When Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers Greg Rabus and Jennifer Otto landed in Lethbridge, Alta., in 2018, with their sons Alex, and Ian, they were not sure what their new home was going to be like. From 2012 to 2018, the young family had served as church planters and then community builders together with the Ludwigshafen Mennonite Church in Germany.
In partnership with the local Mennonite church they set up a community centre called Friedenshaus or Peace House. A large part of their ministry was helping with the influx of Syrian refugees by teaching them German and quilting, and by offering monthly potlucks and trips to the park. Teenagers in the church hosted a weekly homework club for the refugees. Both Otto and Rabus said it was exciting to be part of a ministry that really enlivened the 30-member church of mostly over-50-years-olds, and created an even closer community.
Now the family is in a new location, a smaller city east of the Rocky Mountains. The first thing they noticed in Lethbridge in 2018 was big pickup trucks all over the roads, trucks that wouldn’t even be able to drive down the narrow German streets. And it was so windy!
But one thing that didn’t change was a warm and welcoming Mennonite church. “A German Mennonite church feels just like a Canadian Mennonite church,” says Rabus.
“It was hard to come back, but Lethbridge Mennonite Church gave us a soft space to land. They are like a surrogate family . . . showing us amazing hospitality,” Otto adds.
The couple officially joined Lethbridge Mennonite this January.
Otto now works as an associate professor in religious studies, and arts and sciences at the University of Lethbridge.
Rabus continues to work with refugees and immigrants at Lethbridge Family Services, part of the Department of Immigrant Services. He says he is “especially inspired to be part of community building across cultures.”
So what are the challenges of returning to Canada after a Witness assignment?
“In Germany, our Christianity was out front, so we really had to face our identity and theology,” says Rabus.
Shifting from ministry to a secular context has been a challenge for the couple, as faith is considered more private in their current workplaces.
Otto now asks herself, “How do I live out my Christian calling in a professional or secular setting?” Each term, at least one student will ask about her personal beliefs. She answers, “I am a Christian and I attend Lethbridge Mennonite Church.”
Attending church without being responsible for everything is a different experience in Lethbridge, yet they are both involved in their new faith community.
“The Mennos in Germany are a small community, but they punch above their weight,” says Otto. “Mennonites everywhere are engaged and see themselves as having a higher purpose.”
The Mennos in Lethbridge are also very involved in their community. Rabus serves on the Mennonite Voluntary Service Committee and Otto as a Sunday school teacher and worship leader on a rotational basis.
They face one funny adjustment, as they keep forgetting that the Syrians in Canada don’t speak German. A couple of times Rabus has started speaking German when connecting with a Syrian, and it doesn’t work. To rectify this, he is currently taking Arabic lessons from a local Lebanese woman.
Change is not always easy. But on the couple’s last day in Ludwigshafen in 2018, they got the news that Silvie Kroeker of Winnipeg was willing to come and serve as the coordinator of Friedenshaus. MC Canada is still involved, but new partners are being found to cover the costs.
Finding Silvie “felt like a miracle,” says Otto.
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Alberta? Send it to Joanne De Jong at email@example.com.