Lapjchen

Again…I need to make shoes. Like people of the forests since time began, I’ll chop down three or four birch saplings.  I’ll need seven long strips of the inner fiber of the bark, the bast. I’ll weave them around a wooden block roughly the size of my feet.  It’s winter, so I’ll weave the shoes a bit wider, so I can wrap lots of strips of cloth around my feet, to keep them warm inside my new shoes. My lapjchen. This is a nice pair. I did a good job. I hope they last the week.

This pair of shoes, also called lapjchen, or lapti, was given to my mother Katie Funk Wiebe by my Great Aunt Neta, when mom visited her in Moscow in 1989. From 1945 to 1953, Aganeta Janzen Block and her four children worked in forced labor camps in Siberia. These were the type of shoes they made for themselves during this time. The shoes didn’t last long.
 

Questions as you write your spiritual journey

“A spiritual autobiography focuses less on the people, events and experiences of a person’s life and more on what these people, events and experiences meant for him/her and how they formed him/her or shaped the course of his life. It allows the writer to communicate who she or he is as a person and what is important in her or his life.”  —Jesuit brother Charles J. Jackson

Here are two dozen queries to spark you as you write your spiritual journey.

  1. How did you perceive God or the sacred when you were a child?
  2. Who first helped shape your view of the Divine?
  3. Does your name have a meaning or story attached to it?
  4. Have you been influenced by a variety of spiritual traditions or were you brought up in a single faith?
  5. Who have been the important spiritual role models in your life? Who are your saints, holy people, spiritual mentors today?
  6. What authors have influenced you the most, and what do you read for spiritual nurture?
  7. How has your faith changed or grown?
  8. How have you learned to incorporate discipline and accountability in to your life, for example your finances, education, professional work, and physical health?
  9. What spiritual practices shape your spiritual life today, and how do you connect with others in these disciplines?
  10. If married or partnered, how would you characterize the spiritual relationship you have, including shared spiritual practices?
  11. What spiritual resources do you need now?
  12. Where do you think you are heading in your faith and practice?
  13. Draw or describe a metaphor for your spiritual journey. For example, some people imagine life as a ship sailing across uncharted waters, and their faith, values, and beliefs as the wind in the sails. Others imagine it as a spiral of experiences and realizations, as a journey over mountains and valleys, or as a river.
  14. What scriptures or other books did your family regard as holy? How seriously were the teachings in them taken?
  15. Did your family observe any religious rituals? How were those rituals related to their beliefs?
  16. Have there been times when you felt the presence of the sacred outside your place of worship, when there were no priests, pastors, rabbis, or other teachers around?  What was that experience like?
  17. When have you experienced awe or wonder? Where were you, and what happened?
  18. What holy days do you celebrate?
  19. Are your spiritual beliefs or values relevant to what you wear, what you do, who you are friends with, how you educate your children, how you relate to the earth, animals, plants, water?
  20. Do seemingly random events of your life seem to reveal interconnectedness?
  21. Call to mind the significant turning points in your life; what are they?
  22. What are the most significant decisions you have made?
  23. What are the most intense struggles and conflicts, successes and failures you have experienced?
  24. Have you ever felt or experienced a sense of being “called” to do something?

What would mother do?

The auctioneer nodded as I held up my bid card. The quilt was mine.

A sunburst of three-inch multi-colored vintage-fabric parallelograms, I owned a new quilt, hand-pieced by the women of the Julesburg Mennonite Church. My elation over my winning bid was shared by my sister Susan as we sat on the aluminum bleachers in a fair barn at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds in Aurora, Nebraska. We had met at this Mennonite Central Committee auction on an April Saturday to share our love of quilts and to do some homework. Susan had agreed to help me think about what to write about our mother.

“People want to know that she was as great a mother as she is a great woman in her public life,” Susan said.

I didn’t immediately respond, as I paused to witness an especially fine king-sized quilt raise almost $5,000 for the Mennonite Central Committee.

“Hmmm,” I said, hunting for a pen to take notes on the back of my bid card. “Of course she was a great mother. Just look at her children!”

Susan listened patiently while I mused on the excellence of Katie’s children. James is a technological innovator and businessman. Christine, who died in 2000, was a nurse and writer. Susan is a physician practicing General Internal Medicine. I am a writer and software designer. We have nurtured seven children, and so far, two grandchildren. We have followed our mother’s example of ethical behavior, and positive, energetic involvement in our families and the world.

“By measure of her children, I’ll agree she was a great mother,” Susan said, breaking into my monologue. “But she did not nurture us in a way that was typical of a Mennonite mother of the 1950s and 60s.”

The main thing that was different was that she wrote. I first became aware of this unusual behavior in the mid-1950s, when we were living in the white frame parsonage in Hepburn, Saskatchewan. Slipped in among all the other things Mommy did in a week, sometimes she put pieces of soft yellow foolscap paper into a typewriter, and rapidly tapped her fingers on the black keys. At other times, she tailored clothes for her three girls and herself (I will always be thankful for that beautiful blue dress with the black velvet trim and sparkly buttons). She ironed our clothes, including our father’s starched shirts (he almost always dressed up). She gardened and canned. She baked light, delicious bread in a wood- and coal-fired stove. Visiting church dignitaries and missionaries would roll up their sleeves and tuck their ties into their white shirt-fronts before giving themselves to her chicken soup, sucking every bit of meat off the bones, slurping the homemade noodles. My mother helped me struggle through my math homework and engineered wild Easter egg hunts. She tuned into Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC radio, while we slid around on old woolen socks to polish the hardwood floors. We were proud to hear how she had once won a prize for her handwriting, a medal for being smart, a scholarship to study physics. For a treat, Mother would open her cedar chest and let us look at a watercolor she had painted, her wedding dress, photos of herself as a confident, beautiful young woman. She played the piano. She sang popular songs like “The Happy Wanderer,” and recited Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and other romantic poets: “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills. When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils…” Oh, I loved my mother. And she loved us. She was always available for questions and confidences. Except—when she was typing at her small desk under the stairs, by a window looking north over the prairie. When she was writing.

My entire memory of my father, Walter William Wiebe, is of a man intensely focused on educating himself to take a role as a religious journalist in the church. I had a feeling that our family was special because our father was preparing to step into this greatness. There was a dark side to this focus on his education. I experienced a chronic and growing family tension around money. I was desolated by his absences when he attended summer school, conferences and church meetings. But I was excited when he said that we were going to move to a place with lots of books, because by the fifth grade, I had read every book in the Hepburn, Saskatchewan public school library, and could finish in one day the two books doled out by the traveling bookmobile.

So we left the parsonage and moved to Virgil, Ontario.

Our family expanded to include a friendly little brother, James.

My father was very ill for a time. The six of us then moved to Kitchener, Ontario. After studying at Waterloo University and finishing his bachelor’s degree, our father moved to Syracuse University in New York state to pursue a master’s degree in religious journalism. The rest of the family stayed behind in our little rented brick house on Bournemouth Street. Mother continued to write articles and joined the Christian Writers Club. Additionally, she worked in temporary secretarial jobs. Because she was gone from home more now, she began teaching us the formulas for making basic foods. Under her direction, we continued to keep ourselves and our home clean and attractive. However, she did not teach us that any of the domestic arts were an end in themselves. For example, we did not quilt, or even consider quilting. Free time was for reading and writing. My sisters and I took the bus downtown to the public library and came home with stacks of exciting, delighting books. There were never any restrictions on what we could read. While my father was dubious whether I would gain anything from reading Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, he let me plow through it. I took a touch-typing course.

I begged for my own room, which Mother created by partitioning a corner of the basement with blankets. Here, a narrow beam of sunlight illuminated a thirteen-year-old girl perched before a small desk, like her mother’s, with a typewriter and a stack of soft yellow paper. I wrote long stories about First Nations’ princesses and lost children; poems featuring dead birds and bare trees. Late at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, I read most of Dickens under the blankets with a flashlight.

I am looking at a photo of our family, taken in late 1961 in our Kitchener living room. Although we are living on next to nothing, we’re impeccably dressed and coiffed. Mommy holds the baby. Daddy is home from Syracuse for Christmas. We face the photographer solemnly. We are about to change our lives, yet again. For our father is almost done with his education and is about to take the important church position our whole lives have been about, for as long as I can remember.

One year later, in mid-November, 1962, we are living in a drafty rented house in Hillsboro, Kansas. Our father is gone. Months after having achieved his life’s dream, he finally died of that mysterious thing that was growing inside him for many years. Mrs. Walter Wiebe is now a single parent of four children: I am fourteen, Susan is eleven, Christine is seven, and James is three, just days away from his fourth birthday.

We all missed—unspeakably—the vibrant presence of Walter William Wiebe. We didn’t feel like a family any more. But in our bereavement and isolation, our family could not turn to counselors, psychotherapists, or school psychologists, for there weren’t any. We heard Christian platitudes about death. We hid our bewilderment and pain from Hillsboro, our church, and often, even from each other. I cried alone. But we had our Mother.

The week after my father’s funeral, mommy sat down at her typewriter to write dozens of well-composed letters to caregivers, community members, friends, and family. She vividly told the story of our father’s illness and death, carefully explained our circumstances, warmly thanked people for their cards and letters, their gifts and visits. Even in such a time, she had the presence of mind to make carbon copies of her letters, which, years later, she shared with us. The letters reveal a person struggling with great challenges, extremely short of money, yet gracious, determined and scarcely revealing the immense feeling of being overwhelmed. In the letters, as she enters a period of mighty grief for the loss of her beloved husband, she nonetheless appears to be organized, thinking logically, communicating expressively, and in touch with some inner vision of how our lives could be re-ordered to become more efficient and sensible. These are some of the talents Katie used—at last—to create a settled, coherent home for her family. I was greatly relieved when she said our moving-around days were over and that we would stay in Kansas. She went to work full-time. Within two years, we were living in our own modern ranch-style home with a yard, a garage, and large trees. I graduated from Hillsboro High School, and studied two years at Tabor College while living at home. During those five years, I also was participant, support system, and witness of my mother’s approach to single parenting. I had not previously known a single parent, so I had no expectations. I took it for granted that she was only doing what any mother would do if left with four children. Now I see how exceptional she was.

One of her challenges was that as a fatherless family of three girls and a toddler boy, few knew how to relate to us. Our mother felt like “an incomplete social unit.” I saw that we were not invited to visit at my friends’ homes, the homes that had both a mother and a father.

Being urban Canadians, we did not fit into the local culture. The Low German Mennonite Brethren town of Hillsboro, Kansas was all at once more lowbrow, more rural, and worldlier than the Russian-German Mennonite culture we had known in Kitchener, although these Kansas Mennonites had come to America several generations earlier. I walked into school wearing dresses which had been sewn by Mother, with love and skill. But these girls in Hillsboro wore store-bought skirts and sweaters, nylon stockings and high heels, jewelry and makeup. They teased their hair into bouffant beehives. I’d never had a date. Some of the girls here made out with boys; a few were going steady. Our family didn’t even have a television set and never listened to popular radio. But some of my new classmates got up

early to do farm chores before coming to school, singing along to Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline on KFDI, and the Beach Boys, the Crystals, the Shirelles, and the Chiffons on KEYN. They talked about what they had seen last night on The Beverly Hillbillies, Candid Camera, and The Ed Sullivan Show. Nobody had heard of any of the poets Mother had brought into my life. In the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, I had been part of the Mennonite World Conference and a Billy Graham revival, as well as in the audience for the Vienna Boys Choir from Austria. Here in Hillsboro, I was invited to football games, pajama parties, and hay rides.

Because we were different, our family became emotionally interdependent. We turned to our mother for our support, encouragement, affirmation, and friendship, and Mommy leaned on us too; to the point where we became very sensitive to one another’s moods. Mommy sometimes felt despondent and said she was afraid she couldn’t do a good job with us as a single parent. She said to us, “You have no father but our Father in Heaven.” We read an article by Billy Graham which seemed to suggest that it is very harmful for children to grow up with only one parent. Some in the community suggested strongly that Mother should remarry as soon as possible. I coldly told her, “I don’t mind at all if you would ever want to get married again, but the day you did, I would leave home.” Then I felt bad for what I had said and tried hard to make her happy, to behave well, to obey her. I memorized jokes to tell at the dinner table.

I slowly awoke from the fog of my grief to realize with horror that I was now living in a dull town of 2400 persons stuck out in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. As I finished high school, I often felt alone and angry, and almost always unchallenged by my schoolwork. I invented an imaginary friend and became obsessed with boys. I did my chores sluggishly, carelessly. I thought about killing myself. I blamed myself for my father’s death and fantasized about bringing him back to life. I ate too much. I experienced stress-induced coronary artery spasms and chest pains. I began to butt heads with Mother over abstract topics such as existentialism and pantheism, and wrestled with her over the power issues that emerged because I would take care of the children until five-thirty, when she arrived home from work to take back the reins of authority. Once I complained that Jamie was getting spoiled because she wouldn’t discipline him, and I didn’t know how, and she cried. She told me she longed to spend more time with him. Sometimes, Mother and I would clash against each other so hard that we would both wind up in tears. Memories of these times are now still painful to us, especially James, who was so young when he witnessed them.

The other children were more even-keeled. However, Mother had other kinds of challenges with them. For example, Susan had two operations for a ruptured appendix, and Christine became ill with what was initially diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, then systemic lupus erythematosus.

Where should Mother turn for support? What could she offer her children as a way to work with their emotions? What would strengthen our family? Hillsboro offered us narrow resources. The Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church was an emotionally inhibited environment, although some of the members loved us well, particularly John B. and Susie Jost, and P.B. and Hannah Willems. Mother received the gift of their friendship, which gave us all a happy, safe haven where we could relax and be ourselves. However, despite the generous warmth of some of its members, the church in general was not a place to for emotional healing. It also was not a place to wonder out loud about existentialism and pantheism.

To nurture us emotionally and spiritually, Mother re-invigorated our practice of family worship. Every evening after supper, we prayed together and read Bible verses and sections from books like Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest: “Never reserve anything. Pour out the best you have, and always be poor. Never be diplomatic and careful about the treasure that God gives. This is poverty triumphant!” Mother also encouraged us to write and journal, practices Christine and I adopted. By example, she taught us how to see the stories in our lives, and tell them. She thought carefully about the new cultural influences we were encountering, and used her discrimination to make choices about where we would engage and where we would hold firm to our family’s values. She filled in the low-cut bodice of my party dress with frothy chiffon trim. She bought a television set and we watched Star Trek. We attended football games, and afterwards, talked about how silly we felt when we joined the others in cheering out loud.

Mother was often not at home, and when she was, she kept office hours. This was because she was gaining her bachelor’s, and then master’s degrees, while working full time. James remembers how special he felt when she put aside the papers she was grading to give him time and attention. He remembers that his Mom was very protective of her youngest child. “She had a very good mommy radar—she knew where the dragons lay,” he told me recently.

After working for awhile at the same publishing company that had enlisted my father to move to Kansas, Mother became a professor of English at Tabor College. And she continued to write. In the 1950s, her first published articles had been bylined, “Mrs. Walter Wiebe.” Now her work was under her own name: Katie Wiebe. She discussed with us children whether she should include her maiden name in her byline, too. So we witnessed her evolution into the writer, “Katie Funk Wiebe.”

Recently, I found an instructive photo on the website of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. This photo depicts a group of women attending a session of the 1966 Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The women sit apart from the men in the back rows of the Eden Christian College gymnasium. The year that photo was taken, women around the world were taking a front seat. Indira Gandhi was elected India’s third prime minister. Betty Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), Roberta Bignay became the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon, Janis Joplin gave her first live concert, and Billie Jean King won her first Wimbeldon singles title. And in Kansas, Katie Funk Wiebe was saying, “women can no longer look for safe, easy roles away from the social and intellectual ferment of our age.” In May of 1966, she attended the Maranatha Christian Writers Conference at Winona Lake, Indiana and returned ready to do something with her writing.

Our family dinners became excited explorations of Big Ideas. Daring questions were asked. For months, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique took the place of honor on top of our bookshelf in the dining room! Mother wrote many articles relating to the liberation of women, inviting understanding by being open about her own experience as a widow on the fringes of Hillsboro, Kansas society. At the same time that she advocated for changing roles for women in the church, she valued the Mennonite Brethren church and looked for ways to broaden her role there. This created both an inner and outer tension, which played out in our family dynamics.

It was a big day for the family when our Mother!!! was invited to speak in the “Big” Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren church (although not from the pulpit). In the church, we four sat near the front, eagerly watching her. She looked poised and beautiful in her dark blue dress, and spoke fluently, with many interesting stories, making complete sense, in words that anyone could understand. I was proud to be her daughter. Then we went home to eat Sunday dinner, a pot roast with potatoes, carrots and onions, which had been slowly mellowing into tender wonderfulness in the oven as she had been speaking. We were all elated. Mother had preached!

“No, children, it wasn’t preaching,” she said, “I didn’t speak from the pulpit, and that’s an important difference.”

“I don’t see any difference,” I said.

She smiled, ruefully.

The phone rang.

We all stopped chewing to listen. She answered buoyantly, but in a minute, her voice lost its confident ring, slowed.

She came back to the table, looking uncomfortable and tense.

She said that the caller—a man in the church—had criticized her sharply for wearing a dress with such a short skirt, just below the knees. She was being provocative, he had said. “It isn’t a thing for a Christian woman to do, sister,” he had chided her. “Bad enough that you stand in front of the church and speak. But in such a dress….”

I wanted so much to comfort Mother, help her feel better.

“He’s weird,” I said, using the nastiest word I could think of. “What difference does it make what you wear?”

Susan spoke up. “You made a very good sermon,” she said. “I could understand every word. That’s the main thing. That guy is crazy.”

“That’s not kind,” said Mother.

“He was not kind to you,” said Christine, softly, and got up from her chair to hug her mommy. Jamie joined them as Susan and I sat stiffly in our dining room chairs, not knowing what to say, angrily looking out the window at the road. I closed my eyes and pretended I was little again, on holiday in northern Saskatchewan, Daddy driving our brown Chevy through piney, rocky landscapes painted by a glowing sunset.

“It’s alright, children,” said Mother. “Let’s not let that man make us bitter. Let’s eat dinner. Then after dinner, Joanna, will you watch Jamie so I can finish grading those papers? Christine, can you work with Susan on your science homework? Then at ten to three, we’ll leave for the play at Tabor College.”

Now the quilt auction was almost over. The late afternoon sky was turning yellow-grey; a storm was brewing. I knew I should get on the highway if I was going to beat the weather. Susan admired a quilt purchased by her friend’s mother, then turned back to me with a summary of our discussion.

“That’s how Mother was,” Susan said. “She gave us the knowledge that we can do hard work. She was telling us: ‘I can do things that are unpleasant, difficult, and tedious. I can do things atypical for my social group, even when I am criticized or misunderstood. I can handle the internal conflict between my need for acceptance and my need to be true to my self and what I am called to do. And I can do those hard things for years.’”

In 1967, at the age of 19, I explored the borders of a wider world as I interned at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. In the fall, I enrolled at the University of Kansas. I had been helping with the younger children for so long that I now felt conflicted about abandoning the family and striking out on my own. James coveted my affection and seeing me when I came home from college was very important to him. Christine clung to me emotionally, and was distressed at some of my new behaviors. She was afraid that I wasn’t a Christian any more. She prayed for me and worried about me. Mother drove three hours north to visit me at university, bringing the children, and picnics. She began the practice of writing me a weekly letter, with detailed news, encouragement, support, jokes, and family updates. But despite all that she did, I was temporarily lost to the family and myself. After a year and a half, I dropped out of school and stayed for a few months at the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Wichita, until my son Matthew William was born. Just stating those bare facts does not begin to describe the experience.

In 1970, I launched a commune with my boyfriend, on St. Francis Street in Wichita, blocks away from our friends at the Mennonite Voluntary Service house. Christine worried about letting slip any information about my living arrangements to Mother’s friends in Hillsboro. “I wouldn’t care if my friends knew,” Chris wrote. “But if some of the people in the Parkview church knew there would be a big stink. What kind of a church is that? We put on a front as if everything is just fine. We never really communicate about what bothers us most deeply with the people in the church. We never get past the surface.”

Mother struggled to understand my actions, an unsteady mixture of individuation, rebellion, and stepping in her feminist footsteps. She had written about how men and women in the church “need each other’s support, but not at the expense of one another.” I was not patient enough to work through that struggle in the Mennonite Brethren Church, or in any church, for that matter.

In 1971, at the age of 19, Susan moved to Omaha to go to nursing school; she married a year later. Christine’s illness was diagnosed as lupus and she spent a summer at the National Institutes of Health, then moved into a Tabor College dormitory in September of 1972.

Christine was intrigued by my experiment in communal living. While she was at Tabor she took a trip to explore Christian intentional communities. Mother told Christine that communal living held no appeal for her because she cherished her privacy and independence. Nonetheless, with James as the only child still at home, Mother often told Christine that she was lonely. She also told Christine that she was feeling the pull to write more, but that she was “not willing to stake her financial security on her writing talent.” Christine commented, “I would like her to do what she wants to do.” By April of 1976, Katie Funk Wiebe was writing a book about her experiences as a widow.

At the MCC quilt auction, the grey-haired quilt bidders in the paid chairs at the front of the room were getting to their feet, showing off their purchases, finding their families, debating whether to go back to the food building to get one more paper bag of warm, sugar-dusted, raisin-studded portzelky. The sky was darkening and a stiff wind was rattling the metal roofs of the fairground buildings.

However, I had one more topic to bring up with Susan before we parted.

“When you were young, did Mother ask you if you would take Jesus into your heart?”

“Yes,” she said, “I was around five.”

Christine also told me about how Mother had introduced her to Jesus, not just as an idea, but “as a living Person who is interested deeply in me.”

“For me,” I said, “when I was about six years old, Mother asked me if I would like Jesus to come into my heart. I said yes, not knowing what I was choosing. I remember that she prayed with me, the Saskatchewan prairie wind tossing our hair as we stood in the back yard with our eyes closed and hands folded.

As I grew up, I read the Bible and went to Sunday School, but most importantly, I watched her live, to see how a follower of Jesus did things.”

Mother eventually became my guru, modeling the way, as I strained to live with the difficult consequences of my earlier choices. For example, for many years, my every day was tinged with despair that the Kansas legal system would forever keep me from my son, who had been adopted. Then one day, as a new mother of my second son, David Miguel, and living a hard life in a new city, working ten to twelve hours a day, I realized that I had a key to making things work for me. I decided that when in difficult circumstances, I would ask myself, “What would Mother do?” Mothering my sons David and Zachary, working in the corporate world, writing and expressing myself, and at last, after twenty-seven years, meeting and learning to know my son, Bill, this was my mantra: What would Mother do?

Upon asking this question, I would feel the tears dry on my face, my spine straighten, my brain swing into high gear, my confidence strengthen. Solutions would begin to appear. I would build relationships. Make friends. Think logically. Be gracious. Organize my calendar. Make lists and prioritize. Write letters. Reach out for help. Have faith in positive outcomes. Pray. Persevere. Create a better world. Some of these gifts came more naturally than others. Along the way, I developed my own strengths, and integrated them with these gifts from Mother.

And she’s still ahead of me on the path, my mother. I have gained wisdom by watching how she has managed her aging process. As I approach retirement, I reflect on the style in which she downsized her career, home, and possessions when she still had lots of energy to do it. I learn how to manage loss and change as I see how she responds as one after another dear friend or family member weakens, dies. I see that she grieves and then makes new friends, deepens other connections.

On July 5, 1964, when we were all struggling to learn how to live without Walter William Wiebe, I wrote this prayer for my mother:

Eternal Father of us all, I come unto thee in prayer
for my Mother.

For the rich gifts of life that she has freely bestowed
upon me, I give thee now these words of thanks.

For the measureless gift of physical life itself –

For patience through long nights of illness –

For an understanding heart when my feet stumbled
in finding the true path –

For guidance against shipwreck and for freedom in
which to grow –

For these gifts of a wise Mother I give my thanks to
thee and to her.

Grant me patience and understanding when her
thoughts are not the same as my thoughts.

Lead me slowly though it be, into the larger
wisdom that she has gained from life.

Make me a steady support for her,
in these years of maturing hopes.

In the name of Him who said to his earthly parents,
‘Did ye not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’”

At the age of sixteen, when I wrote this prayer, I had a Mother who was diligent, concerned, questing, wise, organized, gracious, perseverant, driven to express herself in written and spoken word. She still has these qualities, but they don’t define her now as they did then. The Mother I have now is also relaxed and celebratory, with a twinkle in her eye and a ready hug. Katie is now well-known in certain circles, admired, studied. She made a measurable impact on the role of women in the church. Through teaching, writing, and speaking publicly, she has helped people learn how to tell their stories, how to age more gracefully, how to grow spiritually. But these achievements happened out in the world. At home, she is Mother.

********************************************************

This is Chapter 3 of the book, The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, recently published by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission. The chapter also included several poems by my late sister Christine Ruth Wiebe, which I will post separately to this blog. The book was edited by Doug Heidebrecht and Valerie G. Rempel.  The Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor hosted an event May 24 to unveil the book and present it to my mom.  Mom says the book will be available on Amazon in the fall.

Chapter 3
What Would
Mother Do?
Joanna Wiebe
The auctioneer nodded as I held up my bid card. The quilt
was mine.
A sunburst of three-inch multi-colored vintage-fabric parallelograms,
I owned a new quilt, hand-pieced by the women of
the Julesburg Mennonite Church. My elation over my winning
bid was shared by my sister Susan as we sat on the aluminum
bleachers in a fair barn at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds
in Aurora, Nebraska. We had met at this Mennonite Central
Committee auction on an April Saturday to share our love of
quilts and to do some homework. Susan had agreed to help me
think about what to write about our mother.
“People want to know that she was as great a mother as she
is a great woman in her public life,” Susan said.
I didn’t immediately respond, as I paused to witness an
especially fine king-sized quilt raise almost $5,000 for the Mennonite
Central Committee.
“Hmmm,” I said, hunting for a pen to take notes on the
back of my bid card. “Of course she was a great mother. Just
look at her children!”
Susan listened patiently while I mused on the excellence of
Katie’s children. James is a technological innovator and businessman.
Christine, who died in 2000, was a nurse and writer.
Susan is a physician practicing General Internal Medicine. I
am a writer and software designer. We have nurtured seven
children, and so far, two grandchildren. We have followed our
mother’s example of ethical behavior, and positive, energetic
involvement in our families and the world.
“By measure of her children, I’ll agree she was a great
mother,” Susan said, breaking into my monologue. “But she did
46 | The Voice of a Writer
not nurture us in a way that was typical of a Mennonite mother
of the 1950s and 60s.”
EXPLORING
I find my mother’s old Dutch oven.
Heavy, black, spherical—
I imagine it looked like this
when father gave it to her 40 years ago.
Now as I study that black hole in my kitchen,
I feel conditions must be right
to slip through this density of memories
to their time, or at the very least,
by some chance tilting,
to snatch compressed messages
from that dark space before my birth.
Christine Wiebe – January 1989
The main thing that was different was that she wrote. I
first became aware of this unusual behavior in the mid-1950s,
when we were living in the white frame parsonage in Hepburn,
Saskatchewan. Slipped in among all the other things Mommy
did in a week, sometimes she put pieces of soft yellow foolscap
into a typewriter, and rapidly tapped her fingers on the black
keys. At other times, she tailored clothes for her three girls and
herself (I will always be thankful for that beautiful blue dress
with the black velvet trim and sparkly buttons). She ironed our
clothes, including our father’s starched shirts (he almost always
dressed up). She gardened and canned. She baked light, delicious
bread in a wood- and coal-fired stove. Visiting church dignitaries
and missionaries would roll up their sleeves and tuck
their ties into their white shirt-fronts before giving themselves
to her chicken soup, sucking every bit of meat off the bones,
slurping the homemade noodles. My mother helped me strugWhat
Would Mother Do? | 47
gle through my math homework and engineered wild Easter
egg hunts. She tuned into Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC
radio, while we slid around on old woolen socks to polish the
hardwood floors. We were proud to hear how she had once won
a prize for her handwriting, a medal for being smart, a scholarship
to study physics. For a treat, Mother would open her cedar
chest and let us look at a watercolor she had painted, her wedding
dress, photos of herself as a confident, beautiful young
woman. She played the piano. She sang popular songs like
“The Happy Wanderer,” and recited Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley,
and other romantic poets: “I wandered lonely as a cloud
that floats on high o’er vales and hills. When all at once I saw a
crowd, A host, of golden daffodils…” Oh, I loved my mother.
And she loved us. She was always available for questions and
confidences. Except—when she was typing at her small desk
under the stairs, by a window looking north over the prairie.
When she was writing.
My entire memory of my father, Walter William Wiebe, is
of a man intensely focused on educating himself to take a role
as a religious journalist in the church. I had a feeling that our
family was special because our father was preparing to step into
this greatness. There was a dark side to this focus on his education.
I experienced a chronic and growing family tension around
money. I was desolated by his absences when he attended summer
school, conferences and church meetings. But I was excited
when he said that we were going to move to a place with lots of
books, because by the fifth grade, I had read every book in the
Hepburn, Saskatchewan public school library, and could finish
in one day the two books doled out by the traveling bookmobile.
• • •
48 | The Voice of a Writer
LETTING GO
This is how it should be:
Christmas vacation, and I am six;
Daddy and I are driving outside the city
to a great hill with untouched snow.
Sun warms the car.
I climb up the tracks Daddy makes
hearing the crunch each time the first time.
We stand at the top, just Daddy and I, breathing,
and the sparrows laugh.
“I’m afraid,” I say.
But then we’re sailing
and I’m safe on a narrow strip of wood
clinging to his broad back,
a solid thing in a swaying world,
and I’m laughing and wishing
we could fall like this forever
into the sun sparkles and whipping wind
and the white snowdrift
waiting to embrace us
over and over and over.
Christine Wiebe – September 19, 1985
So we left the parsonage and moved to Virgil, Ontario.
Our family expanded to include a friendly little brother, James.
My father was very ill for a time. The six of us then moved to
Kitchener, Ontario. After studying at Waterloo University and
finishing his bachelor’s degree, our father moved to Syracuse
University in New York state to pursue a master’s degree in reliWhat
Would Mother Do? | 49
gious journalism. The rest of the family stayed behind in our
little rented brick house on Bournemouth Street. Mother continued
to write articles and joined the Christian Writers Club.
Additionally, she worked in temporary secretarial jobs. Because
she was gone from home more now, she began teaching us the
formulas for making basic foods. Under her direction, we continued
to keep ourselves and our home clean and attractive.
However, she did not teach us that any of the domestic arts
were an end in themselves. For example, we did not quilt, or
even consider quilting. Free time was for reading and writing.
My sisters and I took the bus downtown to the public library
and came home with stacks of exciting, delighting books. There
were never any restrictions on what we could read. While my
father was dubious whether I would gain anything from reading
Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, he let me plow through it. I took a
touch-typing course.
I begged for my own room, which Mother created by partitioning
a corner of the basement with blankets. Here, a narrow
beam of sunlight illuminated a thirteen-year-old girl perched
before a small desk, like her mother’s, with a typewriter and
a stack of soft yellow paper. I wrote long stories about First
Nations’ princesses and lost children; poems featuring dead
birds and bare trees. Late at night, when I was supposed to be
sleeping, I read most of Dickens under the blankets with a flashlight.
I am looking at a photo of our family, taken in late 1961 in
our Kitchener living room. Although we are living on next to
nothing, we’re impeccably dressed and coiffed. Mommy holds
the baby. Daddy is home from Syracuse for Christmas. We face
the photographer solemnly. We are about to change our lives,
yet again. For our father is almost done with his education and
is about to take the important church position our whole lives
have been about, for as long as I can remember.
• • •
50 | The Voice of a Writer
One year later, in mid-November, 1962, we are living in a
drafty rented house in Hillsboro, Kansas. Our father is gone.
Months after having achieved his life’s dream, he finally died
of that mysterious thing that was growing inside him for many
years. Mrs. Walter Wiebe is now a single parent of four children:
I am fourteen, Susan is eleven, Christine is seven, and
James is three, just days away from his fourth birthday.
CHILDREN UNDER FOURTEEN NOT ADMITTED
I climb down the stairs in Daddy’s shoes.
Mother gives me some death words.
They don’t fit anyway.
Take them back, Mother.
Relatives fly to our house like black birds.
Circled in uncle’s lap I watch.
“What did that mean?”
“We’re talking German, Chrissie.”
At the back of the church a long box
With a person in it.
I want to look inside
But I’m too far away.
Under the fir trees: a stone and a hole.
Is it really six feet?
Why is the lid shut?
May I move closer, Mother?
Christine Wiebe
We all missed—unspeakably—the vibrant presence of
Walter William Wiebe. We didn’t feel like a family any more.
But in our bereavement and isolation, our family could not
What Would Mother Do? | 51
turn to counselors, psychotherapists, or school psychologists, for
there weren’t any. We heard Christian platitudes about death.
We hid our bewilderment and pain from Hillsboro, our church,
and often, even from each other. I cried alone.
But we had our Mother.
The week after my father’s funeral, mommy sat down at her
typewriter to write dozens of well-composed letters to caregivers,
community members, friends, and family. She vividly told
the story of our father’s illness and death, carefully explained
our circumstances, warmly thanked people for their cards and
letters, their gifts and visits. Even in such a time, she had the
presence of mind to make carbon copies of her letters, which,
years later, she shared with us. The letters reveal a person struggling
with great challenges, extremely short of money, yet gracious,
determined and scarcely revealing the immense feeling
of being overwhelmed. In the letters, as she enters a period of
mighty grief for the loss of her beloved husband, she nonetheless
appears to be organized, thinking logically, communicating
expressively, and in touch with some inner vision of how our
lives could be re-ordered to become more efficient and sensible.
These are some of the talents Katie used—at last—to create
a settled, coherent home for her family. I was greatly relieved
when she said our moving-around days were over and that we
would stay in Kansas. She went to work full-time. Within two
years, we were living in our own modern ranch-style home with
a yard, a garage, and large trees. I graduated from Hillsboro
High School, and studied two years at Tabor College while living
at home. During those five years, I also was participant, support
system, and witness of my mother’s approach to single parenting.
I had not previously known a single parent, so I had no
expectations. I took it for granted that she was only doing what
any mother would do if left with four children. Now I see how
exceptional she was.
One of her challenges was that as a fatherless family of
three girls and a toddler boy, few knew how to relate to us. Our
mother felt like “an incomplete social unit.” I saw that we were
not invited to visit at my friends’ homes, the homes that had
both a mother and a father.
52 | The Voice of a Writer
Being urban Canadians, we did not fit into the local culture.
The Low German Mennonite Brethren town of Hillsboro,
Kansas was all at once more lowbrow, more rural, and worldlier
than the Russian-German Mennonite culture we had known
in Kitchener, although these Kansas Mennonites had come to
America several generations earlier. I walked into school wearing
dresses which had been sewn by Mother, with love and skill.
But these girls in Hillsboro wore store-bought skirts and sweaters,
nylon stockings and high heels, jewelry and makeup. They
teased their hair into bouffant beehives. I’d never had a date.
Some of the girls here made out with boys; a few were going
steady. Our family didn’t even have a television set and never listened
to popular radio. But some of my new classmates got up
early to do farm chores before coming to school, singing along
to Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline on KFDI, and the Beach Boys,
the Crystals, the Shirelles, and the Chiffons on KEYN. They
talked about what they had seen last night on The Beverly Hillbillies,
Candid Camera, and The Ed Sullivan Show. Nobody
had heard of any of the poets Mother had brought into my life.
In the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, I had been part of the
Mennonite World Conference and a Billy Graham revival, as
well as in the audience for the Vienna Boys Choir from Austria.
Here in Hillsboro, I was invited to football games, pajama parties,
and hay rides.
Because we were different, our family became emotionally
interdependent. We turned to our mother for our support,
encouragement, affirmation, and friendship, and Mommy
leaned on us too; to the point where we became very sensitive to
one another’s moods. Mommy sometimes felt despondent and
said she was afraid she couldn’t do a good job with us as a single
parent. She said to us, “You have no father but our Father in
Heaven.” We read an article by Billy Graham which seemed to
suggest that it is very harmful for children to grow up with only
one parent. Some in the community suggested strongly that
Mother should remarry as soon as possible. I coldly told her, “I
don’t mind at all if you would ever want to get married again,
but the day you did, I would leave home.” Then I felt bad for
what I had said and tried hard to make her happy, to behave
well, to obey her. I memorized jokes to tell at the dinner table.
What Would Mother Do? | 53
I slowly awoke from the fog of my grief to realize with
horror that I was now living in a dull town of 2400 persons
stuck out in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. As I
finished high school, I often felt alone and angry, and almost
always unchallenged by my schoolwork. I invented an imaginary
friend and became obsessed with boys. I did my chores
sluggishly, carelessly. I thought about killing myself. I blamed
myself for my father’s death and fantasized about bringing him
back to life. I ate too much. I experienced stress-induced coronary
artery spasms and chest pains. I began to butt heads with
Mother over abstract topics such as existentialism and pantheism,
and wrestled with her over the power issues that emerged
because I would take care of the children until five-thirty, when
she arrived home from work to take back the reins of authority.
Once I complained that Jamie was getting spoiled because she
wouldn’t discipline him, and I didn’t know how, and she cried.
She told me she longed to spend more time with him. Sometimes,
Mother and I would clash against each other so hard that
we would both wind up in tears. Memories of these times are
now still painful to us, especially James, who was so young when
he witnessed them.
The other children were more even-keeled. However,
Mother had other kinds of challenges with them. For example,
Susan had two operations for a ruptured appendix, and Christine
became ill with what was initially diagnosed as rheumatoid
arthritis, then systemic lupus erythematosus.
Where should Mother turn for support? What could she
offer her children as a way to work with their emotions? What
would strengthen our family? Hillsboro offered us narrow
resources. The Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church was an
emotionally inhibited environment, although some of the members
loved us well, particularly John B. and Susie Jost, and P.B.
and Hannah Willems. Mother received the gift of their friendship,
which gave us all a happy, safe haven where we could relax
and be ourselves. However, despite the generous warmth of
some of its members, the church in general was not a place to
go for emotional healing. It also was not a place to wonder out
loud about existentialism and pantheism.
54 | The Voice of a Writer
To nurture us emotionally and spiritually, Mother re-invigorated
our practice of family worship. Every evening after supper,
we prayed together and read Bible verses and sections from
books like Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest: “Never
reserve anything. Pour out the best you have, and always be
poor. Never be diplomatic and careful about the treasure that
God gives. This is poverty triumphant!”
Mother also encouraged us to write and journal, practices
Christine and I adopted. By example, she taught us how to see
the stories in our lives, and tell them.
She thought carefully about the new cultural influences we
were encountering, and used her discrimination to make choices
about where we would engage and where we would hold firm to
our family’s values. She filled in the low-cut bodice of my party
dress with frothy chiffon trim. She bought a television set and
we watched Star Trek. We attended football games, and afterwards,
talked about how silly we felt when we joined the others
in cheering out loud.
Mother was often not at home, and when she was, she
kept office hours. This was because she was gaining her bachelor’s,
and then master’s degrees, while working full time. James
remembers how special he felt when she put aside the papers
she was grading to give him time and attention. He remembers
that his Mom was very protective of her youngest child.
“She had a very good mommy radar—she knew where the
dragons lay,” he told me recently.
• • •
TELL NO MAN
My mother seduced me with quiet
while she carried me in utero.
I can see her now reading,
a book propped on her silently swelling stomach,
as they shifted in the wind.
And then long evenings without speech,
her knitting needles clicking a counterpoint to the clock,
while Daddy wrote under the gooseneck lamp.
They drank a pot of tea before bedtime,
and while Daddy explained
Mother said, “Yes,” and “uh huh.” She listened.
In the night I woke her with my kicks
Because I could not shout in the womb
that I had fallen in love
with the silence between her breaths.
Because she was wise she waited
until I had learned not to speak.
Christine Wiebe
After working for awhile at the same publishing company
that had enlisted my father to move to Kansas, Mother became
a professor of English at Tabor College. And she continued to
write. In the 1950s, her first published articles had been bylined,
“Mrs. Walter Wiebe.” Now her work was under her own name:
Katie Wiebe. She discussed with us children whether she should
include her maiden name in her byline, too. So we witnessed
her evolution into the writer, “Katie Funk Wiebe.”
Recently, I found an instructive photo on the website of the
Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. This
photo depicts a group of women attending a session of the 1966
What Would Mother Do? | 55
56 | The Voice of a Writer
Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The
women sit apart from the men in the back rows of the Eden
Christian College gymnasium.
The year that photo was taken, women around the world
were taking a front seat. Indira Gandhi was elected India’s third
prime minister. Betty Friedan founded the National Organization
for Women (NOW), Roberta Bignay became the first
woman to run in the Boston Marathon, Janis Joplin gave her
first live concert, and Billie Jean King won her first Wimbeldon
singles title. And in Kansas, Katie Funk Wiebe was saying,
“women can no longer look for safe, easy roles away from the
social and intellectual ferment of our age.” In May of 1966,
she attended the Maranatha Christian Writers Conference at
Winona Lake, Indiana and returned ready to do something
with her writing.
Our family dinners became excited explorations of Big
Ideas. Daring questions were asked. For months, Betty Friedan’s
The Feminine Mystique took the place of honor on top of our
bookshelf in the dining room! Mother wrote many articles
relating to the liberation of women, inviting understanding by
being open about her own experience as a widow on the fringes
of Hillsboro, Kansas society. At the same time that she advocated
for changing roles for women in the church, she valued
the Mennonite Brethren church and looked for ways to broaden
her role there. This created both an inner and outer tension,
which played out in our family dynamics.
It was a big day for the family when our Mother!!! was invited
to speak in the “Big” Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren church
(although not from the pulpit). In the church, we four sat near
the front, eagerly watching her. She looked poised and beautiful
in her dark blue dress, and spoke fluently, with many interesting
stories, making complete sense, in words that anyone could
understand. I was proud to be her daughter. Then we went
home to eat Sunday dinner, a pot roast with potatoes, carrots
and onions, which had been slowly mellowing into tender wonderfulness
in the oven as she had been speaking. We were all
elated. Mother had preached!
“No, children, it wasn’t preaching,” she said, “I didn’t speak
from the pulpit, and that’s an important difference.”
What Would Mother Do? | 57
“I don’t see any difference,” I said.
She smiled, ruefully.
The phone rang.
We all stopped chewing to listen. She answered buoyantly,
but in a minute, her voice lost its confident ring, slowed.
She came back to the table, looking uncomfortable and
tense.
She said that the caller—a man in the church—had criticized
her sharply for wearing a dress with such a short skirt, just
below the knees. She was being provocative, he had said.
“It isn’t a thing for a Christian woman to do, sister,” he had
chided her. “Bad enough that you stand in front of the church
and speak. But in such a dress….”
I wanted so much to comfort Mother, help her feel better.
“He’s weird,” I said, using the nastiest word I could think of.
“What difference does it make what you wear?”
Susan spoke up. “You made a very good sermon,” she said.
“I could understand every word. That’s the main thing. That
guy is crazy.”
“That’s not kind,” said Mother.
“He was not kind to you,” said Christine, softly, and got up
from her chair to hug her mommy. Jamie joined them as Susan
and I sat stiffly in our dining room chairs, not knowing what to
say, angrily looking out the window at the road. I closed my
eyes and pretended I was little again, on holiday in northern
Saskatchewan, Daddy driving our brown Chevy through piney,
rocky landscapes painted by a glowing sunset.
“It’s alright, children,” said Mother. “Let’s not let that man
make us bitter. Let’s eat dinner. Then after dinner, Joanna, will
you watch Jamie so I can finish grading those papers? Christine,
can you work with Susan on your science homework? Then at
ten to three, we’ll leave for the play at Tabor College.”
Now the quilt auction was almost over. The late afternoon
sky was turning yellow-grey; a storm was brewing. I knew I
should get on the highway if I was going to beat the weather.
Susan admired a quilt purchased by her friend’s mother, then
turned back to me with a summary of our discussion.
“That’s how Mother was,” Susan said. “She gave us the
knowledge that we can do hard work. She was telling us: ‘I can
58 | The Voice of a Writer
do things that are unpleasant, difficult, and tedious. I can do
things atypical for my social group, even when I am criticized or
misunderstood. I can handle the internal conflict between my
need for acceptance and my need to be true to my self and what
I am called to do. And I can do those hard things for years.’”
In 1967, at the age of 19, I explored the borders of a wider
world as I interned at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois.
In the fall, I enrolled at the University of Kansas. I had
been helping with the younger children for so long that I now
felt conflicted about abandoning the family and striking out
on my own. James coveted my affection and seeing me when I
came home from college was very important to him. Christine
clung to me emotionally, and was distressed at some of my new
behaviors. She was afraid that I wasn’t a Christian any more.
She prayed for me and worried about me. Mother drove three
hours north to visit me at university, bringing the children, and
picnics. She began the practice of writing me a weekly letter,
with detailed news, encouragement, support, jokes, and family
updates. But despite all that she did, I was temporarily lost to
the family and myself. After a year and a half, I dropped out
of school and stayed for a few months at the Salvation Army
Home for Unwed Mothers in Wichita, until my son Matthew
William was born. Just stating those bare facts does not begin to
describe the experience.
In 1970, I launched a commune with my boyfriend, on St.
Francis Street in Wichita, blocks away from our friends at the
Mennonite Voluntary Service house. Christine worried about
letting slip any information about my living arrangements to
Mother’s friends in Hillsboro. “I wouldn’t care if my friends
knew,” Chris wrote. “But if some of the people in the Parkview
church knew there would be a big stink. What kind of a church
is that? We put on a front as if everything is just fine. We never
really communicate about what bothers us most deeply with the
people in the church. We never get past the surface.”
Mother struggled to understand my actions, an unsteady
mixture of individuation, rebellion, and stepping in her feminist
footsteps. She had written about how men and women in
the church “need each other’s support, but not at the expense
of one another.” I was not patient enough to work through that
What Would Mother Do? | 59
struggle in the Mennonite Brethren Church, or in any church,
for that matter.
In 1971, at the age of 19, Susan moved to Omaha to go to
nursing school; she married a year later. Christine’s illness was
diagnosed as lupus and she spent a summer at the National Institutes
of Health, then moved into a Tabor College dormitory in
September of 1972.
Christine was intrigued by my experiment in communal
living. While she was at Tabor she took a trip to explore Christian
intentional communities. Mother told Christine that communal
living held no appeal for her because she cherished her
privacy and independence.
Nonetheless, with James as the only child still at home,
Mother often told Christine that she was lonely. She also told
Christine that she was feeling the pull to write more, but that she
was “not willing to stake her financial security on her writing
talent.” Christine commented, “I would like her to do what she
wants to do.” By April of 1976, Katie Funk Wiebe was writing
a book about her experiences as a widow.
At the MCC quilt auction, the grey-haired quilt bidders
in the paid chairs at the front of the room were getting to their
feet, showing off their purchases, finding their families, debating
whether to go back to the food building to get one more
paper bag of warm, sugar-dusted, raisin-studded portzelky. The
sky was darkening and a stiff wind was rattling the metal roofs
of the fairground buildings.
However, I had one more topic to bring up with Susan
before we parted.
“When you were young, did Mother ask you if you would
take Jesus into your heart?”
“Yes,” she said, “I was around five.”
Christine also told me about how Mother had introduced
her to Jesus, not just as an idea, but “as a living Person who is
interested deeply in me.”
“For me,” I said, “when I was about six years old, Mother
asked me if I would like Jesus to come into my heart. I said yes,
not knowing what I was choosing. I remember that she prayed
with me, the Saskatchewan prairie wind tossing our hair as we
stood in the back yard with our eyes closed and hands folded.
60 | The Voice of a Writer
As I grew up, I read the Bible and went to Sunday School, but
most importantly, I watched her live, to see how a follower of
Jesus did things.”
Mother eventually became my guru, modeling the way,
as I strained to live with the difficult consequences of my earlier
choices. For example, for many years, my every day was
tinged with despair that the Kansas legal system would forever
keep me from my son, who had been adopted. Then one day,
as a new mother of my second son, David Miguel, and living a
hard life in a new city, working ten to twelve hours a day, I realized
that I had a key to making things work for me. I decided
that when in difficult circumstances, I would ask myself, “What
would Mother do?” Mothering my sons David and Zachary,
working in the corporate world, writing and expressing myself,
and at last, after twenty-seven years, meeting and learning to
know my son, Bill, this was my mantra: What would Mother do?
IN THE BLUE WILLOW PLATE
I have walked miles on narrow paths
to this place in the story where I sit
encircled by the willow’s green serenity,
I gaze across the pond at a gazebo
and recognize at last it is the one
in Mother’s plate, the one she placed
above the rest, “because it tells a story.”
I know now who I am
that messengers are on their way,
the lovers plan their flight
and I need wait for nothing
but the wind to ripple willow wands
and startle words from me
like birds surprised in flight.
Christine Wiebe
What Would Mother Do? | 61
Upon asking this question, I would feel the tears dry on
my face, my spine straighten, my brain swing into high gear,
my confidence strengthen. Solutions would begin to appear. I
would build relationships. Make friends. Think logically. Be gracious.
Organize my calendar. Make lists and prioritize. Write
letters. Reach out for help. Have faith in positive outcomes.
Pray. Persevere. Create a better world.
Some of these gifts came more naturally than others. Along
the way, I developed my own strengths, and integrated them
with these gifts from Mother.
And she’s still ahead of me on the path, my mother. I have
gained wisdom by watching how she has managed her aging
process. As I approach retirement, I reflect on the style in which
she downsized her career, home, and possessions when she still
had lots of energy to do it. I learn how to manage loss and
change as I see how she responds as one after another dear
friend or family member weakens, dies. I see that she grieves
and then makes new friends, deepens other connections.
On July 5, 1964, when we were all struggling to learn how
to live without Walter William Wiebe, I wrote a prayer in my
journal for my Mother:
Eternal Father of us all, I come unto thee in prayer
for my Mother.
For the rich gifts of life that she has freely bestowed
upon me, I give thee now these words of thanks.
For the measureless gift of physical life itself –
For patience through long nights of illness –
For an understanding heart when my feet stumbled
in finding the true path –
For guidance against shipwreck and for freedom in
which to grow –
For these gifts of a wise Mother I give my thanks to
thee and to her.
Grant me patience and understanding when her
thoughts are not the same as my thoughts.
Lead me slowly though it be, into the larger
wisdom that she has gained from life.
Make me a steady support for her, in these years of
62 | The Voice of a Writer
maturing hopes.
In the name of Him who said to his earthly
parents, ‘Did ye not know that I must be about
my Father’s business?’”
At the age of sixteen, when I wrote this prayer, I had a
Mother who was diligent, concerned, questing, wise, organized,
gracious, perseverant, driven to express herself in written and
spoken word. She still has these qualities, but they don’t define
her now as they did then. The Mother I have now is also relaxed
and celebratory, with a twinkle in her eye and a ready hug.
Katie is now well-known in certain circles, admired, studied.
She made a measurable impact on the role of women in
the church. Through teaching, writing, and speaking publicly,
she has helped people learn how to tell their stories, how to age
more gracefully, how to grow spiritually. But these achievements
happened out in the world. At home, she is Mother.
Katie Funk Wiebe | 63
To You, My Father
Katie Funk Wiebe
I have written this column often in my mind. When my father
dies, I have asked myself, what will I say about this man whose life
placed a burden on me, at once both light and heavy? Last week he
died.
During recent visits to my parents there was less and less of
the kind of stuff scholars now call oral history. But after I returned
to Kansas, memories often rushed in how I, the middle child of five,
spent many hours as his Saturday helper in the store.
I saw again the man who carried out hundred-pound sacks
of flour on his shoulder, who whistled as he moved quickly from
task to task, and who was caught up with a love of the ingenious—
schemes for perpetual motion and the way the pyramids
might have been erected. These images replaced those of the thin,
stooped, silent man I had just visited.
Only in recent years when I saw the forest instead of the
trees, could I generalize about my father’s influence on my life. He
admired punctuality, thoroughness and excellence in others. He
yearned for harmony in his life, in the church, and in society. Therefore
he struggled with problems of disunity, ecclesiastical posturing
and war.
He was generous with his money almost
to a fault, particularly
to people in need. He had never learned to openly show his feelings,
so love often took the form of a gift left behind or casually
handed over.
I recognize I inherited some of his puzzlements about life: the
divisions in the church, the struggle between tradition
and change.
My file of his longer letters indicates that questions about scriptural
interpretation interested him even after retirement.
When I started writing on behalf of the greater use of women’s
gifts in the church, he cautioned, “If you go against the wind, Katie,
you’ll get sand and dust in your face.” He knew of life’s storms, for
he had stood in the midst of disrupted
patterns of life often.
Only in later years did I think to ask him how he had become
a Christian. To my surprise I learned that the turnaround in his
life had occurred while he had been a conscientious objector in
the army during World War 1. Amid the regular involvement with
death, he had become convicted of his sinfulness and need for
eternal life.
64 | The Voice of a Writer
This action was followed by obeying God’s call to become a
deacon evangelist. He found he enjoyed public work, but during
the depression in Canada he had had to decide between evangelism
on the road and taking care of a growing family. He opted to
become a lay minister.
Once, as we sat together in my parents’
retirement home in
Clearbrook, B.C., I asked him to tell me about his favorite sermon.
Without hesitation, he recalled most of it, point for point.
As he talked I knew he was back in Rosental, in the Ukraine,
in his father’s windmill on the hill at the end of the village. He had
grown up as a miller’s son. Each son in turn had had to learn to
sharpen the two-yard wide millstone and to operate the mill as
each of us children had had to learn to serve customers
and fill
shelves.
His text was from John 3:8: “The wind bloweth where it listeth
and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it
cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the
Spirit.”
Because each wind has its own characteristics,
a miller in the
Ukraine had to know the winds intimately to make them work for
him. In British Columbia, Father often sat and watched the wind
circle along the valleys, unlike the winds of his youth. But in the
prairies, the winds were the same as in Russia.
“I never knew when the West wind would begin, for it starts
slowly,” he told me. “I would wet my finger and turn it in the air to
feel the wind even before I could see branches moving. When it
cooled my finger, I knew it was time to prepare the blades of the
mill. The wind would be steady, dependable for several days at a
time.
“And like this West wind, many people cannot say the exact
time of their spiritual birth. Though you can’t see the wind, you can
feel it. You can see its activity—the branches waving. You can’t see
the Spirit working in a life, producing
the new birth, but you can
see the deeds of the Spirit.”
He compared the South wind, one which worked well during
the day, but then stopped suddenly at nightfall and blew hard from
the opposite direction, to Christians who start the Christian life
well, but then suddenly change direction to go their own way.
The stormy East wind often blew many directions at once,
making it an unsatisfactory wind to harness for the mill. Some
people are like this wind—directionless—experiencing confusion
as a result.
Katie Funk Wiebe | 65
The North wind, which blew long and strong for weeks, like
the fair weather Christian, lost its strength when the warm spring
weather arrived. Similarly, prosperity saps the Christian’s strength.
Someone said to me today, “You look like him, Katie.” I hope
that along with his physical characteristics I may have passed along
his inquiring attitude and giving spirit to my children.
Katie Funk Wiebe, “To You, My Father,” Viewpoint, The Christian Leader, May
27, 1986, 13.

Katie Funk Wiebe: The Voice of a Writer

There’s a broad view of green fields and blue sky from my window at the Country Haven Inn, here in Hillsboro, Kansas. I’m here to attend the gala Festschrift event being hosted for my mother Katie Funk Wiebe by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission.  Last night, as the sun was setting over the farm fields, at a dinner at the Milk and Honey Bed and Breakfast just northeast of Hillsboro, co-editors Doug Heidebrecht and Valerie Rempel presented mom with the book, The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, which describes her life, writing and impact on the world.  I have a copy too, which I started reading at breakfast this morning.

From the back cover, by Linda Huebert Hecht:  “Katie Funk Wiebe has shown great leadership, from the time she was elected president of the young adult group in her Saskatchewan Mennonite Brethren Church to the present day. She wrote about her own experience, addressing both women and men and became a strong and prophetic voice in the Mennonite community and beyond. Although no one mentored her, Katie became a trailblazer and a model to others. The variety of approaches in this book enrich Katie’s story and make it an appealing and excellent book to read.”

In coming days, I’ll be posting on this blog the chapter I contributed to the book, Chapter 3: What would mother do?

Book launch for Katie Funk Wiebe April 24

Katie Funk Wiebe 2007

A reception and program honoring the life and work of Tabor College Emeritus Professor of English Katie Funk Wiebe will be held on Saturday, April 24, at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.

That’s my mom, for those of you who don’t know!

The highlight of the evening will be the unveiling of a new “Festschrift” book, The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, published by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission.

I wrote a chapter for the book, describing life with Katie Funk Wiebe as our mother. It’s a page-turner!

Mom, who is 85, began teaching at Tabor in 1966 and remained 24 years as professor of English and Journalism. Author of numerous books about the role of women in the church, she was named one of the 20 most influential Mennonites of the 20th century.

Aside from that, I love her just for being herself — questing, curious, perseverant, loyal, invitational, brave, true, a great story-teller, and always learning and growing. 

More information:

http://www.tabor.edu/about-tabor/news/2010/4/13/tabor-reception-book-unveiling-to-honor-katie-funk-wiebe-april-24

Worldly: Part 6

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

OK, so some of our early choices were a little…reactionary?  Neither Rhoda Janzen nor I married a nice solid Mennonite Brethren man, a believer, an early-waking guy who reads a lot,  has a general knack for fixing things, and, possibly, a beard.  Instead of the “smart, kind, humorous, attractive and affluent” MB Karl Kroeker, Rhoda married a gay athiest.  Instead of an intelligent, gentle, mathematical Mennonite Brethren man with a passion for social justice (and a short beard), I chose an illegal alien who pumped gas for a living.

And then, the reckoning.  After our failed marriages, some flailing about, wondering, who am I? The reactionary approach didn’t work. So now what do I do?  I’ve peered into the chaos and have seen that there is no Truth with a capital “T’.   So now, what’s true for me?

Darting away from a tradition of four and a half centuries of living a set-apart life and learning to make one’s own decisions: the way I see it, this behavior is not a break from the Anabaptist tradition but a bold continuation of the path of our ancestors, on the roam for one’s soul, intensely concerned with protecting and nurturing one’s individual experience.

Then, after some amount of individuation, what’s it like to come back and try to take a place in the Mennonite world again?

And here is where another aspect of the Mennonite Brethren church culture, one of the most attractive aspects, comes into play: family solidarity. The story of the prodigal son is not lost on the MBs, and I have seen many examples of young people decisively abandoning their Mennonite homes, communities and churches, becoming worldly in every way that they can – and then being warmly and lovingly welcomed back home. As has happened to me, more than once. As Rhoda experienced, when she returned to the family structure during a time of crisis, her mother “has always backed her daughters up, always supported us, always welcomed us into her home with open arms, no matter what choices we’ve made.” I can say the same for my mother, the essence of spiritual hospitality.

My mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, says that when she was a child growing up, when a guest was about to leave, she remembers that the host would remonstrate and say, “Doaut nobaat noch so schoen” (The conversation is still great. Let’s not quit so soon).   But I’ve said enough for now on this topic of my distant cousin and her book.  So for now, my fellow writers of poetry, eaters of borscht and zwieback, lovers of education, my MB brothers and sisters, the ball is in your court.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen

New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009; 241 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8923-7, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8925-X; hardback $22.00.

Worldly: Part 4

Women at the Back: 1966 Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference

Worldly (in Low German:  weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Worldly…what does that mean to a Mennonite Brethren person?

Contemporary theologian Tom Finger says, “It is understandable why marginalized Anabaptists often attributed the intense opposition they experienced to a single systemic entity, the ‘world’.”

I think this was true of the Russian Mennonite Brethren churches that I grew up in Saskatchewan, populated by immigrants fresh from heavy “opposition”, as Finger puts it, during the Russian Revolution.  In other words, after living through five or ten years of torture, rape, shootings, loss of homes, intimidation, mass burials, famine, etc., it’s understandable that the older people around me when I grew up created an atmosphere of extreme distrust of the “world”.   Although my mom and dad were exceptionally lively, open-minded and eager to explore the world, (for Mennonites), the heavy darkness of those earlier times was carried by my grandparents and their friends, and they communicated a deep, palpable paranoia, which I caught.

I remember that when I was six and had broken my arm, I was petrified to tears whenever the nurse came near me, because she wore lipstick, which meant for sure that she was going to hell.  I was afraid of the Lutheran children in my school, because they were “worldly”.  Some entertainments were fine, like the filmstrip on how aluminum is made, which we watched over and over again in the third grade.  Premarital sexual behavior was definitely worldly, and I remember a girl being excommunicated because she was pregnant and unmarried.  Marriage between believers and unbelievers was as worldly as it could get. Divorce was a terribly worldly thing, something you shouldn’t even think about.

Dancing, of course, as Rhoda affirms, is verboten in the MB world both because…it leads to sex!…and also because “There was something about the lighthearted frivolityof dance that suggested a fatal weakness in priorities. Mennnonites were supposed t work with dignity, and when the work was done, there would be something to show for it.”  Unless, of course, it’s “liturgical dance”, which some of the more liberal Mennonite churches have toyed with.  Rhoda’s best chapter, in my opinion, is Chapter Eight: Rippling Water, which talks about her intense childhood longing to dance.  I was teary reading about the dance training  Rhoda’s brother is providing his daughter, and how they watched  this young dancer perform, interpreting “the elemental concept of rippling water, her hair unfastened, cascading behind her like the sheer azure chiffon that clung to her slender form…it spoke volumes that this man, who knew nothing about dance and who had probably never danced a step in his own life, was prepared to go without a second car so that his daughter could ripple like water.”

Tom Finger says, “Historic Anabaptists . . . often overplayed Spirit and downgraded matter.”  Rhoda’s description of her dancing niece and supportive (Mennonite) father is a beautiful intertwining of matter and spirit.

As Rhoda suggests, in her generation, the line is blurring between inner and outer, creation and creator, and perhaps, Mennonites could even be “in the world, but not of it.”  And they are in the world more and more all the time, although sometimes in the form of intentional communities, like Reba Place Fellowship, where I live, in Evanston, Illinois.  A recent issue of Mennonite Weekly Review talks about how urban the Mennonite church is getting these days.  “Person by person, a new network of urban Anabaptist leaders is growing,” says Linda Espenshade of the Mennonite Central Committee, on the front page of the March 8, 2010 issue. And a huge number Mennonites around the world today are not ethnic Mennonites at all.  In a MB universe like that, it’s hard to make fine distinctions about what’s in and what’s out. About the only really tough issues of worldliness, anymore, are homosexuality (“Love the sinner but hate the sin!”) and abortion (“Hate the mother and love the baby!”), as Rhoda describes.

Rhoda speaks of a Mennonite “mistrust of education” and quotes an old Low German proverb “Ji jileada, ji vikjeada (the more educated a person is, the more warped)”.  Maybe she is talking about the Kanadiers :-)  Because I’ve never seen Russlanders who didn’t want their children to be more highly educated than themselves.

Or it could be  degradation of a traditional Anabaptist approach, that “Christians must not value a person according to the amount of education he has. Wisdom can be received by every member of Christ’s body, for the Holy Spirit gives wisdom to each member as he or she asks for it in faith.” (J.C. Wenger, What Mennonites Believe, P. 24).

Mennonites in general have always sought literacy and education. In fact, they became religious rebels back in the 1500s because they had read the Bible for themselves, and interpreted it differently from the priests.   The Mennonites in Russia had managed their own education until World War I, when educators were forbidden to associate. After the March Revolution in 1917, the educators re-formed but in a few years, the Soviet took oversight of all educational efforts.  When the Russian Mennonite Brethren immigrated to Canada, they immediately began thinking about higher education. A two-year Bible institute in Herbert, Saskatchewan was operated as a sort of ecumenical Mennonite school but it wasn’t Mennonite Brethren. So the Canadian MBs decided to create something new. In 1927, they founded Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, (where I spent several of my childhood years living in the student dorm because my dad was a teacher there). The purpose of Bethany was: “ To give our . . . youth foundational Bible instruction in the German and English languages . . ., to wrench our youth away from frivolous pursuits and the contemporary ‘Zeitgeist’ . . ., to nurture the German language as a special possession handed down from our fathers . . ., to raise believing youth for the battle of the faith . . . [and] to take into account the needs of the congregations in the methodical training of Sunday school teachers and sundry (church) workers.” Two years later, in Alberta, the Coaldale Bible School was begun. Another of these institutions played an important role in my own life: Mennonite Brethren Bible College, which was founded in Winnipeg in 1944, and where I also spent a few memorable childhood years living in the student dorm, because my father was a student there. That’s also where my sister Susan was born.

So I don’t get Rhoda’s comment about a “Mennonite mistrust of education”. I haven’t seen it. It’s a worldly education that the Mennonites don’t trust. It’s the education of women that Mennonites have sometimes viewed as diabolically worldly.  Young Mennonite girls in Russia were not educated past the third grade (my grandmother Anna Janzen Funk, for example), whereas young boys would go on to high school, and even, like Rhoda’s grandfather Jacob K. Janzen,  go on to advanced studies.

In the 1966, when Rhoda was a toddler and I was a teenager, Mennonite Brethren women were just starting to look up from their borscht and their babies and take a step into full participation into the life of the church.

Take a look at the photo at the top of this page, which I found on the Internet site of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.  This photo depicts a group of women attending a session of the 1966 Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The women sit apart from the men in the back rows of the Eden Christian College gymnasium.  Scrawled on the back of the photos is an interesting comment:  “Even the women attended in fairly liberal numbers. Who knows, by the time we get to the next conference, we may have half a dozen delegates from their ranks!”

The year that photo was taken, of women sitting at the back of the conference room, women around the world were taking a front seat.

  • Indira Gandhi was elected India’s third prime minister.
  • Betty Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW).
  • Roberta Bignay became the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon.
  • Janis Joplin gave her first live concert.
  • Billie Jean King won her first Wimbeldon singles title.
  • And my mother Katie Funk Wiebe was saying, “women can no longer look for safe, easy roles away from the social and intellectual ferment of our age.”

For most of their history, Mennnonite Brethren women were expected not to contribute to the thought life of MB society, to preach from the pulpit, or to take any overt leadership position in the church or community – as my mother Katie Funk Wiebe has done, leading the way for many other Mennonite women, and for women in general.

“Until the mid- to late twentieth century, and in certain subgroups still today, Mennonite women were explicitly excluded from important aspects of church organizational life and expression. In their literal understanding of female subordination and silence before man and god, Mennonites differed little from other Christian denominations.”  “In 1975, the Canadian MB conference for the first time provided food service and childcare so that women were freed to attend all sessions” (From Marlene Epp’s book, Mennonite Women in Canada.)

When I was a teenager, deciding what to do with my life, my mother was just beginning her journey into taking these stronger roles in the church. As a young woman, I was driven to educate myself, explore the world, to write fearlessly, to be all that I could be. I didn’t know any Mennonite Brethren woman who I could look up to as a role model. I certainly did not see any MB women who were living the kind of life I dreamed of for myself – a life of vigor, intellectual honesty, and engagement with ideas, people and change. My soul didn’t feel at home in the constrained environment of Gnadenau MB Church in Hillsboro. No woman there had connected with me on a soul level, or intellectually, or had encouraged me to grow into who I was as a person, or had shown me how that mysterious activity is done.

In 1967, at the age of 19, I explored the borders of a wider world as I interned at Reba Place Fellowship, which at that time was still a pretty new and radical experiment in Christian intentional community (It’s now over 50 years old and going strong. ) In the fall, I enrolled at the University of Kansas. I tried out some new behaviors, which distressed my family.  My sister Christine was afraid that I wasn’t a Christian any more. She prayed for me and worried about me. Mother drove three hours north to visit me at KU, bringing the children, and picnics. She began the practice of writing me a weekly letter, with detailed news, encouragement, support, jokes, and family updates. But despite all that she did, I was lost to the family, not to mention myself.  After a year and a half, I dropped out of school and stayed for a few months at the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Wichita, until my son Matthew William was born.

In 1970, I launched a commune with my boyfriend, on St. Francis Street in Wichita, blocks away from our friends at the Mennonite Voluntary Service house. Christine worried about letting slip any information about my living arrangements to Mother’s friends in Hillsboro. “I wouldn’t care if my friends knew,” Chris wrote. “But if some of the people in the Parkview church knew there would be a big stink. What kind of a church is that? We put on a front as if everything is just fine. We never really communicate about what bothers us most deeply with the people in the church. We never get past the surface.”

Mother struggled to understand my actions, an unsteady mixture of individuation, rebellion, and stepping in her feminist footsteps. She had written about how men and women in the church “need each other’s support, but not at the expense of one another.” I was not patient enough to work through that struggle in the Mennonite Brethren Church.

I left the Parkview MB Church (they’d changed the name from Gnadenau by this time, the abandonment of the German moniker being yet another sign of adaptation to the world).

Even though I don’t know Rhoda at all, I resonated with her words around leaving the church. I saw that ultimately, like me, she left the MB church because she did not see a place there for an intelligent, strong-minded, creative, zesty woman.

And so we went out into the world. How brave, how rebellious,  how Anabaptist — to leave our church.   To become worldly.  And find our souls.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen

New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009; 241 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8923-7, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8925-X; hardback $22.00.