When as a young teenager Larry Kehler delivered coal in the Altona, Man., area for his father, his wildest imagination could not have taken him to where his life eventually led.
Born on Nov. 8, 1933, Kehler’s childhood was lived out in the Depression years and, although he knew he wanted to experience more of the world, it would have been impossible for him to foresee the twisting path that would eventually take him around the world.
On May 20, 1951, he was baptized and received into the membership of Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church and began a life-long commitment to working in the church.
Three years later, he attended Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC, forerunner of Canadian Mennonite University) in Winnipeg, but the following year Frank H. Epp invited him back to Altona to take on the position of associate editor of The Canadian Mennonite while Epp returned to his studies for the year.
This was followed by two more years of study at CMBC to complete his bachelor of theology degree in 1958, the same year he married Justina “Jessie” Neufeld, whom he had met at CMBC.
Together, they accepted an invitation by Mennonite Pioneer Mission to go to Matheson Island, Man., where she worked as a nurse and he provided leadership in worship and Bible study for two years. By then the Kehlers had two children, Daryl and Faye.
Kehler accepted the position of director of information services with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Akron, Pa., for six years. In the summer of 1966, the Kehlers took a road trip to visit MCC units and friends in several states.
While visiting friends in Canton, Miss., Martin Luther King Jr. led a march through the town and Kehler heard him speak that evening. Kehler later wrote, “It was a very moving time for us.”
In 1967, Frank H. Epp resigned from The Canadian Mennonite and Kehler accepted the invitation to become editor. The Kehlers returned to Winnipeg, where the offices had relocated, but these were not easy years to move into this position. Every year, the paper’s financial situation looked bleaker and circulation kept dropping. In 1970, the board of directors decided to close the paper.
Kehler wrote, “I agreed with the board’s decision, but it was a painful experience nevertheless.”
However, he was also able to say a few years later that “it was a healing experience for me when, within the space of a few years of The Canadian Mennonite’s death, another national paper, the Mennonite Reporter, came on the scene to serve Canadian Mennonites.”
In the meantime, Kehler accepted the position of editor for The Mennonite, hoping this paper could become binational in its focus since the General Conference churches in Canada were without an English-language paper at this time. For five years, Kehler worked in this role, but by 1976 he realized that, with the emergence of the Mennonite Reporter, The Mennonite would not be viable in Canada.
It was during his work with The Mennonite that Kehler made several overseas trips to Africa, the Middle East and Vietnam, and eventually these trips came to shape some of his future involvements. From 1976-80, Kehler pastored Charleswood Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, where he was an active member.
Esther Epp-Tiessen, a longtime church member, said, “He was a wonderful preacher. He tackled the issues of the day.” Remembering Kehler as an “encourager” who recognized and drew out the gifts in others, she said, “There was a crisis in Southeast Asia and Larry was called to go there by MCC. Dan and I were asked by the church to fill in for him in his absence. We were very young and very green. We would never have considered doing this without his encouragement.”
From 1981-90, Kehler served as general secretary for the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. Helmut Harder, who succeeded him in this role, said, “He had a big heart for MCC and he cultivated a close relationship between MCC and the Conference. He made sure that there was that connection.”
Harder recalled that Kehler “was a winsome listener to the voice of ordinary folk in the constituency. He had a heart for the voiceless and highlighted the good intentions of all constituents.”
Discussions of integrating the General Conference and the Mennonite Church began under his leadership, and Harder said he appreciated the way in which Kehler kept the constituency informed through a regular column in the Mennonite Reporter.
From 1990-92, he was the Asia secretary for the Commission on Overseas Missions.
In retirement, Kehler mentored new pastors; served as interim pastor, interim executive director for MCC Manitoba, and part-time interim conference minister for Mennonite Church Canada; and volunteered as news and copy editor for Courier, a publication of Mennonite World Conference.
In 2002, at age 69, he joined a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation in Iraq under tense and uncertain conditions.
Kehler is survived by his wife Jessie, son Daryl, daughter Faye and son-in-law Dennis Lawrynuik and their children Sarah and Peter, brother Marvin and sister-in-law Kathy Kehler, and sister June Krause.
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