Canada 150: On track? or derailed?
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) saved my people’s life. Maybe that sounds a bit dramatic. And actually, it’s a bit strange to say it that way—I don’t really ever talk about “my people” quite like that. But for this particular story, I’m learning it’s important that I do. Indeed, for many of us, this story is as familiar and formative as the biblical story of the Exodus itself.
The particular story is this: a century ago, as World War I was grinding on and the Russian revolution flared up, “my people” (those Mennonites of Dutch descent who spoke German and had lived as colonists in Russian-conquered Tatar, Bashkir, Nogai, and Ukrainian territories) experienced incredible hardship. Mennonites in North America heard about the hardships, and responded generously with relief supplies.
But many of the Mennonites from Russia wanted more than aid; they wanted to emigrate. They investigated US, Canada, and Mexico as possible destinations; only Canada chose to open its doors. But as a plundered and war-ravaged people, the costs of emigration were prohibitive. In 1922, a group of leaders formed the “Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization” and signed a deal with the CPR to transport 3,000 refugees on credit.
The émigrés began arriving in 1923, and by 1930 the CPR had brought more than 21 thousand refugees to Canada, at a loaned cost of over 1.7 million dollars. The stories of those left behind (like my father-in-law, who escaped the Soviet regime during World War II, or others who left for Germany in the 1970s, or who like my father’s half-sister outlived the USSR and could be visited by Westerners in the 1990s) reaffirmed the reasons to be thankful for the CPR’s way of escape.
In the minds of many, the CPR was a divine tool along the lines of biblical Cyrus, God’s “anointed” who brought release to Israel in exile.
The CPR destroyed my neighbours’ lives. Again, this is perhaps overly dramatic—but in the bigger picture, I don’t think so. Railway was the Next Big Thing in the mid 1800s. And as the railways came westward first across the American Midwest, then in copy-cat style a generation later north of the 49th, they led to the catastrophic demise of the American bison, the mainstay of the prairie First Nations economies. This happened indirectly, by slicing up the seasonal paths of the grazing herds; but also more directly, by importing hunters by the thousands, and transporting out bison skins by the hundreds of thousands (one firm in St. Louis traded a quarter million hides in 1871).
We know the economic pain of crude oil dropping from $100 to $40 a barrel; can we imagine the devastation and cultural upheaval of the total collapse of the bison economy? Herds numbering in the tens of millions at the time of colonial contact were reduced to a few isolated remnants totalling about a thousand animals by 1889. The resulting mass starvation on the prairies became a very useful tool in the hands of the colonial governments, to encourage bands to sign the treaties—treaties that laid the groundwork for the colonizing that brought my people to Canada.
The CPR saved my family’s life. My own family is bound up very much in the CPR immigration story. As the poor refugees arrived in Canada full of hope (including my mother’s Thiessen family in 1925, and my father’s in late 1928), the Great Depression struck. The $1.7 million debt looked like an impossible burden. And my grandfather was the chief debt collector for the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, as an employee for the CPR. C.F. Klassen criss-crossed the country (by train, of course), visiting every little Mennonite church, farm, and house, collecting dollar by dollar, sometimes only penny by penny, the prohibitive debt.
The principal was paid off in 1946; only $180,000 had been paid in interest, and the CPR forgave another $1.5 million in interest. How could this not be seen as God’s grace? And this work paved the way for another work of grace, as my grandfather returned to Europe after the war, and directed the resettlement of over seven thousand more Mennonite refugees from the USSR. His CPR work gave him knowledge of hundreds of Mennonite homes and communities across Canada, so that when he met fleeing families in Europe, he could help to connect them to relatives across the Atlantic.
The CPR derailed my neighbours’ families. The story of the building of Canada “from sea to sea” is the story of the railway, and the CPR in particular, as the reward promised to British Columbia for joining Confederation. It’s the story of “opening up” the West to European settlers, to occupy land advertised as “empty.”
It’s very specifically the story of the Riel Rebellion, with its almost 3,000 Canadian troops shipped out from Ontario and east, via the just-finished CPR lines, to suppress the Métis uprising against Ottawa’s unjust rule. The fear that this event fomented in eastern Canada of “savage Indians” was then used to tighten the already oppressive regime of the Indian Act. For example, the unofficial (never passed into law) policy of the pass system was still enforced, restricting the movements of Indigenous peoples off reserve.
And then, in 1890, Mennonite settlers arrived by rail in Laird, Saskatchewan. Federal agents in the years following sold those settlers land that had been set aside for the Young Chippewayan First Nation (Reserve 107). These Cree had signed Treaty 6 in 1876, but had fled the region in the aftermath of government crackdowns because of the 1885 Métis uprising (as well as on-going famine because of the disappearance of the bison).
The land was theirs, but vacant, and now it was illegally re-appropriated and sold to settlers from “my people.” The Young Chippewayan band, disbanded for a century and spread across western Canada, continues to work today to convince the government that they are the legitimate heirs of that broken treaty promise.
These intertwining stories are just a tiny, personal slice of 150 years of Canadian colonial complexity. It’s not a rant or an attack on the railway per se, although the CPR was certainly a tool and a promoter of the larger project of colonialism (and it’s commonly acknowledged that the railway enterprise of Canada’s nation-building era was an “orgy of corruption”: political kickbacks, subsidies, and the like). But mostly, this is a lament for the inextricable link between my story and my neighbours’ stories, to which I’ve been blind for most of my fifty-plus years.
It’s a painful reminder that as much as the CPR is part of my family’s story, I am also part of the CPR’s deeply checkered story. I might paraphrase the apostle: “The very railway that promised life [to me] proved to be death [to my neighbour]… Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? …Wretched colonial that I am! Who will deliver me from this body politic of death?”
Who indeed! There is a Person whose name is Truth. And his mission in life (and death) is Reconciliation, a journey which he calls us all to join him on. For me, that has meant a willingness to have my eyes opened to the existence of my Indigenous neighbours. Very specifically, the lives of Cree neighbours like Junior, Lucille, Kohkom Betsy, Jamin, Shelley, Hal, Margaret, Moshom Charlie (may he rest in peace), and other friends. People whose lives and lands have been subject to the derailing actions of a century and more of Canadian injustice, yet who remain people of generosity, goodwill, wisdom, and good humour. Their friendship invites and inspires me to get to know their story better—and to let it shape my own.
I look forward to a time in Canada when their people and mine, indigenous and settlers, can all live side by side with openness, trust, and friendship. Side by side, strong and true, like parallel ribbons of steel, equal in size, stretching across this vast land—no, stronger yet, strong like the solid earth beneath the rails, the ground on which all else is built.
Written by Randy Klassen. Randy lives in Saskatoon, in Treaty Six territory. He works for MCC Canada as national restorative justice coordinator. This article appeared in Mennonite Historian 43/3 (September 2017): 5 and was based on an earlier version appearing online as a blog post at <www.newleafnetwork.ca>.
PhD Student Saves History from the Shredder
When Jeremy Wiebe heard that the remaining inventory of Mennonites in Canada (volumes 1–3) were in danger of being shredded to save warehouse storage fees, he took action. Using his computer programming skills, and the offer of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies to take care of transportation to Winnipeg, storage, and shipping, PhD student Wiebe established a webstore at www.mennonitesincanada.ca with e-commerce capabilities that went live on April 12, 2017.
Wiebe’s idea was pitched at the January 2017 meeting in Winnipeg of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada. The Society had been looking for a way to sell its remaining copies of Mennonites in Canada volumes. A liquidation price of $5 per book, or $15 for the set of three meant that MHSC would get at least some return for these valuable books; and CMBS agreed to handle the shipping to anywhere in Canada for $20.
Sales have been brisk, according to Jon Isaak of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies. “We are down to only a few copies of volume 1, with more of volumes 2 and 3 remaining.” Isaak noted that some people are buying 15 books at a time to give as gifts.
The three volumes—1,500 pages in total—are widely recognized as the definitive history of the Mennonite experience in Canada from 1786 to 1970. The first two volumes, published in 1974 and 1982, were authored by Frank H. Epp; and the third volume was written by Ted Regehr and published in 1996.
Wiebe, a Mennonite history student in graduate studies at the University of Waterloo, is not surprised by the response. “An entire generation has come of book-buying age since the last volume was published,” Wiebe noted. “It would be a shame to see the books destroyed when there are people who would be thrilled to own this history of the Mennonite experience,” he continued.
The subtitles of the books show a progression: from “A history of a separate people,” then to “A People’s Struggle for survival,” and onward to “A People transformed.” Today Mennonites can be found in virtually all corners of Canada, some seeking to remain a separate people, others embracing the diversity of what the world offers, and still others finding their identity at some point on the separation-assimilation spectrum.
To order your copies, visit www.mennonitesincanada.ca; for orders outside of Canada, email email@example.com for a quote on shipping costs.
Written by Conrad Stoesz. This article appears in Mennonite Historian 43/2 (June 2017): 7. See complete collection of Mennonite Historian archived on the magazine’s website, http://www.mennonitehistorian.ca
Mennonite Family History Workshop on May 6 @ CMBS
• Get tips on researching your roots.
• Hear about heritage tours to Poland, Russia/Ukraine, and Europe.
• Learn about the archives and how to use them.
Presentations by Dr. Glenn Penner and Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies archivist Conrad Stoesz.
Suggested donation of $20 supports the Centre for MB Studies. Refreshments included.
McIvor Ave. MB Church Beginnings
North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren (NKMB) church in Winnipeg at 217 Kingsford Ave. had two problems in 1974: the church building was too small to accommodate the weekly attendance and many people in the congregation needed an all-English service.
At the time, the worship services in NKMB were an hour and a half: the first hour was in English, followed by half an hour in German. Typically, there would be a large exodus when the German service was about to start by people who did not understand German or who felt that one sermon was enough for one Sunday. The commotion was covered by providing what came to be known as the “organ break,” which functioned as a transition into the German half hour of songs and sermon.
It was decided that NKMB would build a new church. Church member and businessman Henry Redekopp had land on McIvor Ave., which he donated to the project. A building committee was struck. Another member, architect Helmut Peters, was commissioned to draw up a design. The building would cost $500,000 and construction would begin as soon as $200,000 was raised in cash and pledges.
The identity and number of people who would comprise the new congregation remained unknown and the construction was undertaken by the still-undivided NKMB church. Whichever congregation was smaller, the all-English or the bilingual, would become the congregation of the new church building, thus solving the dual problem of overcrowding and the unpopular exodus during the organ break. The projected completion date was the end of September, 1976.
Pastor William Neufeld and Assistant Pastor Allan Labun approached the church council with the observation that there would not be one new church, but two, and that consequently they would both be out of a job. The council agreed and proposed to the church that Pastor Neufeld be the pastor of the remaining members of a bilingual NKMB church and that Pastor Labun be appointed to the new all-English church. The proposal was accepted.
In July, letters were sent out to all 750 members, stating that a new all-English church with Allan Labun as pastor was being established. Any members of NKMB who wished to become part of the new church should sign and return a tear-off slip at the bottom of the letter. All others need not reply and would remain as members of NKMB by default. The specific church building in which each one would meet would depend on numbers. The cutoff date for a reply was the end of August, 1976. By the end of August, responses had been received from 248 members, almost exactly one-third of the church membership. This group, being the smaller, would move to the new building.
Allan Labun promptly announced a membership meeting of the new church two weeks into September, to be held in the basement of NKMB church. The new church had a building, 248 members, and a pastor, but nothing else: no name, no council, no Sunday School, not even pews or any other seats to sit on. People walked into the meeting and eagerly picked up the membership lists, looking around to see for the first time who they would be worshiping with. Those were exciting and heady days for us. The first item on the agenda was to elect a recording secretary (Frank Penner), then we went on to join the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba, elect a moderator (Harry Olfert), a council, adopt a constitution (that of NKMB, for the time being), a Sunday School Superintendent (Abe Reimer, who by the end of the evening had already recruited half his Sunday School teachers). We began talking about a name, a matter that was not settled until another meeting the following week.
The church dedication was carried out on October 10 by NKMB, the mother church, in the new building. About 800 people squeezed in for the event, sitting on borrowed stacking chairs. Our first independent service was held on October 17, 1976.
The final cost of the new building came in at $525,000 and at the time of the dedication there was still an outstanding debt of $122,000. This is quite amazing considering that no one knew who would occupy this new building until two months prior to dedication.
The question of the remaining $122,000 was addressed by a joint committee of the two churches. The committee proposal was that NK accept $35,000 and McIvor Ave. would accept the remaining debt of $97,000. The proposal was voted on and accepted by each church.
Written by Allan Labun, Harry Olfert, and Clara Toews. This article was first published in Mennonite Historian 42/4 (December 2016): 7. See complete collection of Mennonite Historian archived on the magazine’s website, http://www.mennonitehistorian.ca
Daughters in the House of Jacob
This new publication is a memoir of migration, written by two Canadian Mennonite women—a Bible professor and a pastor. It traces their vocational calling across generations and gender, back to their Bible teaching-preaching grandfather Jacob and to their unforgettable great-grandmother Agatha. The authors interview elder-storytellers and investigate leads through a trail of letters, pictures, and documents, while reflecting on their own journeys and solving a few mysteries along the way.
Dorothy M. Peters divides her time between writing and hospitality on Mayne Island, British Columbia, and teaching and lecturing on the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Christine S. Kampen serves as a pastor at Highland Community (Mennonite Brethren) Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
What are reviewers saying about the book?
“Warmly, and with astonishing honesty, cousins Dorothy Peters and Christine Kampen relate ‘who we are’ as women with a God-call to ministry. They draw us into the ‘surprises, secrets, and treasures’ of their wonderfully complicated family saga.”
–Dora Dueck, author of This Hidden Thing and What You Get at Home
“Peters and Kampen model what it means to come to different conclusions than parents and still remain within a wholesome family dynamic.”
–Patricia Janzen Loewen, Providence University College, Otterburne, Manitoba
“With storyteller’s skill, Peters and Kampen bring an informative window into the sorrows and joys experienced by women whose gifts were not always appreciated or endorsed by a largely patriarchal church culture.”
–Myron A. Penner, Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia
The book is a publication of the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission and Kindred Productions.
To order your copy, visit the Kindred Productions website; click here.
Released June 2016
Retail $22.95 CAD (plus taxes)
Mennonite Archival Image Database (MAID) grows
Posted on by Jon Isaak
The Mennonite Archival Image Database (MAID) is growing and with it, extending its reach for people looking for rare images. On the eve of its first anniversary, MAID welcomes the Mennonite Library & Archives (ML&A) at Fresno Pacific University (Fresno, California) as our newest archival partner.
ML&A is the eighth MAID partner and the first outside Canada, which enhances MAID’s vision of being a source for “the discovery of photographs of Mennonite life from around the world.” MAID’s eight partners have now collectively uploaded over 82,000 photographic descriptions into our Internet-accessible database (http://archives.mhsc.ca); nearly 19,000 of these have scanned images attached.
With each new partner, the Mennonite family and network becomes larger and stronger. Archival photo experts from each centre help provide valuable information about photos in their own collection and collaborate with other partners improving the contextual knowledge of various collections, benefiting everyone. Over time, and as families and their records scatter, information becomes lost.
However, as photo experts work at posting and describing photos, connections between photos that are held in different archives are found. It is not uncommon for two, three, or four archivists to be in discussion on a series of photos. Each archivist can supply important pieces of the puzzle that brings us collectively closer to identifying a photo or people in the photo. Each archivist has long-standing knowledge and networks that can be tapped to help identify people, places, and events. Through the collaborative network of MAID and its partners, the Mennonite community of yesterday is slowly being reconstituted.
ML&A has begun entering photographs into MAID from its rich collections, which consists of tens of thousands of photographs. Highlights include the Henry J. Wiens photographs of Mennonite Brethren church buildings, photographs of Mennonite Brethren congregational life on the west coast of the United States, the Fresno Pacific University photograph collection, and a massive collection of Mennonite Brethren mission photographs from around the world. Kevin Enns-Rempel (library director) and Hannah Keeney (archivist) are coordinating photograph entries from Fresno, which involves selecting images and providing the descriptions that will make them searchable on the Internet. “These photographs have been available in the archives for many years, but only to those researchers able to visit the archives,” says Enns-Rempel. “MAID will make these photographs visible to the world, and will spur interest in the larger archival collections at Fresno.”
The Mennonite Library and Archives is one of four North American archival centres for the Mennonite Brethren church in North America. It is located in the Hiebert Library at Fresno Pacific University. The archives hold records of the Pacific District Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, Fresno Pacific University, and personal manuscript collections related to the Mennonite Brethren church. In addition to the archival collections, the ML&A also holds an Anabaptist/Mennonite library collection of nearly 17,000 volumes.
The Mennonite Archival Image Database is a project of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada. It was launched in 2015 by seven original partners: the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Winnipeg), the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, the Mennonite Heritage Centre (Winnipeg), the D. F. Plett Historical Research Foundation, and the Mennonite Historical Societies of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan.
Visionary Prison Warden
“Ron was a remarkable man,” said Commissioner Ole Ingstrup of Correctional Services Canada. “He knew where he was going and was not afraid to boldly experiment with new methods in order to realize his goals. His struggle to improve his profession was driven not by desire for personal attention, but always with the goal of improving the contribution of corrections to public safety.”
Ron Bruce Wiebe (1945–1999) was born and raised in Abbotsford, BC. His parents were William (Bill) G. Wiebe and Elizabeth (Janzen) Wiebe. Ron loved the Fraser Valley and referred to this area of Canada as the best place in the world. While growing up, he attended both private and public schools, studying at the Mennonite Educational Institute and graduating from the Abbotsford Secondary High School. His family attended the Abbotsford Mennonite Brethren Church (later re-named Central Heights Church) where he was baptized. Ron’s understanding of faith was consistently shaped by his inclination to ask difficult questions, sometimes to the frustration of his elders and teachers. This trait continued into adulthood and helped forge a solid theological foundation for everything he did.
After attending Briercrest Bible Institute (BBI) in Saskatchewan, Ron studied at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby) and finished with a Master of Arts degree in Social Work from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). He met his wife Shirley at BBI and—together with their two oldest sons Jeffrey and Jason—they spent two years in the Northwest Territories where Ron served as a community social worker. They returned to Abbotsford, where their third son Jordan was born, and lived there until Ron’s untimely death from cancer in 1999.
Ron enjoyed a lifelong career with the federal government at Correctional Services Canada. He brought his skills as a social worker to his first job, working with incarcerated men as a parole officer and he went on to hold a variety of leadership roles in corrections.
At the time of his illness and death, Ron was serving as warden at both the Ferndale Institution and the Elbow Lake Institution. In this capacity, he had a huge influence in implementing Restorative Justice programs to assist offenders in addressing the harm brought upon victims, thereby preparing for a more positive re-entry into the community. The Restorative Justice movement—with religious roots in Anabaptist-Mennonite teaching—advocates for justice that has to do with healing, reconciliation, and restoration, making things right with God and with one another.
Ron was instrumental in introducing the principles of Restorative Justice to federal correctional institutions, which led eventually to its application through the whole continuum—from serious violent crimes to institutional conflicts between offenders. Where appropriate, it led to more face-to-face encounters between offenders and their victims, in an attempt to gain greater understanding of the contextual dynamics of conflict and to begin repairing the emotional harm done by the offender.
Under Ron’s leadership, the Elbow Lake Institution’s programs focused primarily on Indigenous Peoples, engaging the services of Indigenous elders to provide both spiritual and cultural support to help offenders in their rehabilitation. Ron’s ability to authentically respect Indigenous cultural ways led to many opportunities for collaborative work with community leaders, increasing the positive impact on the lives of Indigenous Peoples and their communities.
While Ron was dying, he had the opportunity to contemplate his work within corrections and record his observations and counsel for future corrections programing. His book, Reflections of a Canadian Prison Warden, was published by Correctional Services Canada in 2000. One of the many experiences he describes in the book is a significant Restorative Justice meeting in a healing circle with members of an Indigenous community that had experienced tremendous loss. It turned out to be a life-changing and healing experience for participants and witnesses to the process.
Tireless in his networking to raise awareness and gain support from the broader community, Ron regularly met with service clubs, seniors’ groups, or civic officials. In fact, Ron added a sub-title to the prison’s name, “Partners in Corrections.”
Ron’s seminal contribution to Restorative Justice led Correctional Service of Canada to establish a National Restorative Justice Award in his honor. The award is given to a worthy person or organization annually.
Beyond his career in corrections, Ron’s influence extended into the community. He was active in sporting leagues and the development of the Ag-Rec Centre, a multipurpose site for sport, exhibitions, track and field, and community organizations. His work in this area was recognized by the Abbotsford Recreation Commission and they named a sporting complex in his honor: Ron Wiebe Playing Fields.
A committed member of Highland Community Church (MB), Ron and his family began worshipping there in 1980. He served as elder for many years and was the lead author of Highland’s “Statement of Mission and Core Values” that continues to guide the church through to the present in worship, mutual caring, and service. Ron was passionate about having a strong foundational framework of leadership principles derived from Christian faith. Out of this heart for community, he mentored leaders at work, in the community, and the church. He modeled relational trust, values-based leadership, an appreciation for “soul-work,” and a commitment to excellence.
For Ron, the greater emphasis was always on “doing the right thing rather than merely doing things right.”
For more about Ron Wiebe, see Reflections of a Canadian Prison Warden. The Visionary Legacy of Ron Wiebe: An Unfinished Conversation (http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/restorative-justice/003005-3100-eng.shtml).
Written by John Konrad and Nellie Taylor. This article was first published in Profiles of Mennonite Faith, Spring 2016, No. 59. See complete collection of Profiles archived on the Historical Commission’s website, http://www.mbhistory.org/profiles/index.en.html
My Emigrant Father
For more than sixty years Katie Funk Wiebe has written for the church, encouraging and challenging several generations to think more deeply about their faith and to walk more faithfully with God. She has published over two thousand articles, columns, and book reviews, and written or edited more than twenty books.
This summer marked the release of her latest book, My Emigrant Father: Jacob J. Funk, 1896–1986.
Particularly adept at opening her life to others and “wrapping words” around her thoughts, questions, doubts, and struggles, Katie has chosen in this book to tell the story of her father, Jacob Funk.
Here’s what reviewers are saying:
“Once again, the storekeeper’s daughter has mined her rich store of family stories to explore universal themes of love and loss and yearning.” —Valerie G. Rempel
“Don’t be fooled—this is not just a family history or a devoted daughter’s tribute to her father. This is Mennonite drama at its best, deftly and vibrantly told by one of its most cherished writers.” —Wally Kroeker
“The recipes with Low German titles at the end of each chapter bring authenticity and realism to the book, especially when Katie describes how she continues to use them.” —Linda Huebert Hecht
“Born in 1924, Katie is able to reach far back to capture a textured oral history that spans church squabbles and family drama, artistically weaving it into a well-researched memoir.” —Jake Buhler
“Katie Funk Wiebe’s extended eulogy to her father in these pages is affectionate, honest, and compelling. It unfolds in stories—stories about ghosts, tragic deaths, family separation like ‘a toothache in the heart,’ uprooting from one country, re-rooting in the next. Wiebe’s quest to understand this ordinary yet remarkable man who influenced her so deeply, and her willingness to reveal the burdens both ‘light and heavy’ of their bond, are a wonderful inspiration.” —Dora Dueck
The book is publication of the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission and Kindred Productions. To order your copy, visit the Kindred Productions website; click here.
Retail $22.95 CDN (plus taxes)
Conrad at Sixteen Years of Service
This year marks a significant milestone in the ministry of Conrad Stoesz, archivist at the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies. Conrad has been job-sharing—half-time at CMBS and half-time at the Mennonite Heritage Centre—for sixteen years!
Visitors to CMBS over the years have come to appreciate his helpful responses to their genealogical or historical queries, his thoughtful interaction on questions of Mennonite theology and social engagement, and his ready smile and quick wit, often sprinkled with Low German humour or some funny story.
When asked about key reasons for choosing to be an archivist, he is quick to point to several early experiences he had while growing up in Altona, Manitoba. Conrad recalls with much satisfaction how his mother instilled in him an interest, aptitude, and desire to know as much as possible about his forebears and his relatives—their stories, their names, their birthdates, and even their wedding anniversaries. He thought all mothers were naturally gifted at being able to recite all these details whenever asked. While he eventually discovered this was not the case, it didn’t matter, because he had already “caught” her vision for remembering and telling the family story.
Then in grade eleven, he recalls doing a large genealogical project for school. His mother took him to visit aged relatives and he was intrigued by the process of collecting oral interviews with them. He managed to keep up quite well with the Low German conversation and was able to collate and diagram the information into an impressive storyboard of his family. Even disturbing accounts of awkward and unsettling occurrences, which were also part of the fabric of the family narrative, were processed and included in his growing understanding and appreciation of the “thick” and “thin” aspects of family life.
During his studies at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, his on-campus job at the Mennonite Heritage Centre was responding to user requests for help locating their genealogical backgrounds. In “those days” this was done mostly “old school,” paging through published genealogies looking for pertinent names, as digital indexes, internet databases, and web-based church registers and obituaries were not yet available. He took classes and did an independent study while at CMBC, all of which helped him deepen his understanding of Mennonite History.
For several summers he managed to secure Young Canada Works grants in order to work at the archives at the Mennonite Heritage Centre, even after his graduation from college. The key “break” for Conrad came in 1999 when he was hired by both CMBS and MHC to the dual post that he continues to occupy today.
During the years of employment, he managed take classes on a part-time basis, completing certification as an archivist at the University of Alberta and taking courses toward an M.A. in history in the joint program offered by the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, which he has almost finished. Conrad has also published important essays on the Mennonite experience of Alternative Service as Conscientious Objectors during WWII and on Mennonite midwifery during the 19th century.
By nature, Conrad is a curious person, collecting as much information as possible on most any topic. He enjoys helping people. Plus, he is convinced that it is not wise to automatically set aside or dismiss “old things.” He admits even a degree of distrust and suspicion of things touted as new and improved. These characteristics make Conrad a natural archivist, skilled in preserving and maintaining documents, stories, and images of the past, both to establish a clearer understanding of what transpired and to chart possible ways through contemporary challenges.
In addition, Conrad enjoys the important dimension of being a church archivist, as it allows him to minister to patrons by having conversations about how archival work resonates with the biblical call to remember the ways of our forebears and to acknowledge our part in the larger work of God’s mission. There is a pastoral aspect to the work, says Conrad, as he often is able to help people come to grips with important questions of family, faith, and society from a Christian perspective.
For sixteen years Conrad’s dual assignment has enabled him to function as a bridge between the sometimes diverse worlds of the Mennonite Brethren Church and the Mennonite Church. Early on, however, that relationship was tested. On January 6, 2000, Conrad received a telephone call from the chairperson of the CMBS advisory board, asking him if he knew why this particular day was important. After making several attempts—Was it the chairperson’s birthday? Was it the birthday of conference minister?—and getting nowhere, he heard the chairperson say, “Your job depends on getting this answer correct!” That was the only hint that Conrad needed, as he knew that January 6 was the date in 1860 that Mennonite Brethren celebrate as the birthday of this Mennonite renewal movement. “You’re right!” exclaimed the chairperson, and Conrad—the Mennonite Church member—has been working at the MB Centre ever since.
Congratulations, Conrad, and thank you for your faithful service these sixteen years. You have seen many changes—you’ve worked under five different Directors, moved the collection to two different locations, helped in the design of the current location at 1310 Taylor, migrated the digital resources to three different websites, and much more. Through it all you’ve maintained a positive, helpful, and friendly spirit. We wish you well as you continue to serve.
Written by Jon Isaak. The article first appeared in the Mennonite Historian, June 2015.
Your story, my story, God’s story . . . on the third storey
Sesame Street had burst on the scene in colour with short sketches and educational segments: talking heads and flannelgraph wasn’t going to sustain children’s attention on their television screens.
Into this environment MB Communications launched the half-hour TV program The Third Story in 1977. Along with a team of musicians, actors, and technicians, pastor and cartoonist Lorlie Barkman created and produced 91 episodes for television: seven seasons over 15 years.
During studies at MB Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Cal., Barkman was intrigued by missiologist Hans Kasdorf’s account of a culture that spoke with visuals and hand gestures. Hearing Kasdorf’s teaching about contextualization through the lens of his passion, visual art, Barkman began to ask himself, how do you present the word of God visually?
“I’d tried linear preaching, logical propositions,” he says, “but people weren’t convinced.”
Then he realized the huge role of story in the Bible: “it’s only 30 percent propositional,” he says, “and some 70 percent image, parable, poetry, history, story.”
Each episode began with one word. Barkman and his team would attack it from different angles, eventually finding a science tie-in, a song tie-in, and Scripture to develop the theme. And drawings, of course. Episodes came to include personal stories recorded on the road, and brief interviews on questions related to the subject.
In the early years, the show was targeted for children, using child actors gathered in the titular third-floor playroom of a house, spelling out lessons with the help of troubadour and mentor-figure Harry Loewen. After the third season when Ron Voth came on as host, the target was broadened to family viewing. In the final seasons, Garth Klassen and Phyllis Reimer served as hosts.
“Publicity went to the churches, so we always had Christian audience – but we assumed we didn’t,” says Barkman. They wrote accordingly, using the Living Bible to keep Scripture quotations simple and accessible, and explaining Bible stories as though the audience were hearing it for the first time.
“We tried to have diversity in the show appeal to diversity in the audience,” says Barkman.
“Jesus was mentioned unabashedly on the show,” says Barkman.
One of the remarkable things about The Third Story was that it was done in close collaboration with a local television station, CKY. Episodes would be recorded over the weekend when the television studio was not in use for regular programming. Over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, the Third Story team would feverishly record their segments with the help of CKY’s camera operators and technicians.
“We had all their technicians’s attention; we were the only ones in the studio!” says Barkman. And “we never paid a cent for airtime.” He recalls having a good rapport with CKY’s people.
Barkman cherishes the memory of the diverse ages that worked on Third Story, from the child actors to MB Communications’s director Neil Klassen, who was much older than the young Barkman and his co-producer Marv Thiessen.
The Third Story also engaged creative people, in ways that weren’t necessarily tapped by the regular functions of church. The show connected with students at MB Bible College for their talents, labour and ideas.
The Third Story had a two-year rhythm: one and a half years spent on production, half a year on marketing it to viewers and broadcasters. The crew would go on the road for promotion, to visit churches, and to ask around for affecting stories from real people to feature.
Barkman recalls that church members would sometimes complain about the difficulty of finding the show on television, as the seven episodes of a season aired up to six times in different slots across the country. At its height, The Third Story also aired in the U.S. on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
However, “we didn’t worry when our own constituents were miffed about not understanding schedule because there was an audience,” Barkman says. Only a quarter of the letters he received were signed with ethnoculturally “Mennonite” names.
Some letter-writers shared heart-breaking family situations, but nearly all wrote appreciatively of the comfort and encouragement of the show. “I asked Jesus into my heart,” wrote one child; “it felt real good.”
But technology was changing. “It was hard to keep the content exciting; harder to keep up with creativity and pizzazz in industry,” says Barkman. After 15 years, it was time for something different. He was getting worn out by the demand for idea generation, ready to set aside the grind of television production for an invitation to pastor.
Barkman hasn’t set aside his creativity since leaving The Third Story. The boy who finished his work early in grade school so he could doodle on the chalkboard has continued to use visual communication, returning to MB Communications, at that point called Family Life Network, to share his broad experience with Grant Hoeppner and other newly developing ministries, such as Connecting Points for Kids. He also discovered the power of drawing in communicating with opposite ages by drawing out memories for seniors living with dementia.
The course of time ravages the electronic and well as the physical. The 2-inch tape on which Third Story was first recorded was obsolete and the ¾-inch pneumatic tape was degrading, so in 2011, the Centre for MB Studies asked Barkman to help digitize as many of the old tapes as possible, preserving them for posterity. That project is complete and 78 episodes have been digitized and are now part of the CMBS collection.
Written by Karla Braun. The article first appeared in the Mennonite Historian, March 2015.
Artifacts of honour
Posted on by Jon Isaak
In addition to the Moro (Ayoreo) spear that was donated to the Centre in August 2014 (see Mennonite Historian 40/3 [Sept. 2014]: 7), the collection of artifacts associated with missionary Ann Klassen Wiens (1930–1988) received a further contribution in January 2015. Family members donated several items that Ann had acquired—items that later came into her family’s possession—while she served as missionary, health promoter, and advocate among the indigenous peoples (Enlhet, Nivacle, Ayoreo) living near Yalve Sanga in the Chaco region of Paraguay.
Three items of particular interest are pictured: a warrior-hunter headdress, feathered necklace, and a carving tool. The whole CMBS team got involved in processing the artifacts. In correspondence with Paraguayan archivist Gundolf Niebuhr, CMBS archivist Conrad Stoesz learned that the Ayoreo held their warrior-hunters in high esteem. Only by killing a jaguar would an Ayoreo hunter earn the right to wear a headdress like the one pictured. In many native cultures, the wearing of animal skins or feathers was a way of transferring some of the attributes of the animal to the warrior-hunter. That such a headdress made of jaguar hide, parrot feathers, and falcon feathers came into Ann’s possession is likely another indication of the esteem in which she was held by the indigenous peoples.
Archival assistant Kate Regier constructed two special boxes designed to house and protect the feathered artifacts from deterioration. Editor Susan Huebert wrote the text for the upcoming Spring 2015 issue of Profiles of Mennonite Faith, featuring the life and ministry of Ann Klassen Wiens. In focus are Ann’s highly-regarded missionary skills of relating to the aboriginal peoples living near the Mennonite settlements in the Chaco, especially her friendly demeanor, ready laughter, strong faith in God, “can-do” spirit, and tenacious advocacy for aboriginal women and their families.
The carving tool, also pictured, is likely made from the same cast off steel—left behind by oil and gas explorations in the area—that was used to fashion the sharp spear that came into Ann’s possession, one similar to the spear that killed missionary Kornelius Isaak in 1958 (see Profiles of Mennonite Faith, No. 19, http://www.mbhistory.org). There is some evidence that one factor contributing to the hostility directed toward early missionaries was that they were associated with the oil and gas explorations that altered their traditional way of life (see MH 35/3 [Sept. 2009]: 1–2).
These artifacts and several others, now appropriately preserved and described, will help keep the inspirational story of Ann Klassen Wiens available for future generations.
Written by Jon Isaak. The article first appeared in the Mennonite Historian, March 2015.
Ann Klassen Wiens (1930–1988): missionary, advocate, and friend
In August 2014, Arli Klassen donated several items to the Centre from her aunt, Ann Louise Klassen (1930–1988), long-time Mennonite Brethren missionary in Paraguay (1960–1988). The items included a photograph of Ann, several pages of reflections on the life of this remarkably gifted woman, a painting of an aboriginal male, and a very sharp Moro spear from the indigenous Ayoreo people of the Paraguayan Chaco.
Those acquainted with the Mennonite mission story in Paraguay will know of the well-publicized story of Mennonite missionary Kornelius Isaak killed by an Ayoreo named Jonoine with one such Moro spear in 1958.
Missionary Ann Klassen—known for her hearty laughter, generous and caring spirit, assertive character, and strong leadership—had her own Moro spear story. Among the documents deposited by Arli was this account written by her family in Canada.
“It was well understood in the [Paraguayan] church colonies that the death of [Missionary] Isaak was for a purpose and further contacts [with the Ayoreo or Moro people] were to be sought. It was also noted that the search for oil in the tribal areas by large oil companies was causing problems for the feared tribes but further contacts by the missionaries were being planned and an opportunity developed. The two Mennonite missionaries authorized to proceed with the plan decided to ask Ann Klassen to accompany them, since she was proficient in two related native languages and had good experience in dealing with ‘friendly’ tribes [Lengua] who had also taught her some Moro [Ayoreo] words.
“This turned out to be most dramatic. They entered a clearing in the bush where the Moros were reported to have been seen. Indeed, several male figures appeared from the bush across the clearing, each party taking slow steps and frequent stops as they surveyed each other. The missionary troop kept gesturing friendship and an eagerness to give them gifts they were carrying for that purpose.
“When the distance between them grew smaller, Klassen boldly stepped forward and offered the leader (holding an infamous Moro spear) some candy bars, which she illustrated by eating some. The leader approached her, but instead of reaching for the offered candy, he grabbed at the string of pearls she was wearing. This had been a planned gift by Klassen, knowing how precious such jewelry was to the Indians. Her response was a pronounced display of agreement, but with a condition. She motioned that she wanted his big long spear in exchange for the pearls. His letting go of the spear and taking the pearls signified a fair deal. More gifts were given; and just as they had appeared, they disappeared back into the bush.
“It can be reported that this encounter led to further contacts and a certain degree of peace developed out of this experience. Ann Klassen brought this spear back to Canada on one of her furloughs and used it effectively to tell her stories at mission conferences and Sunday school sessions. It has been in her family’s keeping for many years. Understandably, many viewed it as a fearsome and deadly weapon.
“Ann Klassen died of cancer in the mission field in 1988 and the Lengua [people] honoured her life and contributions by burying her under her favourite tree in their village square. The grave site is well cared for and was an item of special display at one of the Mennonite World Conference tours at the assembly in Paraguay in 2009.”
When Arli Klassen, niece to Ann Klassen, visited Paraguay in 2011, she spoke with some of those who remembered Ann’s work among the Lenguas. Here are some of things they told Arli about her aunt.
“After Ann came back from a stint in Canada, Ann worked with the Lengua women as a social worker—a new job that no one had ever done before.
“Lots of Indians were Ann’s friends, and Ann took them inside her house. Ann taught us how to bring them inside our homes.
“The Indians were a hunting and gathering society, which meant that the Mennonites saw this as largely ‘begging.’ Ann saw this as part of their hunting and gathering traditions, and would give them things as much as she could.
“Ann was always talking and laughing. The Indians love to laugh. Ann was always laughing with them. They loved being with Ann.”
In 1979, Ann married widower Peter Wiens in Yalve Sanga, Fernheim, Paraguay, and embraced yet another challenge with her customary enthusiasm—this time as spouse and mother to Peter’s six children. Of their nine years together, Ann Wiens said: “We were able to serve the Lord together in our family, church, and community.”
Written by Jon Isaak. The article first appeared in the Mennonite Historian, September 2014.
As a pastor of a Mennonite Brethren church in Japan, Yoshio Fujii had limited knowledge of the church’s deep Anabaptist roots.
To learn more about the church’s history and theology, he spent 2013/2014 studying at Fresno (California) Pacific Biblical Seminary, followed by a five-week MB Historical Commission archival internship in May and June.
Through his seminary studies and research at the Centres for MB Studies in Winnipeg, Abbotsford, B.C., Hillsboro, Kansas, and Fresno, he gained a deep appreciation for community-based discipleship that strives to exemplify the spirit and actions of Jesus.
“Anabaptists found a way to have a living faith,” he says. “It is a way of life. It is a beautiful faith.”
Fujii and his wife Megumi provide pastoral care at Senboku Christ Church in Osaka. Before moving to Osaka, they were pastors of North Christ Church in Hiroshima. Fujii also teaches at the Evangelical Biblical Seminary in Osaka.
Loss leads to questions
Fujii says his interest in the history of the Japanese Mennonite Brethren Conference (JMBC) stems from the loss of identity and roots that he felt when his father died in 2011.
This personal loss took place just a few weeks after an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. More than 18,000 people were killed and the Fukushima nuclear plant was damaged.
“To this natural and artificial disaster, the JMBC, including me, had no idea how to respond,” he says. “I wanted to know…. How can we help people who are needy and suffering?”
MB churches in Japan, he says, teach the good news of salvation and assurance of eternal life in heaven.
“Individually, we say in our hearts that we follow Jesus, but it is an invisible faith to our neighbours,” Fujii says. “How to make our invisible faith into a visible faith – that is my interest.”
Teachers demonstrate Christ-like-ness
While in North America, Fujii learned how Anabaptist churches work for peace and justice through demonstrating Christ-like responses. He learned about the history and ministries of Mennonite Central Committee and MB Mission in Japan.
During his archival internship, Fujii read handwritten letters and reports written by MB missionaries in Japan. He was moved by their dedication and commitment to starting MB churches and a Bible college in Japan.
One his greatest sources of inspiration and learning was witnessing the daily lives and choices of his professors in Fresno and the people he met during his archival internship.
“It was through the way they lived that I learned a lot about Anabaptism,” Fujii says. “They show kindness to foreigners. They care for the marginalized and minorities. They have compassion for the poor, the needy and the hungry. It is not just a private faith; it is a transformed life.”
When he returns to Osaka, he plans to use his influence as a pastor and professor to inspire and equip people to demonstrate Christ-like responses in daily life.
Some of the concerns in Japan are inequality between men and women, educated and uneducated, Japanese and non-Japanese, Fujii says. Men have a difficult time balancing work and personal lives. The elderly and people living in poverty and with disabilities need love and care.
“We want to pay more attention to loving people,” he says.
—Gladys Terichow, staff writer, Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, posted 27 June 2014
A book written 100 years ago by a German Baptist minister provides insight into the relationship among Mennonite Brethren and German Baptist churches in German communities in what is now Ukraine.
Through the translating efforts of a retired educator, Walter Regehr of Winnipeg, Johann E. Pritzkau’s book, German Baptists in South Russia, is now available in English.
“I feel humbly grateful that I have been able to do something for my Mennonite community to make this material available,” said Regehr at a book launch in November hosted by the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (CMBS) in Winnipeg.
Also present at the book launch was Albert Wardin, a Nashville, Tennessee Baptist scholar who has a special interest in the relationship between German Baptists and Mennonite Brethren in the late 19th century.
Wardin told the gathering of about 45 people that religious persecution did not stop Baptists, Mennonites and others from starting a spiritual renewal movement among German speaking people who had been invited by Catherine the Great to settle in South Russia.
Jon Isaak, CMBS director, says the book offers insight into the challenges and opportunities for the German colonists of South Russia to work together.
“Over 100 years ago, MBs worked together with other Christian groups,” says Isaak. “This is important because MBs have not always done so. Recently MBs have once again realized that we can always do more together than by ourselves, even partnering with those with whom we differ as we participate together in God’s mission in this world.”
However, he adds, Pritzkau’s account of the early history of Baptist churches also points out “embarrassing aspects” of early MB missionary activity in South Russia.
In the book, Pritzkau states membership in a state-recognized church was important to establish national identity, as the local church submitted the certificates of death, birth, baptism and marriages to the Russian government.
Although MB churches nurtured and baptized new converts, Pritzkau says they did not grant membership status to new converts from German Catholic and Lutheran villages. The reason given in the book was fear that the MB church would lose its privilege of military exemption given to Mennonites and their descendants.
In his account about the Baptist church at Kronental, Pritzkau says the first members had been baptised by MB evangelists. But without formal membership in a recognized church the new converts were considered stateless and suspect.
Pritzkau says, “For remedy from their difficulty, the distressed brothers turned to our [German Baptist] Association with the request that they be accepted into the Union, in order that they could be granted the statutory rights enjoyed by the [Russian] Baptists in the rest of Russia.”
While it is a Baptist history book, the MB influence in Russia is seen throughout the book. “We can learn from the successes and failures of that early MB mission, especially as we learn how to work together with other Christian groups in the post-denominational reality that is emerging,” says Isaak.
Written by Gladys Terichow, staff writer for the Canadian Conference of MB Churches.
The book sells for $20 (including GST) and is available through the Kindred Productions website. Click here.