July 29, 2003

Faith put to the test

It's been a while since I put up a post about my great-grandfather David Jakob Dick (who will mostly be referred to as "Grandpa Dick" from here on out) - more than a month from the look of it. The last post, written by his younger sister Helene, ended with:

When the greatest misfortune took us, I can well remember sitting right there under the fruit trees and hearing the shots.
To read the story up to this point, you should use the "category" archive in Movable Type, which you can get to by clicking here.

I found the scanner at my office. Man, technology is great. It took a fifth of the time to do this with the scanner than when I had to retype everything. Since I had access and some time on my hands, I thought I might include some other material in today's post. For the fans of Tsarist bureaucratic forms, I have a scan of Grandpa Dick's birth certificate, which I rather amateurishly translated ten years ago when I was studying Russian. Unfortunately, most of the material I have from Grandpa is photocopied, so it's not photo quality.

For those of you who read the last instalment and were wondering about the dollhouse great-aunt Helene was talking about, it looked like this:


The Dollhouse at Apanlee - Beats the hell outta Malibu Barbie, dunnit?
Preparing this post put me in mind of something Richard Dawkins wrote in mid-September 2001 for the Guardian:
Religion's misguided missiles

A guided missile corrects its trajectory as it flies, homing in, say, on the heat of a jet plane's exhaust. A great improvement on a simple ballistic shell, it still cannot discriminate particular targets. It could not zero in on a designated New York skyscraper if launched from as far away as Boston.

That is precisely what a modern "smart missile" can do. Computer miniaturisation has advanced to the point where one of today's smart missiles could be programmed with an image of the Manhattan skyline together with instructions to home in on the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Smart missiles of this sophistication are possessed by the United States, as we learned in the Gulf war, but they are economically beyond ordinary terrorists and scientifically beyond theocratic governments. Might there be a cheaper and easier alternative? [...]

How about using humans as on-board guidance systems, instead of pigeons? Humans are at least as numerous as pigeons, their brains are not significantly costlier than pigeon brains, and for many tasks they are actually superior. Humans have a proven track record in taking over planes by the use of threats, which work because the legitimate pilots value their own lives and those of their passengers. [...]

Could we get some otherwise normal humans and somehow persuade them that they are not going to die as a consequence of flying a plane smack into a skyscraper? If only! Nobody is that stupid, but how about this - it's a long shot, but it just might work. Given that they are certainly going to die, couldn't we sucker them into believing that they are going to come to life again afterwards? Don't be daft! No, listen, it might work. Offer them a fast track to a Great Oasis in the Sky, cooled by everlasting fountains. Harps and wings wouldn't appeal to the sort of young men we need, so tell them there's a special martyr's reward of 72 virgin brides, guaranteed eager and exclusive.


Dawkins has a point, albeit a limited one. If we are going to hold 9/11 against religion - all religions - we have to hold WWI against all nations. The things that convince people to die for their faith aren't much different from the ones that convince people to die for their country. At least with God, you're getting offered heaven in the end. If you die for your country, you might get a nice funeral on the taxpayers.

What I want to draw attention to is the flip side of Dawkins' rather pessimistic view of religion. There are people who will not kill, people who won't even fight to save their own lives because of their religion. The promise of heaven means that they won't resist any sort of aggression at all, for fear of the damage it might do to their souls. Better to die than to kill. The same power that makes holy wars also makes martyrs and like most powerful forces, religion is a two sided thing.

For my Mennonite ancestors, committing an act like the WTC attack would have been inconceivable. WWI seemed to them at the time like the act of pure, stupid folly it seems like to most of us now. These people didn't even have murders in their communities. During my lifetime, some of them still refused to lock the doors to their homes or cars. There was some strife and the ordinary sorts of conflict that all people suffer, but for them, there was no war, no murder, no theft worthy of mention and very little fear.

Seems too good to be real? I promise you, these people and places really existed. Unfortunately, in an act that proves that if God exists then she must have a sense of irony, they built this utopia in the middle of what was about to become the Soviet Union.

Grandpa Dick, my Russian-born great-grandfather, described the events that preceded his departure for Canada in the April 15, 1977 edition of the MB Herald, the bi-monthly magazine of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Church. He was quite at ease in English, and the words are wholly his own. One missing piece of context that you ought to have: from 1919 to 1923, Canada forbade all immigration of Doukhbours, Hutterites and Mennonites from Russia. The Canadian Mennonites lobbied Parliament - the first time they had ever been so deeply involved in politics anywhere - and eventually had the order overturned.


The Dick Family, circa 1909
From left to right: Jessie, Jacob, Elsie, Lydia, Louise, mother Katharina with Helene on her lap, Anna and her husband David Sudermann, father David, son David [my great-grandfather David Jakob Dick], Tina, Johann [John], and Maria [Mary].
Faith put to the test

My parents were devoted Christians. They lived what they believed and they believed strongly in the "very peculiar teaching" of non-resistance. Our family lived on the beautiful plains of the Ukraine on an estate called Apanlee. We lived in peace and harmony with our Russian neighbours, who lived in large villages nearby. Whenever my father could he helped needy people, and we had many friends. In the revolution of 1905 many of the large estates, especially Russian ones, were demolished by roving mobs, and many of the owners were killed. Our farm was also threatened. A letter written by my father to his mother on December 22, 1905 describes how he handled the situation:

On Wednesday, late in the afternoon, a carriage with four men drove onto the yard. One, more educated than the rest, was the leader. The Lord gave me grace to remain calm, and I asked this man what he wanted. He replied, "Support for the poor." I asked if he had a government permit giving him the right to collect the money. He replied that he did not need one. When they saw they could not frighten me, they left. In the backyard they met some of our workers and advised them to quit their jobs and ask for their wages, because in two days they would return to smash everything.

Of course, anxious days followed. But we can still praise and thank God for those days; prayers and the Word of God became more meaningful to us. Our faith was especially strengthened through the promises in Ezra 8:21-23 and Nehemiah 6. As he did in Nehemiah's time, God built a wall around us. Unfortunately, through our unbelief we often breach the wall. Yes, mother, there have been days of blessing. The Lord showed us our shortcomings, he showed us that we have not done our duty toward our Russian neighbours.

The next week was hectic. The yard was always filled with people, but nobody was rude or indecent. They all asked for help, though some actually did not need it... Most of the time I stood on the porch and talked with them, distributing New Testaments and tracts. I realised the hunger of the common people for the Word of God... Most of them told me they had not come to smash and destroy my property, but because they wanted to protect us...

Now it is quiet and we trust our Lord for the coming days. The moment we put our trust in his promises he strengthens our faith and we are confident that nothing will happen against his will; whatever may come will be for our good.

The people wanted to protect us with clubs and pitchforks, but father, who wanted no fighting or bloodshed on his place, thanked them for their good intentions and asked them to return home. Not long after, the leader who had demanded money was saved and became a good friend of ours.

The second revolution, in February, 1917, was more successful in toppling the government. The Communist party came to power in October. Two of our neighbours left their estates. One, a Mr. Sudermann, moved to the Mennonite town of Halbstadt and was one of the first to be murdered in the Molotschna colony, where I was attending school at the time. Our family decided not to move.

One day a communist named Alexander came to our place with the intention of organising the poorest Russian villagers into a commune. As my father predicted, he was not successful. But, since Alexander was a good-natured man, he soon became our friend. Father could even witness to him about Jesus Christ.

Our peaceful way of life was interrupted abruptly on the afternoon of February 13, 1918 when two communists appeared at our doorstep. One of them I recognised as the bloodthirsty man who had murdered Mr. Sudermann and others. They searched our house for silverware, dry goods, and sugar. Then the "black Vidka", as he was called, ordered my father to come along to the headquarters of the commune on the neighbouring estate. We all knew what. that meant: he intended to kill father on the way. My youngest sister cried, "Dear, dear Jesus, you have to save our dear father."

God answered in an unexpected way. Our friend Alexander stepped between the mad man and my father, so he could not shoot him on the way out. Then he arranged that he and this man would go on one sleigh, while the other soldier and my father followed in a second sleigh. By the providence of God the Russian peasants were assembled for a meeting at the place. As they were being told what was going on, they put up a petition asking that my father not be killed. By 11 p.m. Father was home, and we had an evening of thanksgiving unlike any we had ever had before.

The next morning brought an unusual surprise. The man entered our house again, with two revolvers and grenades on his belt, and confronted us. We were all shocked and wondered what was coming. But the man took off his belt and weapons, sat down comfortably in an armchair, and said: "Now I want to see that man for whom several hundred have signed that petition." After a while he received a phone call and left. Through God's grace another chapter had ended peacefully.

In the spring of 1918 the German army occupied the Ukraine and restored law and order. However small bands of terrorists frequently attacked isolated places and murdered whole families. A German officer, Lieutenant Reinhard, the commander of our district, visited and offered us as many army rifles as we wanted for our protection. Father thanked him for the offer but refused it, explaining that it was contrary to his non-resistant convictions as a Christian. Mr. Reinhard, a polite man, said to him, "If you can't kill, take the rifles anyway. If the people know you have rifles they will stay away." Dad's reply was: "Mr. Reinhard, if they come in spite of the rifles, I'm not sure what I would do. I am only a human being. Would I be strong enough to overcome the temptation to kill if the rifles were standing in the corner?" Father did not accept the offer and as long as the Germans occupied the Ukraine we lived in peace.

That fall the Germans had to leave, and the civil war began with all its horror. In the fall of 1919 the most dreaded terrorist group, the Machno group, overran our district.

October 30 of that year was another gloomy day for us. Brother Bernard Dick, a teacher on a neighbouring estate (who now lives in Coaldale, Alberta) came over to tell us he had heard that a gang was planning to murder our family.

Father called the family and all the servants together to pray and ask the Lord for his guidance. After they rose from their knees, father had the conviction that the Lord wanted him to stay. His eldest son Jake also decided to stay with his wife and baby boy.

All day small groups of bandits came and went, taking everything they could get hold of. All the horses were taken, except one very old nag.

At about 11 p.m. in the evening a carriage with five men pulled up before the house. As had been arranged beforehand, my sisters and the servant girls left the house and hid in the bushes. Only my widowed sister, whose husband had been murdered a few months earlier, remained in the house with three of her children, my mother, my sister-in-law and her baby, and the men.

The gang burst in and lined up my father and mother, my two brothers, Jake and John, and Mr. Schellenberg, an employee, against the wall. The leader demanded fifty thousand roubles. Dad told him that the money had all been taken. He asked for permission to go to the other employees on the farm; he was sure he could borrow that amount from them.

The request was refused. A shot rang out, and my father fell wounded, pretending to be dead. The light had gone out after the gun blast, and in the dim light from the other room Schellenberg leaped out the window and John threw himself on the bed, waiting for the bullet. Father whispered to him, "Save yourself." John then leaped out the window. Jake escaped through a door, but was wounded as he ran. Mother tried to escape also, but two shots were fired and she died instantly.

Before the murderers left, they fired twice more at my father, but missed. Once they were gone Dad shouted for help and one by one the family members emerged from their hiding places. They found a horrible picture. Mother lay dead, her head shattered by explosive bullets, and father lay in a pool of his own blood, suffering great pain.

During the last 28 hours of his life father received the most severe test. of his faith. The pain and agony he experienced can only be understood in part by those who shared that time with him. He had obeyed God; he had trusted God completely; and now this had happened. Why? What was the answer? The family realised that the "very peculiar teaching" did not lead along an easy road.

With no medical help, no pills or needles, the pain was severe. A doctor from 10 miles away arrived that evening under cover of darkness, but it was too late. A choir from Aleksanderkrone came to sing comforting songs. Despite the pain, father never complained.

Dad's last hours were a great blessing to his family. He was the first one to find his way through. My sister wrote down some of his final words: "Children, love one another. Be good soldiers of Christ... Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." He was concerned about his people: "Do not forget Bethany (a home for the retarded) and the other institutions... Send greetings to our teachers." He had no bitter words or feelings against his murderers. By the grace of God he could pray, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

When the pains overwhelmed him, he prayed, "Lord help me to be patient... Lord, forgive my impatience. You have suffered so much for me." Satan was not idle either, and did not allow my father to die in peace. When he became very weak, father whispered to one of the ministers, "Only not to go astray in the end" (Nun nicht am Schlusz nosh irren). Early in the second morning the struggle ended and he was reunited with his wife after a separation of only 28 hours.

Our father lived the Jesus way and died the Jesus way in the power of the Holy Spirit. Praise be to God now and in all eternity. For the family it was not easy to understand the leading of the Lord. But he did not let us down, and gave us the victory over all inner struggles.

My personal reaction has not been mentioned. At the time of the murders I was serving in a military hospital. Communication with home had been interrupted, and it was not until I returned home three weeks later that I learned, like a bolt out of the blue sky, that my father and mother were dead. My first thoughts were not very Christian. One was to give up the non-resistance stance, take the gun and fight the terrorists. I thought of revenge. I would not judge anyone who does not have any other strength but his own and does take revenge. But praise the Lord, I knew Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour, and in his power I could overcome the temptation. Today I thank God that I have not sent a single soul into a Christless eternity.

I am so glad we can claim Psalm 73:23-25: "But even so, You love me! You are holding my right hand. You will keep on guiding me all my life with Your wisdom and counsel; and afterwards receive me into the glories of heaven. Whom have I in heaven but You? And I desire no one on earth as much as You."


I don't have much else from Russia after that. I have two very brief letters from Grandpa Dick to his sisters who went to Canada immediately after the ban on Mennonite immigrants was lifted. They are very banal stuff, mostly about where he is on the emigration lists. Grandpa Dick himself got out in the spring of 1924. His sister Elsa summarises the years from 1919 to 1927 in two sentences:

Until 1923, all the children kind of drifted around in South Russia. Then, from 1923 to 1926 when the way was opened, most of them immigrated to Canada except Anna, Lydia and Johann who are still there. [These three were married before 1923.]
This brings us just about up to 1929, where Grandpa Dick enters my grandfather's life for the first time.

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Posted 2003/07/29 18:20 (Tue) | TrackBack