Home People Lorlie Barkman: A Life of Creative Engagement

Lorlie Barkman: A Life of Creative Engagement

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Dear Dad.”

That’s how Lorlie Barkman began the brief vignettes that he wrote alongside a cartoon that recalled some episode from his childhood which his father might also recall. They became a book. The well-known cartoonist, tv producer and pastor wrote and drew the book while he was visiting his father who was gradually succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.

He called the book Remember, Dad? A Journey into Memory Loss.

Now it was Lorlie’s turn. On November 18 a funeral service was held for Lorlie in the Westwood Community Church of Winnipeg, a church where he had once been the pastor. He died at 81 a week earlier of Alzheimer’s too, and when his children and came forward to pay tribute to this gentle father, whose well-employed multiple gifts had blessed so many, each began with “Dear Dad.”

Lorlie’s life started out in the small south Saskatchewan community of Flowing Well. His parents Albert and Mary Barkman raised their family of four, Melba, Ellwood, Dwayne and Lorlie there, and farmed and were an active part of the small Mennonite Brethren church in the community. Flowing Well is a tiny place, now no longer with any businesses and the church too has closed. But for Lorlie it left wonderful memories from home, farm, church and school settings. No one could have said it hadn’t prepared him for a life of rich engagement.

Lorlie made a decision as a young man to attend Bethany Bible Institute—a choice that cemented a few things for him. In the first place there he met a “lovely young lady,” Deanna Wall of Borden, Sask., who captured his heart and whom he married. And there he also chose to open himself to pastoral work. Lorlie and Deanna began their life together as pastors of a small Mennonite Brethren church in Moose Jaw, known as the Regal Heights church.

They were the church planters, beginning as a house fellowship in 1964. They chartered in 1967, were able to move into their own building a few years later, and there he remained as pastor until 1975. Three children were born to them during that time, Barry, Bonnah and Christy. The character of his work was laid during that time—he was always a modest man, who along with the preparation of sermons and Sunday services, enjoyed conducting marriage preparation classes, and doing weddings and funerals. Along with these he often found ways of incorporating his unique ability to tell stories and to which he added his special cartoon-like drawings. His motto, his children said, was “Be ready to preach, pray, sing or die at a moment’s notice.”

That seems to have been sufficient to give Lorlie and Deanna the courage to make a huge ministry shift in 1975. He had already been providing drawings with a bit of a twist to the MB Herald when he came to the attention of Mennonite Brethren-sponsored MB Communications (now known as Square One World Media). They were interested in starting a television series for children. The Barkmans moved to Winnipeg and Lorlie began the work of starting The Third Story. It was a creative venture that he relished. His able partner in the project was Marv Thiessen.

Neil Klassen, director of the ministry at the time, recalls an occasion when he was travelling through Saskatchewan with Lorlie and for a hundred kilometers Lorlie said nothing. Then for the next hundred or so he gave Neil “a detailed plan for the next Third Story series.” He “had the gift of total concentration,” says Neil.

During a time when programs like his would have to pay for airtime, Lorlie was able to persuade individual stations to carry the series free of charge, which they did for seven seasons, says J Janzen of Abbotsford, BC, a staffer part of that time. Another person involved with MB Communications, when it became known as Family Life Network, recalls a time when Lorlie began to work on an adult version of The Third Story. A 1983 news account in the MB Herald describes how Lorlie went about it.

He set it in the home of Ron and Sharon Voth of Abbotsford (Ron taught at Columbia Bible College at the time) and segments picked up songs, items shot by Marv Thiessen around the country, interviews brought in with people like Dr. Frank C. Peters, the MB churchman and psychologist, that when pieced together resulted in a highly effective series. The Herald article quoted a Winnipeg Free Press writer who said “that never in the history of Canadian television production have so few operating on so little given to so many.” The 13-program adult series had a budget of $100,000 and was “likely to be seen by seven million viewers through the Canadian tv stations and the U.S. Christian Broadcasting Network.”

Gordon Nickel, who wrote the story for the MB Herald, commented at the end, “I have to affirm the attempt of these producers to communicate the gospel in a way which is realistic to the way people talk, the music they like and the concerns which occupy their minds. That attempt must be lonely at times. But to this point, I haven’t seen anything on tv that does it better.” David Balzer who worked with Lorlie for a time said Lorlie’s mentoring became a model for him when he later began his own radio talk show and the work he now does as a teacher in communications at Canadian Mennonite University.

Pastoral work always remained a calling for Lorlie and Deanna and in 1990 Lorlie returned to full-time church leadership by becoming lead pastor for the Westwood Community Church of Winnipeg. A year earlier the church had moved into a well-equipped facility on Westwood Drive and the ministry opportunities were abundant. For Lorlie, Westwood was not only a “workplace,” his children said, “but truly a church family.” He relished the opportunity to serve in many ways in that setting. Deanna supported him strongly. He gave leadership at Westwood until he retired in 1998.

Andrew Dyck, a MB Seminary faculty member at CMU, got to know Lorlie at Westwood and led the funeral service in mid-November. He described how Lorlie noticed details about people, seeing what was special in the ordinary or noting how they dealt with difficulties in their lives. He loved to draw stories out of people and after his own retirement visited care homes. Often he drew on a white board what people were telling. He did the same for a singing group called The Brothers, when they went out to do country music concerts. Remember Dad? A Journey into Memory Loss grew out of visits to his own father who died of Alzheimer’s as Lorlie himself later did.

Andrew related that with their humble, gentle spirit Lorlie and Deanna weren’t afraid to “wade into hard complexities.” They came to church when Lorlie could no longer hold his choir music right side up or come up with the names of the people they were meeting. Andrew says one Sunday he met Lorlie in church and as they conversed asked Lorlie, “What if you get Alzheimer’s disease? How will you cope with that?” Lorlie’s reply was, “I’ll be okay.”

And as Andrew said and the children and grandchildren abundantly confirmed, “his journey with Alzheimer’s was also beautiful, it wasn’t a tragedy.” He had once colour-coded his Bible to highlight all of God’s non-verbal communications, what Lorlie called God’s “paraword.” When Lorlie himself could no longer speak, he became God’s paraword. He did it with his smiles and his response to the hugs of his family.

When Lorlie’s children and grandchildren got up to speak, their voices lent witness to a life lived with integrity and love. Granddaughter Indiana Unger said, “Thank you for raising my mother the way you did, and for how strong and beautiful she is.” And “thank you for always finishing off my food off my plate when I was full.” A grandson now in seminary in Minneapolis, Matteo Unger, said, “Your example will live long in the legacy of our family—a legacy of God-honouring, pure, humble, peaceful and Christ devoted living.” Another of the grandchildren, Restonn, remarked about Lorlie’s unselfishness and gentleness, then added she would remember “the way you loved grandma (Deanna).” Rhythm Unger said Lorlie would “brighten up her day” when as a child she stayed overnight at their house. That was the tenor of all the grandchildren’s voices.

Lorlie and Deanna’s children were all born in south Saskatchewan and all spoke of the impact it had made on them, spending time in both Moose Jaw and Flowing Well, “the most beautiful place on earth,” daughter Christy said. A place of “freedom to dream and think” and also a place where Lorlie would “always be telling stories and pointing the focus on God and his presence in everything.” It changed her, she said.

Carrie, married to son Barry Barkman, said that no matter what she served up, Lorlie would always eat heartily and rave about it afterward, and when they visited the parents, Lorlie would treat it as a big favour done to them. He made them feel important and appreciated. Barry spoke of a father who taught him to drive a tractor with a straight furrow before [he] was in grade 4, and helped him buy a car and fix it before he was 16. When Barry was older and struggling, Lorlie accompanied his son to police stations and “made it positive by saying how proud [he] was of how I handled my accountability for my actions.” Barry also added, “You loved Mom so well and you loved your expanding family so well.”

The storyteller became a story himself. He had lived a life rich in faith. Rich in love and practical wisdom. Creative. He is survived by Deanna, now also in care in Morden, Manitoba, and a growing family, three married children and ten grandchildren (one married), and two siblings and their families.

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