How do you adjust after stepping away from the work to which you’ve dedicated two decades of your life?
That’s the question facing Kennert Giesbrecht now that he’s no longer the managing editor of Die Mennonitische Post, the German-language paper that serves conservative Mennonites throughout the Americas.
Giesbrecht’s tenure at the paper was bookended by celebrations characterized by mischief and fun: He started on April Fool’s Day 2002 and finished on Halloween 2023.
But the 21-and-a-half years in between included serious work that saw him write and edit thousands of articles for the Post, which publishes a 28-page issue every two weeks.
Giesbrecht says the sad and tragic stories spread on their own, but, “the good stories—the success stories about the colonies—have to be sought.” Between sips of hot chocolate at a café near the Post’s Main Street office in Steinbach, Manitoba, Giesbrecht says: “Getting good stories, positive life stories, was always part of my goal.”
Giesbrecht’s dedication to the Post meant that, for 20-plus years, he was almost always “on.” If he and his wife, Gredel, hosted friends, Giesbrecht had his ears open for something in the conversation that might inspire an editorial. The same thing happened when he watched the evening news or listened to a Sunday morning sermon.
When he and Gredel travelled to Israel on holidays four years ago, he wrote a 10-article series about the things they saw.
“Pretty much everything in my life revolved around the Post,” he says. “I know I’ll have major withdrawal symptoms now.”
Well-suited for the role
The things that made Giesbrecht’s childhood difficult are the things that ended up making him a good candidate for his work.
He was born in 1964 in Loma Plata, the third of four children born to a Paraguayan couple. Giesbrecht’s father was a missionary for the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, which meant the family moved frequently between Loma Plata, the mission field and southern Manitoba. Giesbrecht learned Low German, High German, Spanish and English along the way, but changing schools so often made fitting in with his peers difficult.
“It’s an asset I have nowadays, but back then, it was painful and hard,” he recalls. “I was angry at my parents for moving back and forth.”
By the time he was an adult, Giesbrecht had settled in Loma Plata. In 2001, he was almost a decade into a career as a high school teacher and principal. Gredel was working as a nurse, and they had three small children. That year, they decided to move to Canada.
“We felt that God had something else in store for us,” he says.
At the end of 2001, Post managing editor Abe Warkentin resigned. When Giesbrecht arrived in southern Manitoba in early 2002, he applied for the job and got it.
Giesbrecht’s background in geography and education, his love for Mennonite history and stories, his experience writing for colony newspapers and his ability to speak multiple languages made him a great fit for the role.
“It was an answer to prayer for sure in many, many ways,” he says.
Started by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 1977, the Post’s mandate is to connect and inform the Kanadier Mennonite diaspora.
The Post’s readers are descendants of those who left Canada for Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s when the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan went back on their promise to let them run their own schools.
When Giesbrecht became managing editor, the Post had about 5,000 subscribers with an estimated readership between 20,000 and 25,000.
The level of technology available to Post readers varies from colony to colony. For some Mennonites, the paper is the only reading material available to them besides the Bible.
Hundreds of days travelling
As managing editor, Giesbrecht was part of a two-person team responsible for every aspect of each issue—conceiving the ideas, writing and editing stories, taking and collecting photos, proofreading everything and then laying it out.
It was a job that necessitated a lot of travel. Giesbrecht made it a policy to take one trip of two to three weeks as well as a couple of 10-day trips each year. During his time at the Post, he made more than 50 trips and spent more than 500 days travelling to colonies. Some of Giesbrecht’s favourite articles are the ones he wrote about the steps colonies took to care for the vulnerable members of their communities, like building rehabilitation centres for people addicted to drugs and alcohol.
While travelling, Giesbrecht got to hear about the Post’s impact. In Bolivia, a man told Giesbrecht how, when he was in his early 30s, he hired a private tutor to teach him to read and write, with the express goal of being able to read the Post.
After Giesbrecht wrote a series of articles about depression, a reader in Paraguay whose son had died by suicide years earlier sent him a message saying that the articles helped the reader better understand his son’s state of mind.
“Writing about things the readers see as important in their life was always a goal,” Giesbrecht says.
Along the way, Giesbrecht helped people in mainstream society understand what life is like for colony Mennonites.
“There’s so much good,” he says.
While colony life has its challenges, Giesbrecht urges people not to generalize when they talk about conservative Mennonites.
“I hate it when people just absolutely condemn old colony people, conservative Mennonites, horse-and-buggy Mennonites, and say it’s all bad, it’s all sinful,” he says. “That hurts. We can be an incredibly judgmental people sometimes. I guess I have to include myself in that group, too. But it’s just not right to judge people either way.”
Giesbrecht has two personas, according to Royden Loewen, retired chair in Mennonite studies and professor of history at the University of Winnipeg.
“In Canada, he is an affable, intelligent, hardworking guy,” Loewen says. “In Latin America, Kennert is a rock star.”
For almost 20 years, Loewen and Giesbrecht have served together on the board of directors at the Plett Foundation, a charity that supports and promotes history research projects related to Mennonites.
They have travelled together throughout the Americas as part of their work with the foundation, allowing Loewen to see firsthand how Giesbrecht’s work with the Post has made him a household name in hundreds of communities.
“People gravitate to him,” Loewen says. “He’s very affirming of these people in their mission to be a corporate witness through their simple lifestyles... He shows a deep and profound respect for them, and they know that.”
He describes the impact the Post has on its readership—which today is estimated to be around 50,000 people—as “breathtaking.”
“From what I’ve seen over the years, it’s just remarkably successful,” Loewen says of the paper.
In early 2023, Giesbrecht told MCC that he was resigning. He can’t point his finger at any one reason, but the cumulative stress of meeting a deadline every two weeks for a publication where two people do everything has something to do with it.
At 59 years old, he’s fit and lively and interested in doing other work before he retires.
“I’m very much looking forward to new challenges in life,” he says.
He had mixed emotions during his final weeks on the job. Ultimately, he hopes that his time at Die Mennonitische Post played a role in improving the lives of readers.
“You want to think we’re at least planting a seed here and there and making a positive impact,” he says. “Can it be measured [in numbers]? No. But I have some pretty awesome stories of people telling me in the colonies how the Post changed their life.”