Good morning everyone. My name is Allegra Rivett Sloman, and I come through the Aron line of the Niebuhr family. It is my happy duty this morning to deliver a homily called a Meditation on our Family.
Our foremothers and forefathers came to Canada and the US in the hopes of being delivered from bondage into two kinds of freedom. One was freedom of conscience, and the other was freedom from want. Let us take a moment to think ourselves back into the past, into the choices that they made, and why they made them, and take a lesson from those choices.
My auntie Mary Crane told me yesterday that some of our Mennonite forebears came to Canada because it was giving away land — or as close to that as makes no difference — and because of British justice. The Niebuhrs had had quite enough of the Tsar’s justice, even if some of them cried when they heard the Tsar and his family had been murdered by the communists. The Mennonites had many reasons to fear being uprooted from everything they had built. What is harder than abandoning a life’s work? What is harder than facing the truth that they had no kind of future for their children if they stayed? Hardest of all was not knowing for sure what kind of future they were voyaging too, except that with God’s help and hard work, it couldn’t be worse than what they were living through.
The Niebuhrs had had enough of upheaval and war in their lives. Who wouldn’t long for peace and order after all that? They didn’t want to rule the world; they wanted a piece of ground so they could be self-supporting. They wanted freedom to commit their souls to God as their forebears had done. They didn’t want to tell other people what to think; they wanted to be witnesses to their own faith. They surely didn’t want to stay where they would be forced to watch their daughters starve or be set upon by bandits, or to watch their sons to be conscripted into armies to fight any wars, just or unjust.
They came here for their faith, and for their families.
Think of the courage and fortitude our forebears showed. I think of the tears shed at the railroad stations and docksides, as many heart rending partings took place, and I wonder how I would hold up under such a trial. Think of the times they were cheated and abused on their way to the terminus where the great ships were docked, the illness and fear they felt during the tedious ocean crossing, for all those farmers and tradesmen and businessmen who’d never gotten into any boat bigger than a horse ferry across a local river. Think of the comfort they took in the cramped quarters in the steamer as they opened their Bibles by lamplight or stood on the deck in good weather, and sang hymns.
It is difficult to picture how hard it was for the first arrivals. Imagine being the first of your family to arrive; negotiating in the unfamiliar English language, bereft of the advice and practical help – and cash – of your family. Then, over time, brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, were reunited. Turn to your siblings, or spouse or your children, if present, and think of how you would feel the first time you saw them after ten years, or fifteen years parted, how your heart would sing, even as you saw the lines that work and time had etched into their dear, beloved faces.
I think the most beautiful story about how the Niebuhrs came to Canada and adapted to life here starts with Mary, the youngest daughter of Gerhard Thiessen. He saw the writing on the wall before the First World War, and advised all of his children to emigrate. May we have so much foresight, if we must ever send our own children out of danger, however hard the parting.
Gerhard died before she left, and Mary took a sedum plant from his grave, to bring with her as she started her new life in Canada. She brought it such a great distance, in a cracked teacup with a broken handle, packed in moss. It was almost dead when her sister, my great grandmother, Katharina Thiessen Rempel, nursed it back to health, until it could be propagated. I like to think of that sedum plant as it grows in two peaceful graveyards on the prairies, putting down roots in this country, as did our forebears.
There is no sacrifice our ancestors wouldn’t make, for their faith and for their families.
I think there are a lot of lessons we can take from that great crossing.
The first is that we should all be thinking about a place of refuge. You may think that it isn’t necessary; that it won’t come to you; that the Rapture will come first; that you are too old; that it would show lack of faith in God to prepare for what I think are the trying days we may all soon face. Our ancestors would shake their heads in dismay at any of those excuses. Faith in God does not mean abandonment of either your responsibilities or your ability to reason. For the sake of our families, we have to think about the future, even to the seventh generation. Wise stewardship demands nothing less.
The second is that we should all be thinking about nurturing practical skills in our children. All of the handcrafts and skills of a hundred years ago will take on new meaning in a future when energy is more expensive and our food supply is no longer secure. Science tells us that the 20th century was the wettest on record for the prairies. The wheat that sprang from the soil with such unbelievable abundance in the teens and twenties of the last century, and which was in such large part the well from which our family drew its prosperity, will not soon return to us, not if the weather keeps shifting and the rivers and the aquifers that allow us to irrigate become overdrawn or contaminated.
The third is that despite it all, despite horror, war, famine, bandits, religious persecution and the trials and perils of emigration, our family made it. We suffered losses; hard work burned down in an hour or was foreclosed in a day; horses threw us; fathers died leaving us nearly destitute; illness, debt and doubt sometimes assailed us. But as a family, with our gifts and our diligence, our brains and our muscles, our love and our hope, I guarantee you that we will win through in the end. We are like the sedum plant brought many miles; if we stick together and nurture each other, despite it all, we will thrive.