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Ministry with Aussiedler in Niedergoersdorf

Stretching for the Gospel:
Ministry with Aussiedler in Niedergoersdorf


March 19, 2002
MC Canada Release by Peter Rempel, Mission Partnership Facilitator

Henriette Schellenberg engages Aussiedler children in Sunday School

Niedergoersdorf, Germany - A couple, both professional musicians in the former Soviet Union have just arrived from the former Soviet Union. They receive James Schellenberg in their single room at a temporary reception center. They speak with two sets of tears at their emigration, rejoicing at the prospect of a better life in Germany while grieving over their separation from family and friends.

A young Aussiedler (emigrant) mother brings her son to the children's club at the Free Mennonite Church in Niedergoersdorf, in the hope that through activities guided by Henriette Schellenberg and her helpers, the boy will find friends and cues for adapting to their new country. His mother hovers over him as he draws, not sure whether her presence will help or hinder his integration with the other children.

Two elderly couples share their life stories with James and Henriette. They try to understand that the Russian family of one of the spouses suffered immeasurably, just as German families did. Deep and long-lasting pain surfaces. Feelings are soothed by calming words and gentle touches.

Irina tells the story of the healing of Bartimaeus with a flannelograph to the twenty children gathered in the front benches, alternating between German and Russian. She knows the story is unfamiliar to many of the adults in the congregation, so the story-telling becomes a sermon about God's offer of healing and our response.

A dozen young women, stylishly dressed according to Russian standards - slip into the church center for an evening of conversation in German. After spending their day in their small apartments with children and chores, they are eager to practice the language of their new homeland and to converse with other women undergoing the stresses of adapting to Germany.

These are just a few real life vignettes of the Aussiedler, emigrants from the former Soviet Union to Germany. For them, adapting to their new setting involves a lot of stretching. The challenges are many:

" Conversing in the rich Russian language in which they are fluent to the grammatically complex German language which is so strange to them;
" Changing from the rough and ready but friendly Russian lifestyle to refined, reserved and rigorous German codes of behaviour;
" Moving from deprivation of Biblical stories and church life to Christian discipleship and congregational participation;
" Remembering a life among people who silently shared the experiences of political oppression and material deprivation to living among people whose wealth and freedom make them oblivious to the causes and effects of personal suffering.

To support these people in their stretching across cultural and linguistic gaps, there is other stretching across denominational and national barriers happening, a stretching for the gospel. For James and Henriette Schellenberg, it means stretching from their home community in Winnipeg to a former military airbase one hundred kilometers south of Berlin, and stretching from their home congregation of Douglas Mennonite Church to the Christian Faith Community (Christliche Glaubensgemeinschaft) in Niedergoersdorf.

For Mennonite Church Canada which provides the Schellenbergs financial support, it involves close cooperation with several partners in Germany. MC Canada's involvement began at the invitation of Mennonite Central Committee and the "Mennonitische Umsiedlerbetreuung," a ministry to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The next stage was cooperating with the Berlin Mennonite Church and the conference of congregations of which it is a member, the Vereinigung Deutscher Mennonitengemeinden. The Dutch Mennonite service agency, Bijzondere Noden, also came forward with financial support.

The ministry among the Aussiedler wants to be respectful of their various denominational backgrounds (eg. Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite). So, the congregation's identity and name was stretched to span these. For a holistic service the congregation together with the local government and the regional Lutheran synod formed a community initiative Gemeinschaftswerk Niedergoersdorf) MC Canada also joined. The Gemeinschaftswerk staff team includes about ten workers, some German, some Canadian and some Aussiedler. The cooperation between Mennonite and Lutheran leaders and between government and church representatives in Niedergoersdorf is yet another manifestation of the unifying impact of mission.

More recently, a cluster of progressive Aussiedler congregations known as the WEBB congregations (in Wolfsburg, Espelkamp, Bechterdissen and Bielefeld, the cities in which they are located) is committing to quarterly visits in addition it its financial contribution. The Vereinigung and WEBB groups demonstrate their readiness to stretch toward one another - a sign of the reconciling power of the gospel, despite recent tensions.

The players in this complex web are now stretching to overcome the turmoil and dislocation caused by the collapse of one of their own. The developer who acquired and renovated the dilapidated and ransacked airbase to house the Aussiedler went bankrupt.The trustee assigned by the banks to recoup their loans so mismanaged the tenants that many have moved away, hardly any new ones moved in, and the demise of the community served by the church is imminent. Several levels of government including the Niedergoersdorf municipality and the province of Brandenburg, together with several branches of the church with counsel from the Gemeinschaftswerk staff are now seeking a way to sustain the housing development so that Aussiedler have good living conditions.

It is yet another stretching for the gospel. Such stretching is good for all.

James and Henritte Schellenberg are Mennonite Church Canada Witness international workers. They assist Aussiedler (Russin emigrants to Germany) in adapting to their new setting in both spritual and practical ways. Mennonite Church Canada Witness welcomes your prayers and contributions for their work and the work of other Witness workers around the world. James and Henritte also welcome your notes of encouragement. They can be reached at Eichenweg 3, Neidergoersdorf 14913, OT Flagellate, Germany (email: