Letter to a scattered familyBy John D. Roth
During the holiday season many of us received a steady flow of Christmas letters filled with the joys, sorrows, accomplishments and challenges of our far-flung friends and family. For 44 years Der Leserfreund (The Reader’s Friend), a plain, 16-page German-language monthly publication of the Kleine Gemeinde church, has been serving much the same function with correspondents from Mexico, Oklahoma, Nova Scotia and Belize providing updates on local church, community and family news.
The Kleine Gemeinde — known in North America as the Evangelical Mennonite Conference — are among the oldest Russian Mennonite groups, tracing their origins back 200 years to a renewal movement initiated by Klaas Reimer in the Molotschna Colony of South Russia in 1812. Since then, their history has followed a global diaspora typical of many other Low German-speaking groups. In 1874 the entire church emigrated to North America, settling primarily in Nebraska, Kansas and Manitoba. In 1948, a sizeable number, worried about growing pressures of acculturation, moved from Manitoba to Mexico. From there, a conservative wing of the group relocated to Belize (then British Honduras) a decade later, where they have established thriving communities in Spanish Lookout and neighboring settlements. More recently, several groups have moved back to North America, with new concentrations in Nova Scotia and Oklahoma.
Der Leserfreund serves much like a family circular letter. Each issue begins with a short sermon by the editor, Abram R. Thiessen, or by a pastor, followed by another “inspirational” reflection, obituaries, children’s stories and Bible quizzes, and an occasional poem or human interest story. The tone of the sermon and reflections often balances confidence in God’s providence with concern about the threat of worldliness. In November, Arthur Penner expressed deep appreciation for the vision of the founders of the Kleine Gemeinde, concerns about acculturation and a warning against the danger of allowing external matters to deflect a focus on Jesus as the center of church life. “We are struggling today with things that they [the founders] knew nothing about,” Penner concluded. “Two hundred years ago, for example, there was no movement for the rights of women and children, there was no talk of toleration, and also nothing like the modern critical approach to the Bible, all of which are now threatening our churches. The future of the Church of Christ is guaranteed (Matt. 16:18),” he concluded, “but will all local Kleine Gemeinde groups survive?” Penner left the question open.
The heart of Der Leserfreund is evident in the letters submitted by its readers. In a recent issue a writer from Nova Scotia described in rich detail her struggle with a tooth problem that was ultimately resolved with the help of “wonder oil” (Wunderöl). Writers from Spanish Lookout included reports on farm accidents, crop updates and news of a recent ordination. Correspondents from Mexico shared details of births and weddings, health crises, sudden deaths and miraculous recoveries. Woven into these details are the threads of human connection that sustain the bonds of fellowship essential for a living church.
Der Leserfreund is available for $10 a year at Der Leserfreund, Box 523, Spanish Lookout, Belize.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.
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