Sunday, August 16, 2020

Saying Goodbye

 Funerals in the Time of Covid are intimate affairs. 

Small gatherings. 

With lots of love. 

My dad's older brother, Uncle John, died last week. Today (I started writing this on Tues Aug 11)  we gathered twice, (once at the graveside, and again later at Clearbrook MB Church) to say goodbye. 

I took a few pics for family members who couldn't attend. 

And the content of this post will be Uncle John's eulogy, which was read in English, by Tim, at the funeral. 

Life Story of John Niebuhr Klassen

John was born on April 7, 1929, in Steinfeld, a Mennonite village in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. He was the first child of Johann J. and Elizabeth Klassen. His father had also been born and raised in this settlement. He was originally a farmer, but after collectivization became a carpenter. His mother Elizabeth, née Niebuhr, came from Krontal, Ukraine. John, called Hans as a child, became brother to twins in 1936, Pete and Margaret (later Labun).

Johann was arrested in the autumn of 1937, like many Christians and others who the Communist Party felt threatened by. The family never saw him again, and it wasn't until 65 years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that John learned of his father's exact fate.

John spent the first seven of his school years in Steinfeld, with instruction in German and Ukrainian. Hans wanted to be a farmer, but was also fascinated by his father's carpentry work. Because of the war, however, life soon became a matter of survival.  With the retreat of the German Wehrmacht in 1943, the whole village fled in a trek with about 350,000 others westwards. The escape was a highly dangerous endeavor that lasted two and a half years, with many short and longer stops along the way. School was repeatedly interrupted for the refugees.

When the war ended the Klassen family found itself in East Germany, the Soviet occupation zone. They only narrowly escaped deportation to Siberia; instead, near miraculously, the family managed to get to West Germany at the beginning of 1946 and settled close to Braunschweig for a while. In the autumn of the same year, Hans accepted Jesus as his Savior at a youth camp organized by the Evangelical Free Churches (Baptists). Two months later he was baptized with his two friends Henry Loewen (his cousin) and Walter Giedt. In 1947 Hans began an apprenticeship as a bookbinder in Braunschweig -- his love of reading, writing and books goes back a long way. During this time he also heard for the first time about Bible Schools, which were to play a big role in his future life.

In 1948 it became possible to emigrate to Canada, already the home of many Mennonites due to earlier waves of refugees. With the help of Uncle Cornelius Klassen, the family began a new life in Manitoba, where John (as he was now called) first worked on a farm. After the travel debt was paid, he moved to Winkler and learned carpentry. In the fall of 1949 his wish came true, and John attended the Bible School in Winkler for four years while at the same time catching up on missed schooling and building houses.

John had met one Maria Goerzen on his first youth retreat in Germany, who had also grown up in a Mennonite village (Tiege) in Ukraine and now lived in Vancouver. He had not forgotten her, nor her love for Jesus. After finishing Bible School, he moved to Vancouver to work in construction and more: John and Mary got married on October 18, 1953. 

In the winter months and in the evenings, John also completed High School, taught Sunday School, did youth work, and preached at the local Mennonite Brethern church. He was already a busy man!

While John was working in construction, the family grew: John Ruben and Ruth were born in 1954 and 1956. After a few years, John and Mary believed that they should continue to prepare for pastoral or missionary work. They moved to Winnipeg in 1957 to study at MB Bible College for another three years. After graduation, John and Mary answered the call of MB Missions to go to Germany as missionaries. From August 1960 they served the new congregation in Neustadt an der Weinstraße. During this time, on April 7, 1964, their third child Tim was born – a birthday gift for John.

From 1966 to 1968, John studied at the college and seminary of the MB Churches in Fresno, California, as well as at Fresno State College (BA, BD, and MA). In those years John let go of various prejudices, including excessive legalism. After completing their studies, the Klassens returned to Germany.

Their new task was the  pastoral leadership of the MB Church in Lage in Northern Germany, which at that time had 75 members. They stayed in this work for nearly 14 years and witnessed how God grew the church to more than 300 members. A new assembly hall and rectory was built, with John acting as construction manager. Several daughter churches were founded. John also worked as radio preacher and in the leadership of the MB Churches association (AMBD). Towards the end of his time with the Lage church, John gave up some of his many roles, which allowed him to become guest teacher at several Bible schools in Germany and Switzerland, especially at the non-denominational Bible School Brake, where he had been a guest lecturer since 1970.

In 1982, John and Mary moved to the United States for a year, where John studied Church Building and  Missiology (ThM) at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. From 1983 on they helped to build and grow a new MB Church in Bielefeld.

When George W. Peters returned to the USA in 1987, the Klassens were called to Korntal, near Stuttgart,  to the Freie Hochschule für Mission (FHM) to  serve as coordinator and lecturer. The years at FHM were a challenging and thankful time for John. In addition, he and Mary continued in church building with the AMBD and regularly served as guest preacher in various congregations on weekends. During this time teaching and preaching among the "Umsiedler" became a bigger part of his service.

This led to John and Mary being asked by the Bund Taufgesinnter Gemeinden to participate in the establishment of a theological training center in Bonn (Bibel Seminar Bonn, BSB). In January 1991 they moved to close-by Meckenheim. When the BSB opened its doors to the first 16 students in the autumn of 1993, John was part of the leadership team and lecturer in Dogmatics and Counseling.

John had been following and documenting the development of the "Umsiedler" Freikirchen in Germany with interest for many years, perhaps even with the idea of one day turning these studies into a doctoral thesis. He did exactly that in 2003 --- at age 74 --- with a dissertation at the University of South Africa  (UNISA), which was subsequently published as a book: "Russian-German Free Churches in the Federal Republic of Germany".

He worked with the BSB until his retirement in 2008. "Retirement" is somewhat of an exaggeration: After John and Mary moved to Abbotsford, BC, Canada, he worked on many projects with congregations and Bible Schools in Germany, and the MBMSI; among others, a book about the 150-year history of the Mennonite Brethern Church (2010).  At Clearbrook MB Church he remained active with German Bible studies and sermons. In recent years, he lovingly cared for his “Schatz” Mary, at Tabor Court.

On August 4, 2020 he went home to his Lord and Savior surrounded by his closest family, after being diagnosed with cancer less than six weeks earlier.

He is survived by his beloved Mary, his children John (Maria), Ruth (Tony) and Tim (Kiersten), 6 grandchildren: Jason, Persis, Ruben, Michael, Siri and Ellie, and 5 great-grandchildren: Seth, Sadie, Layla, Jona and Levi.  They are scattered all over the world, in Germany, Canada, England, and the USA.

Three things I'm thankful for:

1. Family. Families. My family. 

2. I am grateful for this service. It felt good and right that we were in a church, singing hymns (yeah, in German and English) listening to stories about my Uncle John's love for the Lord and hearing about the legacy he was leaving behind. 

3. Despite Covid and all it's restrictions, I am thankful that my cousins, here from London, New York and Germany, all were able to see their dad before he passed. 

Stay safe, wash your hands.


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