On June 16 and 17, Waterloo and St. Catharines hosted celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (OCMBC). Internationally renowned Christian speaker Tony Campolo delivered the main address at both events, challenging churches to surrender all to Jesus.
Mass choirs sang a few songs and then the congregation joined in for some contemporary tunes and hymns – a reminder that the MB denomination is multi-generational with an appreciation for differing worship styles. The audience laughed as actors portrayed a Mennonite son bringing home a non-Mennonite girlfriend in the play, “Guess Who’s Coming to Sunday Lunch?” The drama highlighted the struggles MBs have undergone to find common ground between generations and between people from different cultural heritages.
The OCMBC started in 1932 with five churches. Their initial objective was to train pastors and plant more churches throughout the province. Over the last 75 years, the conference has grown to 33 churches with 4,500 weekly attendees. The OCMBC also established organizations for high school students (Eden Christian College, Virgil), seniors (Tabor Manor, St. Catharines; Pleasant Manor, Virgil; Valley View Manor, St. Jacobs), and people with developmental disabilities (Bethesda Ministries, St. Catharines). In addition, the conference operates a Christian camping program, Camp Crossroads, in the Muskoka region.
Canadian Mennonite Brethren originally came from Russia. Henry and Agnetha Reimer, parents of former Kitchener Member of Parliament, John Reimer, were among the approximately 900 refugees who fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in search of peace, settling in Ontario’s Waterloo and Lincoln counties.
Like many other Mennonite refugees, the Reimers were sponsored by a Mennonite family living in Ontario. The Ebys paid for the Reimers’ passage to Canada in exchange for nearly two years of Henry’s labour on the Eby farm.
“Growing up in a Mennonite Brethren church had a deep influence on who I became and on my political life,” says John Reimer, a member of Kitchener MB Church. Reimer served as Kitchener’s MP for a total of 13 years in the 1980s and 1990s. He was known for taking a strong stand on moral issues like pornography, abortion, and homosexuality.
Reimer remembers an influential pastor at Kitchener MB, F.C. Peters, who was also the president of Wilfrid Laurier University. Peters said, “If your faith is not real in the marketplace of every day living, it’s not real at all.” Using stories from the lives of Christians who made a difference in their communities, such as politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce, Peters inspired his congregation, including young John Reimer, to share their faith through actions and words. Reimer wanted to have a positive influence on Canadian society and was involved with the successful passage of a bill to limit child pornography.
Over the years, the Ontario conference, individual churches, and members have been able to share the gospel and positively affect the province and nation.
As Campolo said, the OCMBC isn’t called to be a religious organization – “that’s dull.” He said it’s “called to be the incarnation of Christ in Ontario.” Campolo affirmed the MB stance on peace and care for the poor. But he called the church to speak out more fervently against war and challenged the OCMBC to do more on behalf of people who are impoverished.
As denominational ties weaken among Canadian churches in general, the need for a provincial conference of MB churches remains. Ontario conference moderator Vic Thiessen says “though the Mennonite Brethren label may become less visible in future years, our cooperation as a conference to reach our communities for Christ will continue to be important.”
| © 2008 Mennonite Brethren Herald
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