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John Penner

by on May 23, 2013

John Penner was buried today. He was a 45 year-old Russian Mennonite from Belize. He was a diligent business owner and provider for his growing family. He was soft-spoken and thoughtful. People liked him. His wife, his children, his employees, his church people, his siblings. People liked him. With few words he got the job done.

His parents had moved to Belize in 1958 when the Spanish Lookout Mennonite settlement began. Against impossible odds, the community attacked thousands of acres of jungle with two small tractors. Now, in 2013, they farm thousands of acres with 250 horsepower tractors and 18 foot discs. They export grains. All in 50 years.

“Russian” Mennonites are a mobile people. They move and move and move. One legendary expression summarizes: Great grand parents lie beneath the sod on the steppes of Russia. Grand parents are buried, some in Canada and some in Mexico.  Parents came from Mexico and settled in Belize. Son is now buried in Belize.

“Russian” Mennonites are not Russian at all. They are from the Dutch branch of the Mennonite family. They lived in Prussia for 200 years. There they lost their Dutch language and picked up the  Low German – Plautdietsch. From there, in 1789, many of them moved to Russia – actually the Ukraine. Their industry made the Ukraine the bread-basket of Europe. Threatened with loss of the promised non-resistance, many of them moved to North America in the 1870’s and later. Hence the name – “Russian” Mennonites.

John’s (Johann in the native Plautdietsch) funeral was in the huge SchoentalChurch building and was attended by about 1500 mourners. It was the same Church building, where, 6 years ago, his sister was married to my son.

John and his father, Peter, had a sawmill. Dad now has the sawmill. The sawmill saws native woods and planes the wood into lumber. They use the lumber to build houses. John knew the woods and lumber business very well. It is ironic because he died in the woods fighting a forest fire. A tree fell on him and he died instantly. How could that happen to a man so very well versed in woodsmanship? There seems to be no earthly explanation.

Watching the funeral via modern technology was a gripping experience. Our family got together to be part of the long-distance experience. My mind wandered down through the corridors of history and imagined how many times this scene was experienced before. Tragedy in the midst of integrity and determination. Pain and grief in the midst of solid community. Saying goodbye to son, husband, father, and brother has always been devastating. But, strength reigns. Truth prevails. Grace provides and community is stronger, even across the continents.

Anabaptist history is a unique history and each segment of the community has its own story.  The following little essay is my way of expressing the Anabaptist experience – an experience unparalleled in all of history. A history continuing to unfold generation by generation. By life and by death the story of faithfulness is being written by those who remain faithful.


Settlements prominent in their areas

From Zurich to Pingum – from Danzig to Prussia to Choritiza and  Molotschna. From Lancaster to Chiuaha – from Sioux Lookout to Spanish Lookout – from Harrisonburg to Hutchinson – from Goshen to Holmes County – from Kitchner to Winnepeg.

From Cuba, Indiana to Rome, Pennsylvania, from the jungles of Paraguay to the steppes of British Columbia and countless villages dotting the globe – the Mennonite community has influenced and impressed and invested and altered the landscape in material and philosophical and Spiritual ways.

Cultures were completely transformed by these people who could take nothing and make something. Neither failure nor exile nor martyrdom could stop them.  Neither death nor persecution could deter them.

Even the indomitable, irreplaceable, unforgettable Paul Harvey included the Mennonites in his Rest of the Story story. With a grain of truth he spelled out the Truth of Grain. He tells how the Mennonites made the Ukraine the bread basket of Europe only to be driven from their homes and farms by intolerant government. Evicted by the beneficiaries of their industry.

As they fled to North America they took with them the seeds to begin farming in the U.S. As a result, America is selling Mennonite wheat to the Russians. Had Russia kept the Mennonites, they would be selling wheat to the U.S.

What a legacy – who or where has anyone seen the like? Persecuted people prospering by industry and integrity.  What an inheritance – could it be true that generations have communicated their heritage in tangible and Spiritual ways to their children’s children’s children.

Let us all take care.

Beginning by doing good, the result has been doing well.

Let us never forget that goodness begets wellness in every way.

Let us never forget that to lose goodness will be to lose everything.


John Penner, like the rest of us, will eventually be a name on a marker.

He left more than a marker.

He left a mark.


We are all going to die. What mark will you leave for your children and theirs?

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