COLUMN: Ed Olfert — Aug. 8, 2013

Ed Olfert
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I attended a family reunion last weekend.

The Warkentins gather every three years, over a hundred strong. The Warkentins are my maternal family, we are the offspring of Peter and Helen Warkentin who arrived in Canada from Ukraine in the late twenties.

This family is nothing if not organized. A week before the date, a message arrived from the reunion committee chair (yes, that organized) inviting us to think thoughts along the line of “What does being a Warkentin mean to you? What's the draw of the reunion? “Besides organized, we also lean toward the introspective.

Grandpa Warkentin was ordained a Mennonite minister shortly before his marriage after the First World War. Times were turbulent as the Czarist family was ousted by Bolshevik revolutionaries and the Mennonites, seen as interlopers as well as collaborators with the Czarist regime were immediately suspect. Grandpa left stories about being visited by a military representative, who grilled him on his theology, what he believed, and how he preached about the current government. His responses seemed to mollify the man, but by morning, Grandpa had decided. It was no longer safe. He would take his pregnant wife and five young children and flee the country. My mother was the middle of those five.

Grandpa’s assessment was sadly, chillingly accurate. Many extended family members disappeared, or were exiled to Siberia. With others, communication was blocked for decades.

The flight out of Russia, the trip to Canada, the eventual arrival in the west was a dramatic story that took several months to unfold. The stopping place was Provost, Alta. After several years of shifting around, the Warkentins found themselves in the tiny town of Superb, Sask., where a small Mennonite community was trying to maintain an existence.

One story (which seems very credible) suggests that the hierarchy of the Mennonite denomination asked Grandpa to take over leadership of this church as the congregation, with a number of strong minded and opinionated Germanic folks, was in danger of exploding. I have little doubt that my paternal grandfather was one of those.

But there was no salary. A paid minister was unheard of. The Warkentins bought a farm and became people of the land. And Grandpa began his work of peace building.

I was baptized and married in that little rural church. It is active to this day.

The story of Grandpa as a visionary and peace builder are legion. A child was born on a date that someone decided was too soon after the parents married. The minister was pressured to publicly identify that a sin had been done, public repentance was called for. Grandpa agonized about what it meant to be faithful, what it meant to be church, and was able to find a way through without destroying people and relationships.

Before it was seemly, he worked to bring women as full participants into the “Brotherhood,” worked patiently, gently, yet determinedly. Salvation involved a careful walk toward God within a supportive community, a walk that could (and certainly did in my case) involve many twists and detours, and always there was grace and encouragement to continue.

“What does being a Warkentin mean to you? What's the draw of the reunion? “

One of the unique features of this family, again rooted in the giftedness of Peter and Helen Warkentin, is music. Oh, does this family love to sing. A choir that includes half the attendees practises a number of choral pieces with full harmony for a Sunday morning service. A talent night involves instruments and much singing as well.

Another feature that stood out for me again this weekend was how this extended family has been impacted by Grandpa’s gentle but very deliberate theology of peace. No, not merely a theology, but a lifestyle, a way of being, that holds up relationships, that holds up community as something much bigger, much more central, then a structure of belief. If that structure threatens relationships, then it must be re-examined and set aside if necessary.

Being present at a Warkentin reunion is a reminder of how that might look in the real world.

Like all families, there are a significant number who, through the generations, have joined faiths other than our historical Mennonitism, or who hold to no formal faith allegiance. And yet, I encounter a profound sense of family, a profound respect for tenets held, for belief systems lived or set aside, a sense again that relationships be the final measure of faithful living.

I picture again the large and energetic choir. I picture a cadre of cousins, sitting in a circle late in the evening, strumming and singing gentle bluegrass melodies. In both circles is a young fellow from another province, a fellow that has used his musical Warkentin heritage as a stepping stone into the world of ultra heavy metal bands.

Someone who knows him from that world was astounded that “Jim” sang in the tenor section of the Warkentin choir, strummed a guitar gently to “Good Night Irene” as the evening came to a close. Another young fellow with metal hanging from his nose, with shockinly snug gold coloured tights donned for the ball game, later shyly sold me honey from his bees, bees that had harvested in chokecherry and caragana flowers.

Wizened oldsters and cherubic newbies alike were loved, engaged, honoured. Warm stories abounded.

A theology of peace building changes lives, families, communities, worlds. In the midst of our many stories, both celebratory and sad, relationships remain the best measure of faith.

Geographic location: Canada, Ukraine, Siberia Russia Sask.

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