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First Person: Report from Niedergörsdorf


November 4, 2003
- James Schellenberg

James Schellenberg meets Maria and Lydia Berg, two sisters recently emigrated from the Ukraine. They were delighted to learn that Jake and Dorothy Unrau, incoming MC Canada Witness workers and former leaders from their congregation in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, would be arriving in Niedergörsdorf soon.

James and Henriette Schellenberg (Douglas MC, Winnipeg), Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers, have just completed a 2-year term of service in Niedergörsdorf, Germany. Jake and Dorothy Unrau (Rosemary MC, Alberta), most recently Witness workers in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, have agreed to continue the ministry in Niedergörsdorf.

Niedergörsdorf, Germany—The haunting strains of Armenien funeral music float over the small cemetery in the village of Altes Lager, close to where we live.

It is a hot July day, and mourners slowly and silently gather near the tiny chapel where the service will be held. Tatjana was only 49 when she died, and is mourned deeply by her mother, her husband and sons, as well as a sister and two grandchildren.

Emotions, passionate sorrow and deep hurt, are expressed openly and loudly in the Russian and Armenien tradition in which the family was nurtured. In the reluctant silence that prevails when I stand to open the service, we hear the ancient words of the 121st Psalm: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth...”

We accompanied this family on their painful journey with Tatjana’s illness and death. Only her mother attended our church services regularly, and there were serious language barriers. We tried simply to demonstrate care and love, and to offer the hope and the promise rooted in the God. Our presence and our help were accepted graciously and gratefully.

There have been too many funerals in the past few months. A family patriarch, who had brought his whole family to church, and to faith, suffered a stroke and died after six painful weeks in a coma. We will never forget the stories of his teenage years in the labour camps of Siberia. We will miss his regular attendance at church, and his participation in the Bible Studies. We also accompanied Irma, in her early 60’s, only recently arrived from Russia, in her painful struggle with cancer. We watched helplessly as she struggled with treatment, discouragement, and pain. She was ultimately forced to accept that remission was not to be.

In these situations, and numerous others, the funeral service is an opportunity to connect with family members, many of whom have no connection to church and faith. In every case, there are language and cultural barriers to overcome, and, at the end, only hope that the Spirit of God will add power and effect to the words we say, the songs sung, and the help we offer.

I’ve said numerous times that, after planning a lot of funerals, I would love to be involved in at least one wedding. These past months offered us such opportunities.

Julia, a member of our congregation and colleague in the Gemeinschaftswerk, (the community project which operates out of our church building), wanted only a very small wedding. But she wanted something more than the civil ceremony at city hall, which is required in Germany.

Since she didn’t want an additional church wedding, it was her idea to add a Christian service to the civil service at city hall. With some reluctance at the precedent being set, officials agreed, and I had the unique opportunity of officiating at a Christian wedding ceremony at the town hall in Luckenwalde, alongside a city employee acting on behalf of civil authorities.

With Natalja (a member of our congregation) and Viktor, we were able to have a full-fledged church wedding. We had a good time working out the details of the service with them, and thoroughly enjoyed the wedding weekend.

A new project this past summer was a Sunday afternoon outdoor ecumenical service, planned and held in conjunction with the Lutheran congregation of Niedergörsdorf. The site was called Weidmannsruh, a lovely clearing in a forested setting about 15 kilometers from our church. Locals have an entirely different association with this location, which was, up to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, a retreat center for the Stasi, the feared secret police in East Germany. That this setting could be the location for a worship service, where Stasi victims mixed with former Stasi informers and people from the former Soviet Union (the former occupying force in East Germany) is a miracle of God’s power — and God’s grace.

Continuing to connect with members and attenders of our congregation, Christliche Glaubensgemeinschaft, is an ongoing challenge. But recently, I had a wonderful moment at Mühlenweg, the temporary living quarters of those who have most recently arrived from the former Soviet Union.

I was there on my regular Wednesday run to pick up kids for the weekly Kinderstunde (children’s club). I walked through the halls, talking to people, and trying to find those who spoke enough German to understand what I was doing. As I approached an open door at the end of the hall, two women in their sixties met me, speaking fluent German.

I introduced myself as the pastor, and explained that I was looking for young children for the Kinderstunde. They asked what kind of a church it was, and when I mentioned Mennonite, their faces lit up. It turns out that they were from the Zaporozhye congregation, and when they learned that not only was the Mennonite church right here, but that Jake and Dorothy Unrau from Zaporozhye would be working here in Fall, they said, “That’s it. That’s the answer we wanted. God has led us here. We’re home!”

During our time in Germany, we have been blessed with many visitors from churches which are part of the MC Canada constituency. They have all expressed interest in what we are doing here, and have participated with us where they could. Our two years here have been very significant ones in our lives, filled with intense times of stretching and learning. We are grateful for the assurance we feel that God has guided the process to have Jake and Dorothy Unrau assume leadership for the congregation here.

We trust that God will continue to give us all the wisdom, energy and strength for the transition activities of the next few months.