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East German Ministry touches lives

(L-R) Henriette Schellenberg, Alexander Wotschel, Justina (Huebert) Wotschel, Victor Huebert, James Schellenberg, Liese Huebert

November 21, 2002
by Daniel Rempel

Winnipeg, Man.—Leading the little church at Niedergoersdorf-Flugplatz has brought James and Henriette Schellenberg (Douglas Mennonite Church, Winnipeg) both challenges and rewards.

Fifteen months into a two-year assignment in Germany, the Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers tend a small congregation of Aussiedler (Russian immigrants of German background) from the former Soviet Union. The church is located on a former Soviet military airbase adjacent to the village of Niedergoersdorf; the church meets in a former Soviet officers' club.

The Schellenbergs dream of the congregation becoming independent and producing its own leadership. Most immigrants arrive with little or no Bible knowledge but find a welcoming, if all-too-often temporary, home in the congregation on the Flugplatz. One old man, having come to faith late in life, laments "the time he has wasted" and is now rushing to memorize scripture and the Lord's prayer before his eyesight fails.

Treated as outsiders by Russians and Germans alike, the Aussiedler "... don't have a strong sense of belonging, and they then come to a place where we can proclaim to them that God loves you and God cares about you and we care about you," said James.

However, the economically depressed community 70 kilometers south of Berlin offers new immigrants slim prospects; most church members move further west as soon as they can. Those who do find employment further west however often miss the tight community of the Flugplatz. "If they can find a job or put down any kind of roots in those first few years, many are happy to stay," said James.

There are some stories of hope; one couple, Igor and Irina, have become very active in the church, have found jobs and are renovating a home they've bought. Irina is trained as a geologist but works as a teacher's aide, and Igor creates art with a chainsaw, working on children's playgrounds among other things.

Members of the provincial and municipal governments, with which the church cooperates in a "Gemeinschaftswerk" of social services, say the community would be in very bad shape without the church. This work is also supported by Mennonite Central Committee, local Lutheran parishes and German and Dutch Mennonite churches. The Berlin Mennonite Church in particular is very active in supporting the work in Niedergoersdorf and has absorbed a significant number of Aussiedler in the past five years. One supporting congregation at Wolfsburg was itself started by the former Conference of Mennonites in Canada 25 years ago and is now fully independent.