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Siberian exiles come home to Mennonite faith


Former Siberian exiles (front, from left)Armin and Anna Isaak and Maria Unruh have found a spiritual home in the Mennonite Church. Jake and Dorothy Unrau, back, helped celebrate their baptisms May 29. – photo submitted

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July 19, 2005
-by Bethany Keener, with reporting from Jake and Dorothy Unrau

Niedergöersdorf, Germany — Three heads bowed as Pastor Jake Unrau poured baptismal water over salt-and-pepper hair. After living a lifetime without a church nearby, these Siberian exiles were finally home in the Mennonite Church.

On May 29, Armin and Anna (Schmidt) Isaak, both 72, and Maria (Boschmann) Unruh, 65, were baptized at the Christliche Glaubensgemeinschaft (Evangelical Mennonite Church) in Niedergöersdorf.

Born in Ukraine in 1933 at a time when Mennonites were being persecuted, Armin and Anna were just eight years old when the Isaak and Schmidt families were sent to Siberia. The region's isolated reputation applied to religion as well as geography.

“There were other Mennonite families in Siberia, but all far away from where we lived,” said Armin Isaak. “The churches were all closed, and some people would meet from house to house in small groups and at different times. It was strongly forbidden to talk about God, and if the police found out that there was a gathering in any home, they would go there, break the door in, break up the meeting and chase the people away."

With God’s protection, the Isaaks survived Siberia and returned to Ukraine but did not find a meaningful faith until God brought them to Germany in March 2003.

Maria Unruh, 65, also came to Germany in 2003. Born in Siberia, she moved with her husband to Kazakhstan at the age of 24. Following his death and a son’s motorcycle accident, Unruh began to save money to move to Germany. There, she hoped to find better medical treatment for her son and was determined to find a church nearby, a rare thing in Siberia.

Armin Isaak says, “I was not really looking for a church when we came here and did not even think about getting baptized, but because we kept coming to church we learned that we should get baptized… I now believe very strongly and want to hold onto my faith. For me, the change has all been from inside.”

This is the first time in their lives that any of the three have been able to attend church regularly.

“My mother was very devout and talked about God, but … my father did not want Mother to teach us about God because it just made life harder than it already was,” adds Armin Isaak.

Jake and Dorothy Unrau have worked in Europe with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner, Mennonite Mission Network since 1998. They note the marks of active atheistic emphasis in the schools and at the root of political propaganda on families like the Isaaks, Unruhs and Schmidts, who had a sense of faith in God and wanted to pass that on to their children. "The opportunities were rare, the risks high and with a cost that many did not want to endure,” says, Jake.

After Anna Isaak’s father was killed by the Soviet regime, life for her mother and siblings was difficult. Still, her mother took the risk of attending church meetings in homes. Anna learned to sing and pray from her mother, but Anna had no access to a Bible because she never learned to read.

“Where we lived in Ukraine there was only an Orthodox church and then later also the Jehovah’s Witnesses came around, but we did not go there because we knew that was not our faith,” Anna Isaak said. “We lived there for 40 years but did not go to that church.”

Because Unruh and the Isaaks were unable to attend church in Siberia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, it was difficult to pass their faith to their children. Now adults, their children question what their baptisms and faith mean.

“We want to pray for them and help them grow in their Christian walk, and also pray that their children will come to know Jesus as their savior and lord,” said Dorothy Unrau.

Like Maria Unruh, Anna Isaak knew that when they came to Germany she would try to find a church. While waiting for their immigration papers to go through, the Isaaks and Unruh lived at the Aussiedler Heim (Newcomers Home), a government-run home for immigrants with German ancestry. There the three met Mennonite workers who invited them to attend Christliche Glaubensgemeinschaft.

“They quietly sat and listened for a long time. Then, after a baptism in November of last year, Anna said she wanted to be baptized,” Jake Unrau said. After meeting together for several months to discuss what it meant to be baptized, the three made a public faith statement in the Mennonite Church.

“I have found a home here, and not just a place to live, but fellowship with a group of people,” Maria Unruh said.

The Unraus spent five years working in Ukraine and have lived and worked in Germany since 2003. Their home congregation is Mennonite Church of Rosemary, Alberta.