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We gathered in the Fellowship Hall of Bethany Manor on Sunday, November 15, 2015 to listen to stories of peace. These stories were told by four individuals representing four streams of Anabaptists, and how they resisted or dealt with the call to warfare, or a government requirement that violated their conscience.
Jake Buhler, president of the MHSS, welcomed everyone and introduced the current Board members, asking them to stand. Then, giving the names of the storytellers, he called upon Mae Popoff, an elder with the Doukhobors in Saskatoon, to tell us their story of the burning of the guns, which goes back to when they still lived in Russia, before 1900.
She began by introducing the Doukhobor Peace Singers, who came forward in a semi-circle (because they are used to singing to one another). They sang a verse in Russian of Let Us Honour Peace then the rest of the song in English.
Mae Popoff informed us that the Doukhobors sing to communicate with the Spirit of God. They believe the Spirit of God is present within EACH person. Their group sings a cappella, in five-part harmony. We observed that they harmonize very well, and some sang totally from memory.
Doukhobors believe, Mae Popoff said, in Love for God, Love for neighbours, and in not killing humanity - just as is prescribed in the Ten Commandments. They believe PEACE should be global, with everyone living in peace.
In 1895 their ancestors, living in Russia, renounced the conscription of their men into the army, and had a great public burning of the firearms, or guns, that had been issued to the soldier-to-be. It was publically announced in three different locations. This great event is commemorated every January 29th to this day.
Mae's storytelling continued, as she told us that 700,500 Doukhobors had come to Canada in January of 1899. They settled in the Prince Albert, Lanigan, and Saskatoon areas. Here in Canada, their mottos have been, "Love your neighbour as yourself," and "Toil and a Peaceful life." Also, their leader, Peter Verigan, has often been quoted to say, "The welfare of the world is not worth even the life of one child."
After a short Question and Answer period, Mae Popoff stepped down, and Jake Buhler introduced Walter Klaassen, a retired professor and author, whom we have had as a guest speaker before.
"April 12, 1917, the USA declared war on Germany; that is one reason I'm here today," Walter started out. His parents had settled in Bessie, Oklahoma, 13 years prior to that date.
On Sunday, May 16, 1917 there was a meeting at their Elder Michael Klaassen's about how to deal with the draft. Michael's family had been on that infamous trek from Russia to Asia. June 6, all the young men were required to report for duty. Exemptions were hard to get.
Draft Boards were little groups of neighbours who decided whether a man was going to war or not.
On September 3, the Mennonite Conference met about a common policy. However, Michael, and his brother Jacob, were disappointed. They felt the Mennonites were more concerned about pleasing the government than Jesus.
From there on the story seemed to go downhill, as Walter told us how Jacob and MIchael had applied for an exemption but were rejected and sent a red induction notice. At the camp in California, they found they were about 50 who refused to cooperate and don the uniform. Physically and psychologically they were abused for six months, and then they were court-marshalled. John Klaassen received a 25 year prison term.
All this was a sign to their fathers and other relatives that it was time to move. Two of the younger sons, not yet inducted were sent to Montana, where relatives helped them escape into Canada. The end of the saga was that the Klaassen families moved to the Tiefengrund area, (northwest of Rosthern), and this is where Walter was born and raised.
Again, a short Question and Answer opportunity; then Jake called on Leonard Doell, a well-known historian and writer in the community.
He had bought a box at an auction in Hague some time ago, and found in it a journal in the old Gothic script. He asked Esther Patkau to translate it for him, and discovered that this was a journal of Susanna Unruh, older sister to Toby Unruh, whom many of us remember. The translation revealed that the Unruh family was part of the Holdemann church.
That was not the only surprise. Susanna, who remained single all her life, wrote of the time in 1940-41 when the government asked everyone to register. They felt they could not do it in good conscience; that it would mean they were choosing the world over God. The police came to check for their answer and gave them summons papers. They came back the next time to arrest them or pay the court 4.25/each. The first time is was two of the Unruh brothers.
The next time it was two adult sons, and two adult daughters, but kept in different prisons in different communities.
Parts of this lengthy story made us as listeners laugh. At the same time we knew the participants had been very serious through it all. We were glad for how it ended.
After the Questions and Answers, Jake Buhler called on Lyle Stucky.
[There are plans to publish this complete story].
Lyle told us he was born in Nebraska, where his ancestors had come in 1874 from Russia because the USA promised religious freedom. They brought along Turkey Red Winter Wheat, which caused them to thrive as settlers. Lyle was the eldest of six. They lived at Hopefield, Kansas.
His father was a leader in the church; his mother musically gifted. He was baptized at 16 and became a member of the church. Their pastor was knowledgeable about Conscientious Objectors and the related Scriptures, and Jesus' teachings.
The 1960s were the time of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam war, and protesters. The Baby Boomers were coming of age. There were interracial conflicts. Winds of change were coming to Kansas. Lyle was attending Bethel College in Newton Kansas, when some students vandalized the campus.
Now the USA military is staffed by volunteers, but at that time, they had conscription. Draft Boards were groups of local people who decided who might get an exemption and who had to serve their country. Their pastor came to speak up for him, to prove that he was a conscientious objector. Lyle was permitted to do two years of Alternate Service.
His father had brain cancer, so his brother volunteered to stay with the family on the farm. So Lyle did his service at Newton, where there were lots of Mennonites. Their pacifist stand was understood better in that area, so Lyle felt he was treated fairly for the most part. His assignment (because of his training at Bethel College) was to be a case worker with the military personnel, including soldiers who were depressed.
When his Alternate Service was completed, Lyle came to Canada and settled here.
After one more opportunity to ask the storyteller questions, Jake Buhler shared a prayer of thanks for the refreshments to be served, and the Doukhobor Singers sang one more rousing song of Peace, and the meeting gave way to visiting over coffee and sweets.
[Note: The Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan (MHSS) has decided to publish the full text of three of the presentations described above as an Occasional Paper. These will be available at the Archives for a nominal fee. The story Leonard Doell told, including passages from the translated Journal of Susanna Unruh, are to be published as a book. This may take a little longer to be ready for the public but we will be sure to announce and inform our members and followers.]