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“We need to talk”

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“We need to talk.”

That phrase was rolling through my mind as I flew home from a short trip to Siberia this summer. It felt like I had begun an intriguing conversation, which time had closed off prematurely. It felt important.

The trip was one I had dreamed about for nearly a decade, ever since my cousins Walter and Anne Willms had begun working with the Mennonites in the village of Apollonovka. Until then, the Siberian Mennonites had been far below my radar.

The Siberian narrative I knew was of the frozen wastes where my ancestors had been sent, often to die. It was the land of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s gulags. It was not a place where people chose to live.

But this was not the Siberia I was discovering. Apollonovka is one of the Mennonite villages in the vast wheat-growing steppes of southern Siberia, just east of Kazakhstan. It’s part of the Omsk Brotherhood, a direct descendant of the movement that gave birth to our own MB churches.

In the 1890s, the first of Mennonite groups from Ukraine settled in the Omsk area in their never-ending search for land. More than 100 years later, surprisingly intact and vibrant Mennonite communities thrive in the region.

My visit was a journey into a world few Westerners know much about. It’s the world of the farming village with its cattle herds coming home down main street every evening. It’s the world of large families and white-shirted children’s choirs. It’s the world of Plautdietsch, Russian, and German that strained my comprehension and exhausted me.

I was surprised to discover this journey also led back to the church of my childhood.

Things to learn, things to teach

Why do we North Americans need to talk with people from this remote but related Siberian Mennonite Brethren church?

For the simple reason that long-lost friends and relatives need to talk: for the sheer joy of discovering each other again. Some 100 years ago, the Russian Mennonite world split, and we found ourselves living in vastly different worlds with vastly different trajectories. The Iron Curtain has now collapsed and our worlds have merged again.

We have things to learn from each other from our lives in these different worlds.

I discovered a community in which the language of church as a family actually describes how the church works. I was repeatedly asked, “What does a paid pastor do?” There was true puzzlement in the question. Far more fluent people than I have been asked this and obviously even their answers hadn’t solved the puzzle.

It felt like I was being asked, “Why would a family pay its mother or father?”

“That’s just how we do it” is a real answer, but it also made me want to do better than that – for both our sakes. That will take a longer talk.

This is also a community that wrestles more visibly with its place “in but not of the world” than we do. The community has decided, for example, that watching TV is unhealthy for kingdom people because of the values it overwhelmingly promotes. It’s hard to argue with their conclusion.

No one asked me the question, but I imagined their quizzical glances at me if they had been looking over my shoulder at home, as I watch my daily diet of TV, movies, and even sports. I thought about that as I spent my evenings without TV or the internet. My life with TV is something I need to explain, if only for my own benefit.

On the other hand, I had some questions for them I didn’t have a chance to ask. “Do you think that the world you are living in is sustainable?” Fifty years ago, the MB church of my childhood looked a lot like the Apollonovka church – and things changed. “Are you aware that some of those changes will happen in spite of you? And is there anything you want to ask us about them?”

Fifty years ago, I was one of those young boys in the choir loft at the front of the church. I know that stories of sadness and joy, abuse and true love, control that’s not effective and freedom that blesses are all represented in that choir loft with its long-braided girls and short-haired boys.

And looking back, I know there are things that worked and things that didn’t. There were choices that we made, sometimes actively, sometimes passively. We can’t undo our past, but there are things to be learned from these.

We need to talk.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

To learn more about Mennonite churches in Siberia, see the Mennonite Historian, September 2010.

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