On Sunday we were in Steinbach to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Grace Mennonite Church. Our family has been associated with the church for almost all of those 50 years and the celebrations on November 6th provided a chance to reconnect with many other people who had been involved with the congregation throughout its history. When we moved to Steinbach in 1961 so my Dad could start his first medical practice, the Grace Mennonite Church had just begun meeting as a group. There was another much larger, more established General Conference Mennonite Church in Steinbach but their Sunday School and worship services were still in the German language. Since I, and my brother and sister did not speak German, my parents decided after a time of visiting various churches, that we would attend Grace. The fledgling congregation was meeting in the basement of the Central School, which is the present Steinbach Cultural Arts Centre. In 1962 a little white church on Steinbach’s First Street was purchased and this is the building where I have my childhood memories of Grace. I attended a girls club called Wayfarers here every week. I can still recite my Wayfarers pledge by heart and sing every verse of the theme song I Would Be True. I went to Sunday School here and sometimes on Sunday afternoons would be invited over to my church friends’ homes to play. I sang in a Junior Choir conducted by Shirley Bestvater. When I was a teenager I went to youth group here and on Thursday nights I went to church choir practice. This adult choir was conducted by Art Baerg. After choir practice the teenagers would usually drive around Steinbach for an hour or two in our cars and visit or go out for coffee. I was baptized in this church when I was sixteen. Dr. David Schroeder who would later be my professor at Canadian Mennonite University officiated at my baptism because at the time our church did not have a full-time, regular pastor.
Dave and I were married at Grace Mennonite in 1973, but for the next three years we lived in Winnipeg and attended the Bethel Mennonite Church where Dave was baptized. When we got teaching jobs in the Hanover School Division in 1976 we moved first to Landmark and then to Steinbach and once again attended Grace.
Our son Joel was dedicated at Grace Mennonite and the church played a big part in our family’s life as we raised him. He had great Sunday School teachers, we went to family camp together with him every year and he had many friends at church and was involved with the youth group as a teenager. Dave and I got involved at Grace in different ways, serving on committees, in choirs, teaching Sunday School and helping with the church auction. My own parents had been terrific role models when it came to church work. My Mom played piano and organ for worship services and was an active member of Women in Mission. My Dad served on Church Council for many years and was a deacon.
Here I am with Joel at a church barbecue in 1981. He is wearing a special sweater that used to belong to my brother Mark. It was made by Mrs. Frieda Neufeld, a lady from our church who knit sweaters for many of the children at Grace.
In 1990 while our family was living in Arizona for a year doing Mennonite Voluntary Service on the Hopi Indian Reservation, Grace bought a new church building on Third Street and the old church on First Street was torn down. Grace was very supportive during our time of service sending us letters, care packages and praying for us.
Joel was baptized at Grace Mennonite in 2000, after his second year at Canadian Mennonite University. This baptism group was special to me as well because I served as a mentor for Kristen, the girl standing beside Joel.
Here Bucky gets ready to receive a hug from his Dad on the day of his baptism at Grace Mennonite. The church was a very positive influence in the lives of our sons. They both went to camps sponsored by Mennonite Church Manitoba for many years as children, became counselors eventually and Bucky was the director of Moose Lake Mennonite Camp for two years. The boys received financial and spiritual support from Grace Mennonite while doing their camp work. Both our sons met the women they would marry while working at a Mennonite church camp.
Grace youth pastor, Phil Campbell Enns was an important spiritual and musical mentor to Bucky. Phil spent lots of time with Bucky as he was learning to play the guitar, giving him advice and help. He went with Bucky when he bought his first guitar with money Bucky had carefully saved from several long months of evening shifts at McDonalds. When Bucky didn’t quite have enough money for the guitar he wanted, Phil threw in the last few dollars Bucky needed. Phil also builds guitars and we had him make one as a gift for Bucky’s university graduation.
Bucky is a professional musician and he had some of his first opportunities to perform publicly at Grace Mennonite Church when he served on the worship team or was asked to provide special music for church services.
Grace Church was a place where I really had the chance to develop my gifts. In 1999 I wrote a musical The Daughters of Z together with fellow church member Craig Cassils. The entire congregation, young and old, got involved in staging it and performing it, led by choir director Shirley Bestvater. What a thrill to see something I had written come to life on stage. The musical was based on the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad in the book of Numbers in the Bible. I was also given many opportunities to preach at Grace and through the church’s wider Conference connections I received invitations to present workshops on a whole variety of topics as well as be a contributing author for a children’s club curriculum, Sunday School curriculum, devotional series and many magazines including The Mennonite, The Mennonite Mirror and The Daughters of Sarah.
Dave and I have been part of a supportive and fun small group at Grace Mennonite for longer than we can remember. The couples in the group are all our age and they continued to allow us to be members even during our time in Hong Kong– planning summer reunion get togethers when we were home. We are still a part of this eclectic group of wonderful people and in fact are going out with them tonight.
Grace Mennonite Church has played an important role in the life of our family and we are so grateful to the congregation there for all the love and support they have given us over the years. But times change and churches do too. I preached at Grace in August and looking out over the congregation I realized that a third of the people in the pews were strangers. That is a good thing because it means Grace is continuing to grow and provide community for many new people, who are being blessed by the church family there, just as we were.
The 50th anniversary on Sunday was a good chance to look back and reflect on our long-standing affiliation with Grace Mennonite and to reconnect with the many people there who were a caring ‘village’ that nurtured us and our children.