to refugees living in camps in Takhar Province in northern Afghanistan.

“I remember how pleased I was to be a part of an interfaith relief effort organized and funded by U.S. citizens to help the citizens of Afghanistan, even while my government was raining destruction on Taliban front lines just four miles south and on Afghan cities throughout the country. As the plumes of smoke rose, and the ground shuddered, I wondered what was happening to the Afghans living on the other side of the Taliban lines.”

Hostetter was able to find out – witnessing the aftermath of the horrific destruction of Kabul – in a later trip to Afghanistan with the AFSC.

At an age when many people would be thinking about retirement, Hostetter can’t imagine stepping away from the work he has done in some form for more than 40 years.

Returning recently to Vietnam, Hostetter saw that the damages of a war that officially ended decades ago – damages from the rockets, bombs, and Agent Orange that the U.S. military used to try to “win” the war – were still visible on the land as well as on the bodies and in the minds of the Vietnamese people.

Yet Hostetter also felt hope and love when he visited Tam Ky, the village where he had been an MCC volunteer in the late 1960s. “It was a wonderful reunion, and reminded me that in peace work, where our weapons are love and truth, there is no collateral damage. The children that we helped educate and the refugees we taught barbering or tailoring, benefited at that time, but also became lasting friends, regardless of which government ‘won’ the war.”

– Bonnie Price Lofton