Keeping the faith

February 29, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 5
Gordon Peters |

In the summer of 2010, my family and I experienced a history lesson that made us really think about what it means to be Mennonite. With my wife, Geraldine Balzer, our two daughters, and my wife’s sister and mother, I travelled back to the “old country,” Ukraine and Russia.

Our first stop was Zaporozhe, where my mother-in-law’s parents had come from. The scenery was far-reaching, with rolling hills, lots of trees, farms, watermelons and other fruit. But the stark reality was that few Mennonites remained in the area.

Because of ongoing oppression, over the years many Mennonites sought opportunities that arose in other parts of Russia, or in North and South America, until almost everyone had fled. Their desire to live without military obligations in places where they had the freedom to practise their religious beliefs, speak their languages and live out their cultural heritage was too great to ignore.

But what of those who remained behind? Did they lose their faith because they did not leave to preserve it?

In the late 1800s, my wife’s paternal ancestors had moved to the village of Padulsk in the Neu Samara Colony, about 1,200 kilometres southeast of Moscow. Life was difficult. Like thousands of others, some of them suffered in work camps, leaving families separated and weakened. Stalinization forced Mennonite churches to close, but many Mennonites, like my wife’s ancestors, joined Russian Baptist churches to ensure worship and church community remained a part of their lives.

During our stay in Neu Samara, we were hosted in the village of Krasakova by my wife’s Great Uncle Will Balzer, his son Jacob, daughter-in-law Susanna and their nine children. Together with three of Jacob’s brothers, they work on a collective farm, raising pigs and dairy cattle, and growing a variety of crops.

We had the opportunity to attend a couple of worship services in the local church. The whole Balzer family is ac-

tively involved. They lead worship, preach and sing. Their chosen lifestyle reflects their understanding of faith, with modest clothing—dresses only for women, no jewelry, televisions or radios. Women do not cut their hair.

The Balzer family’s continuing faith also became clear in their conversations. They spoke about the importance of church and of how God had blessed and cared for them during the hard times.

Although they had not chosen to leave Russia altogether, as so many other Mennonites had done, the Balzers kept their faith. In fact, they never wavered, always looking to God for guidance and deliverance.

What does it mean for us as Canadians to be Anabaptist people of faith? Are we also in the world, but not of the world?

Gordon Peters is treasurer of Mennonite Church Canada’s General Board.

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