new Mennonite Life logo    June 2000     vol. 55 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Left Behind

(Novosibirsk, June 1998)

Walter Sawatsky

We arrived after ten at night -- four men with suitcases -- two more came on the slow train the next morning. Mrs. Peters welcomed us to their home while Mr. Willi Peters parked the car in a safe place. Having dodged deep craters and bounced over sharp rocks on the road to Novosibirsk, Siberia all day long, we were tired. The car had made it, to our surprise, though the next morning one of the bald tires was flat after all.

Willi Peters, right, elder of Novosibirsk church.
Left, his son Andrei, May 1998.
Credit: Walter Sawatsky.

The Peters' home was very nice, but small, and very full. At the moment son Andrei's wife and family was at her parents' home 500 kilometers away awaiting a baby. Then mother with four children would rejoin Andrei in the one room that we now used as bedroom and dining room. There was a room for the parents, a tiny kitchen, plus another room with a living room couch that became the bed for two of us. Before we slept we ate - a heavy meal -- and the men talked with Willi. Next morning came breakfast when Mrs. Peters again insisted we eat and eat from the bread, jam, coffee, eggs, meat and other costly items. All morning we sat with Willi and Andrei. It became a bit strained as we probed the need and realistic possibilities for the journal Plan of Salvation that Andrei had started. It was a freebie as long as the American Mennonites continued to pay. Then it was off to the evening service, some of us leaving at 2pm in order to make all the bus and train connections for 6pm.

Novisibirsk Mennonite Church, May 1998.
Credit: Walter Sawatsky.

The Mennonite church of Novosibirsk still stood as I remembered it from other years -- it had been officially recognized in 1970. I recall a visit in 1978 where the three sections of the former house were over-stuffed with people. The wall on one section hung full of guitars. After Helmut and Irma Harder had finished their duet it was the youth group's turn to play and sing. Thank God for that church's witness in that city, and for the promise of faith displayed by those youth.

The Mennonite church of Novosibirsk still exists, but it is a church of the remnant. We preached in German, Russian and Low German to make sure each of the dozen people caught something. There were old grandmothers left behind when everybody emigrated after 1987. Sometimes their divorced daughters brought them, one of them staying to listen this time. Other retirees chose to stay because their children and grandchildren were integrated into Russian society, though not believers. Willi Peters had taken his turn at preaching when they still crowded together. Now he was the preacher left behind, bringing his believing children and grandchildren, modeling what could be. He used his Bible and studied some of the books, especially the Russian ones that now filled his shelves, gifts left behind.

Willi's mission is to serve those left behind. At least every quarter he travels to six locations where there are some Mennonites left who need a word from the Lord. Sometimes he travels alone, sometimes Mrs. Peters joins him -- and the singing sounds better. There are few rewards except for the hearty squeeze of the hand and a tear in the eye when parting.

Having heard us preach and talk at table, Mrs. Peters left her kitchen to approach with a question that night -- Willi was out getting some food to send along with us the next morning. She had a question and she hoped she was not imposing.

The question was a story, also of someone left behind. A lady of 70 (we'll call her Selma) had lived with her family and other Soviet German friends in south central Asia, south of Samarkand. The Uzbeks, with rising national and Muslim consciousness, forced the Russian, Ukrainian and Germans living there to flee or be killed. Selma's family left in a hurry so had no money to keep moving all the way to Germany. So they landed near Slavgorod, a region famous for its German settlements, but now with villages half empty due to the emigration fever.

Selma was a devout Christian, the only one in her family. There had been a small Lutheran fellowship where she had worshiped, and long ago as a child she had been baptized in one of the German colonies. Her faith had sustained her through the years of the worker's army, the decade of banishment, and the slow recovery in Muslim Uzbekistan. She looked for Christian fellowship in the new village, where some Baptists (from the "Reform Baptist" union) were gathering.

But now came the question. Those Baptists had become even more separatist than they already were before 1989. Selma was certainly welcome to hear the Word, but on the first Sunday of the month when they always served communion, she had been left behind, or passed over. If she would let herself be re-baptized, they said, then she could really be a member. But if she did that, then would she not be saying that all her years of receiving communion, of knowing the blessing of the Lord with those other Lutherans, had not been authentic?

Mrs. Peters knew that Mennonites practice adult baptism but Selma had come to her to ask whether she could take communion the next time Willi came to hold a service. Would we tell her what was right?

You could tell she knew what was right but she was a woman, and Willi was unsure of himself and dared not raise the matter with the leaders from America. So I gave her some data and asked whether it fit with her understanding. Baptism, we agreed, does not save you. You can live as a believer without taking communion but by not partaking with other believers you are robbed of nurture and blessing. The Bible does not really specify whether baptism must always precede communion, those matters already fall into the realm of Christian tradition, of commonly agreed upon practice. I told her what had been happening in Germany where so many of their friends had gone. Mennonites living in isolated communities had intermarried with Lutherans. So that raised the problem of baptism, communion and church membership. After some years of serious discussion, the leaders had agreed on a common statement. Baptism as a child, or dedication as a child, represented the beginning of living in a Christian home and community, but needed to be 'owned' by the child when choosing to be confirmed or to be baptized. That placed the emphasis on faith commitment and on the group responsibility to nurture, and it started by respecting each other. I also told her another story of a church committed to believers baptism (of adults) that decided to accept by transfer someone baptized as a child, if that person viewed their baptism, confirmation and now transfer as a continued commitment. If the person chose to be re-baptized as a renewal of commitment, the congregation would re-baptize, but the emphasis was on the committed faith.

Mrs. Peters looked relieved and retreated to the kitchen as Willi returned and 'man-talk' resumed. I knew she would go along for that Pentecost Sunday, and that she would make sure this time Selma would not be left behind.