Two students launch worldwide media ministry
This is the story of a ministry that in some ways never moved far from its roots. Square One World Media stands atop a media ministry that has embraced cartooning, YouTube, Facebook, radio, television, internet streaming and face-to-face gatherings, and this year is celebrating its 70th anniversary. Its reach can now be traced around the world.
The 225 Riverton Avenue building which houses Square One World Media (S1WM)’s modern studio is a short block from where the two students who birthed it once studied. In 1947, while studying at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, two Henrys – Brucks and Poetker – had a vision to convey the gospel by means of radio.
The college administration did not look on their project too favourably; after all, the school was still in its infancy, and the students – who had only $1.98 between the two of them – proposed a project that could cost thousands of dollars a year.
But start they did, and today their baby has itself birthed ministries that touch five continents with programming in Spanish, High and Low German, Arabic, Russian, Ukrainian and English, and provides facilities for programming that reaches Dari-speaking people.
How Square One World Media evolved is a remarkable story. Along the way, deeply committed, gifted and entrepreneurial leaders gave it breadth. As remarkable are the alliances it has forged along the way.
A good example is S1WM current executive director, Shoaib Ebadi, who not many years ago fled Afghanistan. He was a refugee in Pakistan, studied law in Russia, but then found a new direction after a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. He ended up in Canada and began producing a Dari-language call-in program watched via satellite throughout Iran and Afghanistan.
When SIWM needed to replace retiring director Claude Pratte in 2016, the board agreed that Ebadi was the person who could lead this ministry into the future.
Ebadi leads a team in Winnipeg that produces a radio and television programming in Spanish and German, English-language video for the Beautiful Unique Girl (BUgirl) project, and a cartoon series for children.
Others, supported by SIWM, produce programming in Egypt that is released via satellite to Arabic-speaking women, and still others work out of studios in Ukraine and Russia for audiences in the former Soviet Union. Each of these endeavours is a story of God’s leading, bringing people with a vision for media outreach together with people with skills and means. Often the stories are so unusual only God could have orchestrated them.
From Egypt to Canada and back
An example might be the production of The New Eve, which Monika Soliman of Winnipeg produces under Square One. Soliman, a script writer, and her husband came to Canada from Egypt. Her work in the travel industry after coming to Winnipeg brought her together with Sherryl Koop.
Now part of SQ1M’s church relations team, then-travel agent and Beautiful Unique Girl program leader Koop brought Soliman to the media ministry after learning of her desire to serve Arabic women.
Soliman has now produced her second series of The New Eve, 26 half-hour TV episodes.
In part because of the death of her own mother in the bombing of a church last year, in her current series, Soliman deals with pain: each episode has a person’s story about a failed marriage, accidental deaths, desire for a child, a feeling of rejection, alienation or a desire for peace, then a Christian counsellor, pastor, or specialist provides guidance. Production for this series is done in Egypt in the SAT7 facilities, and the episodes are transmitted on the SAT7 satellite.
Among those drawing on the programs is a group in Edmonton, says Koop. They meet with new Syrian immigrant women to watch The New Eve online and use them for discussion.
The founders of what was at first known as the Gospel Light Hour did not remain with the ministry long, but they laid a foundation of bridging cultural barriers. The first shifts within the organization were quite natural to the Mennonite Brethren people involved. Transcending cultural barriers has been a marker of the ministry throughout its history.
One of the early cultural shifts was relatively easy. David B. Wiens, a 1920s immigrant from Russia, became the Russian radio announcer for programming broadcast in the Soviet Union starting in the 1950s. The thousands of letters that flowed in to the program during those years (many now archived at the Centre for MB Studies) are testimony to the program’s impact.
Wiens was supported by singers who still remembered the language after arriving in Canada as refugees in post-World War II. Another speaker after Wiens was Viktor Hamm, a young man who settled in Winnipeg in the final years of the Soviet Union. He later became the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Russian evangelist. For many believers in the Soviet Union in those years, these were voices of great comfort and encouragement.
In part, the organization’s name changes signal the desire to make cultural shifts. The Gospel Light Hour became Mennonite Brethren Communications, then Family Life Network and now Square One World Media: a ministry reaching to all corners of the globe with one purpose – to “see people become Jesus followers.”
When that period was ending, MB Communications began to work at equipping broadcasters in Russia and Ukraine to produce programming for their settings. Today, well-equipped studios in Russia and Ukraine produce independent broadcasts. One of the most successful projects has been a Russian children’s puppet show called Ella’s Backyard, shown on TV and YouTube in both countries, dubbed for Ukraine.
In Ukraine, S1WM works with a ministry called Shelter Plus out of Kryvyi Rih, and supports The Bible Today and For the Sake of Love radio programs, who also produce shorter videos. Shelter Plus has a variety of ministries, of which Square One helps underwrite those involving media, such as a talk show entitled God and the City.
Low German programs grow new forms
German programming, also begun in the 1950s, flourished under incisive speakers such as Heinrich Regehr. Today, German is mainly directed to Low German speakers in the Americas and Germany by means of the Licht vom Evangelium, and to High German speakers through the Licht des Evangeliums. Formally retired four years ago, Jacob Funk continues to make new productions in Low German, after working full-time in the ministry since 1995.
Over the years, the Low German ministry became ever broader.
For a number of years, Jacob’s wife Helen joined him to produce With Helen in the Kitchen (a program for women combining advice with biblical teaching) and Come and See (a children’s program). Sensing a need for good Bible stories for children, Helen wrote two books illustrated by Square One’s Girish Manuel. She also wrote a recipe book. Thousands of copies have been distributed.
Another German radio speaker from Square One’s earlier day, John J. Neufeld translated and published the New Testament and the Psalms in Low German. Later, Funk translated 12 New Testament books and Proverbs in a cooperative effort to produce a full Low German Bible with the United Bible Societies and the Canadian Bible Society. Kindred Productions, the MB publishing arm, has printed thousands of Low German Bibles which can now be found in many homes.
Jacob and Helen Funk have also done preaching missions. Often in colonies in Mexico or Bolivia, church leaders are opposed to their work. But when the Funks had a tent mission on the grounds of a radio station in Bolivia, for example, 600 people attended.
A fairly new Low German ministry involves nurse Irene Marsch, a native of Paraguay, who spent many years working in a burn ward at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre. The story of the Good Samaritan moved Irene to choose nursing; a desire to help women in the Low German communities grow in self-esteem led her to embark on her ministry with SIWM.
Marsch produces seven-minute radio episodes in Low German that deal with health-related issues. Her programs are heard in Mexico, Bolivia, Belize and Paraguay, but she has also spoken to women’s groups in southern Manitoba with as many as 200 in attendance. Currently, Marsch is working at a book for young women.
Besides this programming from Winnipeg, S1WM supports Eduard and Heidi Giesbrecht in Bolivia who produce Ekj Ran (I Run), videos aimed at youth of the Mennonite colonies.
The widest audience
S1WM has another ministry in the Americas that reaches a larger population – Latino/as. How that came about is a fascinating story.
Ernesto and Marina Pinto from Honduras, who came to Chicago for biblical studies, helped plant a church and began broadcasting. He made contact with Juan Martinez, a former MB pastor on Fuller Theological Seminary faculty, who encouraged Ernesto to go to Winnipeg, Canada.
Ernesto didn’t know whether Canada was in Winnipeg or vice versa, but they moved to Winnipeg in 1988 where he began working with MB Communications in 1994. From the outset, Ernesto has “[shared] the faith without preaching,” emphasizing grace and peace. He “asks how you can approach God with [human] issues.”
“Now we are a little more intentional about the need for salvation,” Ernesto says, yet “I never preach.” The Pintos travel throughout Latin America every year, encountering many who are willing to talk about their issues and experiences. Every program has stories from listeners.
A few years ago, Marina was persuaded to begin a radio program that “[goes] to a woman’s heart, as a sister, mother and grandmother.” She too interviews women for that programs address how to deal with HIV, depression, divorce, the absence of fathers “with Christ.”
Nothing that has come out of Square One has reached as wide an audience as this Spanish ministry. Radio programs Encuentro (with Ernesto) and Encuentro Familiar (Marina), and TV’s 180 Grados (Ernesto) are heard on 1,712 stations by Spanish listeners in 33 countries, in Latin America and as far away as Israel, the UK and Spain. The television programs are seen on 268 stations in 22 countries.
In not a single case do the Pintos pay for the air time for these programs. Today, with rare exceptions, stations download the programs from a website, instead of waiting for a mailed-out cassette tape.
The Pintos have an open door of ministry that appears to have found unusually wide acceptance. They live in Honduras for part of the year and hold retreats or speaking events eight or nine times a year in settings around Latin America, often with church leaders, and often on family life themes. From time to time, they experience a joy such as at a retreat in earlier this year which ended with a half dozen people being baptized.
Employing many gifts
That God has brought people with unique gifts together to add strength to this media ministry has been visible almost from the beginning. At one time, Canadian Mennonite Brethren were producing more than 20 radio programs. Today, only Square One World Media survives.
The first long-term speaker on the Gospel Light Hour was John Schmidt (1950–1963). Without his strong evangelistic preaching and steady leadership, the ministry might not have survived.
Good music and technical expertise have also been critical to S1WM from the beginning.
The Klassen brothers John, Neil and Richard have been a huge part of the ministry. Gifted both musically and technically, John brought his computing skills in the early years. In his later years, he translated many German hymns into Low German, sang, recorded and mixed the four parts for others to hear. Together with Bertha, he put out Low German hymnbooks.
Neil and Richard were the main movers behind the building that houses S1WM’s radio and television studios. Bertha Klassen was told it’s one of only two buildings in Winnipeg that followed the advice of sound engineers in every detail. One of the largest studios, for example, is a room within a room, with spaces on all sides – above, below and around – so there can be no noise contamination. It even has a separate ventilation system, so no sound can be carried by ducts from the control room to the recording studio. Sets for television can be designed in-house and would fit into any recording setting anywhere. Call-in programs can take messages without difficulty from anywhere in the world.
A family affair
There is a generational aspect too to the technical expertise from which S1WM has benefitted. When CFAM first began broadcasting in 1954 (the forerunner of what is now known as the Golden West radio network), John Pauls was its engineer. He was a kind of homegrown technical genius, with a passion both for radio and the gospel. Years later, he would help guide the development of a missionary radio station in Paraguay, for which Jack Hoeppner was the hands-on engineer. Hoeppner was also a member of the MB Communications board for years and always kept up the tradition of involvement in radio and assistance to missions. Jack’s son Grant, who cut his teeth in radio alongside his father at CFAM, was Square One’s chief technician 2001–2017.
It wasn’t what Grant initially planned. In high school, he thought he might be a pilot, but when he heard a missionary relate how he had gone to reach an Indian tribe and found they had already heard the Christian story by radio, it “turned on a switch.” Grant studied at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, which led to work with Golden West and CJOB, then a Christian Reformed missionary station in Dominica in 1996. In 2001, he came to SIWM’s forerunner, Family Life Network. Grant says he enjoys the production because of the creativity it allows.
Children and youth early on the playbill
In one way or another, programming directed to children or youth has been on S1WM’s playbill almost from the start. Toby Voth and Frieda Duerksen with Kay Wiens started a children’s Gospel Light Hour in the 1950s. Years later, Lorlie Barkman developed The Third Story, a television series for youth that ran 1975–1989 on stations in Canada and the U.S. reaching an audience of millions.
Today, Square One is putting out a children’s animated series titled Micah’s Super Vlog, the vision of Girish Manuel, with artwork assistance from Stu Hunnable and music from Dave Miller. Voices are supplied by a number of volunteers, among them Jordan Jackiew (Micah) and S1WM staff member Eric Boorman who can do as many as half a dozen voices.
Manuel came to FLN in 2011 to illustrate Helen Funk’s Low German Bible story book, but S1WM gave his talents room to expand into video and animation.
Manuel desires to produce something that can “compete with worldly productions, be relatable and tell the truth.” He employs sound effects, pacing, music, emotion to communicate with children. “It’s very important to know how kids will receive it,” he says. The episodes have humour, tension, crisp dialogue and animation that “punches way beyond their [tiny staff] numbers,” says Grant.
Micah’s Super Vlog has been gaining visibility and found a place on the subscriber-based JellyTelly streaming service, whose audience is found mostly in the U.S., the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and consists of Christian families. It can be accessed on YouTube too, however, or ordered in DVD form.
Some years ago, as Family Life Network (FLN), the media ministry was spun off to become independent after being part of the Manitoba MB Conference since 1954. Later, the Canadian Conference of MB Churches gave specific permission to the ministry to solicit support across the Canadian constituency.
Though Square One is now an independent ministry, by far the greatest amount its $1.5 million annual budget comes from the Mennonite Brethren church community. Within the ministry, however, there is concern that it has lost too much of its visibility among Canadian Mennonite Brethren. Earlier this year it was not allowed to be present at the B.C. annual assembly, for example, though a large part of its support base can be found in the Fraser Valley.
A succession of leaders, notably Burton Buller, Delbert Enns, Claude Pratte and now Shoaib Ebadi, have brought deep media experience and skills to their role at the ministry. Enns, for example, will be remembered by many for his passion and focus, helping Family Life Network sharpen its mission, especially giving leadership on a variety of fronts to media outreach within Latin America.
Ebadi too is committed to keeping S1WM’s focus sharp. One particular challenge S1WM faces is the lack of a radio or TV presence that is likely to be heard or seen by significant numbers of Canadian Mennonite Brethren.
The recently retired Claude Pratte says, despite that lack, “we’re depriving ourselves of the blessing if we don’t embrace what Square One is doing.” He urges Mennonite Brethren, “let’s keep on informing ourselves of the remarkable resource we have in this ministry and the work it is doing around the world. If we do, we will be blessed.”
[Harold Jantz is a member of River East Church, Winnipeg.