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Migrant church grows new roots

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Jenny Spenst is fascinated by her parents’ stories of life in the Soviet Union.

“It’s worlds away from what I experience today,” said Spenst, a 24-year-old member of Christuskirche Niedernberg (Niedernberg Christ Church).

Her great-grandfather was once taken prisoner, and her grandmother was sent at a young age to labour in Kazakhstan, separated for weeks from her mother and sisters. The KGB (Soviet secret police) kept a watchful eye, and applied pressure when they felt religious efforts were going too far.

But she wonders about a paradox of freedom.

“Sometimes I get the feeling they were more grateful than we are in our luxury,” she said.

Spenst’s family and the Niedernberg congregation are Aussiedler (resettlers) – Russian Mennonites who emigrated from the former Soviet Union to West Germany in the 1970s and ’80s. Some established new congregations in cities like Bielefeld, Neuwied, and Wolfsburg. Others joined existing churches. Many Aussiedler have historic connections to the Mennonite Brethren tradition – some maintained more closely than others.

Aussiedler are more conservative than other German Mennonites. Lay preaching is preferred, and churches avoid the salaried-pastor system employed by the nearby Vereinigung Deutscher Mennonitengemeinden (Union of German Mennonite
Congregations).

There is little interaction between Aussiedler and neighbouring Mennonite groups. Some, like the Niedernberg congregation, don’t use the word Mennonite, preferring to describe themselves as evangelical or Baptist.

Though not an official member, Christuskirche is an active participant in the Bund Taufgesinnter Gemeinden (Conference of Anabaptist Churches), a 6,000-member association of 28 Anabaptist churches in Germany and a member of the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB).

Immigrant beginnings

The Niedernberg congregation was born in 1989 when about a dozen people, recently arrived from Kazakhstan, began meeting. They were soon joined by others from present-day Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Moldova, and Siberia.

Many had laboured in Soviet coal mines, and Germany offered a greatly improved lifestyle. Men found success working as electricians and at a factory not far from the church building constructed about 12 years ago.

Today, the congregation counts about 300 members, though more attend Sunday morning services. Children, who cluster in the first few rows, significantly outnumber elderly women wearing traditional head scarves. Some local Germans diversify the congregation from purely Aussiedler.

From children’s activities on Friday nights to small groups and Bible studies, there are gatherings every day of the week.

The Sunday morning service begins with praise songs in High German, followed by prayer and a message that some might mistake for an early sermon. Spenst and about 40 others make up a choir. The service concludes with a sermon by one of 12 volunteer male preachers.

Tucked above the balcony, a media centre includes a sound-mixing board, racks of amplifiers and receivers, and computer equipment for projecting song lyrics and Scripture on the sanctuary’s front wall.

Simultaneous translation into Russian is offered. Wireless headsets hang around the necks of some middle-aged or older attenders.

Strong traditions

The headsets represent a history and culture that’s felt even by young adults who either emigrated as children or were born in Germany.

The generations get along in many ways. Like the choir, men’s and women’s retreats are intergenerational, and preachers represent a variety of ages.

A tradition of evangelism has been passed through the generations. Alexander Spenst, one of the church’s three elders and Jenny’s father-in-law, observes, “In Germany, there are many non-believers who are called Christian, but they’re just like the atheists over there. Today, I see similarities to the U.S.S.R.”

Jenny Spenst laments the prevailing secular culture. “I sometimes wish people would focus less on tolerance and more on decisiveness. Our country is outwardly characterized as Christian, but is terribly wicked.”

Young people now pursue a wider variety of professions and mission fields that often pull them farther from home. One couple has a child enrolled at Liberty University in Lynchberg, Va. The church has an active role in Bible Mission, a worldwide effort to distribute Bibles in the former Soviet Union, with headquarters just across the street.

Ties to Russia are strong – much closer than the identity shared with North American Mennonites whose ancestors also lived in Russia.

“Because the churches in North America have already been there a long time, I think there is less evidence of the Russian Mennonites,” Tatjana Hagelgans, a 23-year-old Christuskirche member said. She recalls a Vancouver woman of Russian Mennonite background telling her about an annual Halloween party. “That would be unthinkable for us. I think the churches in North America have adopted more traditions of the surrounding area, but we, still, are
not ready.”

—Tim Huber is associate editor of Mennonite World Review. He wrote this article for Meetinghouse, an association of Mennonite periodicals.
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