Katie Funk Wiebe Writing Center dedication talk Oct 21, 2017

Katie at 19

Katie at 19: I’m afraid to be a writer…No one will ever see these things I write.

 

People often asked our mother the same set of questions: How do you find time to write? Where do you get your ideas? How do you handle the flak? How did you come to be a writer, as a Mennonite Brethren woman, anyway? What keeps you going?

So, I’ll answer those questions.

Katie made time to write.

Her ideas grew from her own experiences, big and small. She also told the stories of other women, often those overlooked by history.

About criticism, Katie said, “When I get a harsh letter, I feel like a virtuous persecuted martyr of the early centuries. I lie down and bleed a while…But then I get up again and write some more.”

How did she come to be a writer? Before her, the Funk women didn’t write. Her mother Anna hardly wrote even a scrap of a letter. Yet she read. For example, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Grandma read and discussed it with Katie. But her dreams for Katie did not include writing. “Writing?” Katie wrote later. “No one wrote for a living.”

At 19, Katie wrote in her journal, “I’m afraid to be a writer…No one will ever see these things I write.”

Growing up in the Mennonite Brethren church she heard “powerful voices calling me to a life of faith.” Yet she also heard a call to the world of the imagination, a call to writing, a call she never heard inside the church.

“To reconcile the two sets of voices – the one to a life of faith in Christ, the other to creative exploration, seemed impossible.”

She met our father, Walter, at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, where they worked together on the school newspaper. Sparks flew.

“The first years of our marriage,” she wrote later, “Walter and I spent many hours sorting through what God wanted of us. One day we knelt beside our kitchen table and committed our lives to a literature ministry.”

Almost immediately Walter got a chance to write a newsletter for the Youth Committee of the Canadian Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Katie had a baby; she cooked and sewed, she copied the newsletter on a mimeograph machine, and stuffed the envelopes. When Walter got too busy to do the writing, Katie hauled out her college typewriter. After five years, Katie was writing the whole newsletter.

In 1962, the editor of the Christian Leader, asked Walter if Katie would write a column, “Women in the Church.” The column name later became “Viewpoint” when Katie persuaded her editors that she had something to say to both women and men.  She wrote the column for 30 years.

As she began to publish, she was encouraged by her parents, her husband, and children.  Her mother told her, “…keep on writing and do not let critical strong letters upset you. People on the front have to face it. Sleep over it.”  Katie gained many fans.

Her first widely-read book was Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy.

In her lifetime, Katie wrote more than two thousand articles, columns and book reviews, and wrote or edited more than two dozen books. In 2011, she began a blog.

As Katie neared 90, though her eyesight was failing, she was working on four books. Three are already out, and soon we’ll see her translation of the book Terror, Faith and Relief: The Famine in Russia, to be published by the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.

In 2000 The Mennonite chose her as one of twenty Mennonites with “the most powerful influence on life and belief of the General Conference Mennonite Church in the 20th century, by raising the credibility of Mennonite writing and giving voice to widowhood and women’s concerns.”

When people would ask what kept her going, she often said wryly that it was less agonizing to write than not to write. She believed writing was God’s assignment to her. It wasn’t a hobby, it was a ministry. Writing was the way she explored her faith, by looking at the questions and mysteries of her own life. She got great satisfaction from working with words and ideas.  She loved thinking up her own ways of saying things, not falling back on religious jargon, which she said was one of the worst diseases in modern society.

She also kept writing because she was committed and disciplined. She said, “I have never seen myself as a particularly gifted writer, mostly as a hard worker.” She did not wait until the mood hit her but simply kept on writing even when feeling, in her words, “a terrible dryness”.   

Katie told everyone, “you have a story to tell.” She took great joy in teaching people how to write their own story in an original way so that it would be clear and interesting. “As a writer, you are always open to new insights, new perspectives to an idea, an argument, a way of seeing life, while hanging onto what is basic to faith. You are willing to trim the fat off your thinking and change your mind, if need be.  And I have about many things. The energy in writing comes when you attempt to focus your vision ever more clearly for yourself and others.”

Katie’s family is so pleased that Tabor College is dedicating this writing center where emerging writers can gain confidence, and find their own voice.  Because your stories matter.

 

 

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.
 

What is the taste of amniotic fluid?

1926, Saskatchewan, Canada: my grandmother Anna is on the right; her mother-in-law Susanna is in the middle

My red-haired grandmother Anna Janzen Funk was born March 15, 1895, in Friedensfeld, Sagradowka, southern Ukraine, one of twelve children in a Mennonite Brethren family. The Mennonites were about 18 percent of a German minority of some two million in Russia.  She and my grandfather emigrated to Canada in 1923, and the picture above was taken three years later.

When Anna had just turned 22, in early spring of 1918, she was working as a baker’s helper at Bethania Mental Hospital, near the Dnieper River. The Russian government had collapsed and now the Bolshevist regime was in power, attempting to transform revolutionary theory into soviet reality. Their army (the Reds) had taken over the area, seizing livestock, food, and household goods, killing and razing estates. The White army battled the Reds back and forth across the Ukraine. Also at this time, Russian peasants were vengefully confiscating the Mennonite farms, and, led by Nestor Makhno, participating in massacres against the Mennonites.

Anna’s family had disappeared.

Just a month ago, about 30 Red soldiers had stolen all the extra clothing from the male Bethania Mental Hospital patients. Now it was a Sunday morning, and the revolutionaries were back, warmly dressed, slurping soup in the dining room. As fast as she could slice bread, the soldiers grabbed it. Anna rushed into the spacious, bright kitchen with its tiled floor and huge stainless steel kettles to get a new batch of bread which the kitchen girls had just pulled out, and to ask them to punch down the rising dough and form it into more loaves to be baked.

She heard a sharp knock on the back door of the kitchen.

When she opened the door, she was startled to see two dozen soldiers from the White army, who had been able to cross to Bethania on the frozen Dnieper River.

“Let’s have lunch!” they demanded. What was she to do?

The Reds were having their soup in the dining room at that very moment!

As she stood on the doorstep, the bright sun lighting up her coppery hair, she squinted at the hungry White soldiers, many of them her own age or younger, and rubbed a floury hand over her forehead. She could see that their uniforms and boots were muddy from their scramble up the thawing banks of the Dnieper River.

There’s Anna on the back step at Bethania, the flour dusting her forehead, breath condensing into clouds, facing those hungry, rough young men. Perhaps one of them reminded her of one of her lost brothers. Whatever sparked it, in that moment, she took courage. She used what she had—her bright hair, her confident smile, and her memories of her disappeared family —and spoke.

Grinning, she scolded the White soldiers as if they were her brothers: “Boys, do you think I will let you in the house with those boots! Scrape the mud off completely! Knock again when those boots are clean, and I will give you a nice meal.”

Disarmed, they smiled and cleaned their boots. Anna quickly brought the trays of fresh bread into the Red group, eagerly encouraging them to fill their pockets for later, opened the front door for them and shooed them out. As she saw the last Red soldier’s back going through the front door, she motioned silently to the kitchen girl to let the Whites in for their meal.

I have read that children in the womb can taste what their mother is eating. The food flavors the amniotic fluid. I imagine those days in 1924 when Anna carried my mother, she would have been eating borscht with sour cream, and many other delicious Russian recipes she brought with her to Canada.  But there was another flavor that Anna passed on to my mother — a taste for courage and creativity.