Claiming a blessing

Katie Funk Wiebe longed for a blessing from her church — the Mennonite Brethren — and she’s getting it tomorrow evening (April 24) at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, with the presentation of a festschrift in her honour: The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, edited by Valerie Rempel and Doug Heidebrecht.

I’ll be reviewing the book for the MB Herald, but I haven’t read it yet. Instead, after finishing the biography of Gloria Steinem mentioned in an earlier post, I re-read Funk Wiebe’s own telling of her story, in You Never Gave Me a Name (Cascadia, 2009). I’d read it in manuscript form in order to contribute a blurb for the cover, but wanted to come back to it in book form.

Which I’ve done….

The title strikes me as unusual, even a little odd. But it’s provocative, and in that provocation leads directly into the arc and accomplishment of Katie Funk Wiebe’s  life.

The plain name she was given by her immigrant parents didn’t seem nearly sophisticated enough for the dreams of the talented young woman; she preferred Kay. When she married, she became Mrs. Walter Wiebe, and when he was ordained, she was Mrs. Rev. Walter Wiebe, both names marking a certain (increasing) status but hiding her own. As a professor at Tabor College she was Mrs. Wiebe at first, and then as formalities disappeared for a new generation, simply Katie.  To her children she was Mom. Then, as a writer and speaker she used Katie Funk Wiebe, and gained name recognition.

Other things were given her: a particular heritage; a church unsure of its identity (evangelical, Anabaptist, fundamentalist?) and limiting of women; and the challenges of widowhood, single parenting, and college teaching. Inside what she was given is implied all that she wasn’t given as well — which she had to discover,  wrestle with, accept, or create.

In the “namelessness” of being a widow, a woman in the Mennonite Brethren church, and an older person, Katie Funk Wiebe named herself. She knew the loneliness of being set aside, hidden, unblessed, but she persevered to assert herself, to speak up for herself and others, and to claim blessing for herself even when it wasn’t granted by people or institutions.

The book opens with Katie’s arrival in Winnipeg in 1945 to attend Mennonite Brethren Bible College. Here she met and then married Walter Wiebe, who became a teacher and minister and aspired to a “literature ministry.” She describes the 15 years of their marriage, her tentative beginnings as a freelance writer, her husband’s death, the necessity of now being the breadwinner and shaping a new identity alone, and the beginning of 24 rich and stretching years at Tabor College.

At this point in the chronology, the story becomes more thematic, as Funk Wiebe reveals how she changed her mind about things, how she grew as a writer, how she entered the women’s movement and worked on its behalf in the confines of the Mennonite Brethren and also wider Mennonite world. The reader always sees her making choices, not easily or without fear, but because she was determined to think and to contribute.

I read Katie Funk Wiebe’s life somewhat as a daughter watches and assesses her mother or her aunts. She belongs to that generation for me, and I belong to the generation of her children, and so her life feels familiar the way a life does when you share a common heritage, church, vocation, interests. We share a vocabulary, as it were.

She also seems franker, more discontented — in a change-making way – than my mother and aunts (who, as far as I know, didn’t read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, a book which “shook [Funk Wiebe] thoroughly”). And thus she seems a contemporary. I like that frankness and that spirit. (I didn’t read Friedan either, actually, it being too “old” by the time I got to where I cared about the matter.)

I find Katie Funk Wiebe more daring, more courageous at pushing at certain things than I ever was, or am. The “danger” she encountered in speaking openly about difficult matters of biblical interpretation as they relate to current issues hasn’t exactly subsided in the Mennonite Brethren church, positive changes notwithstanding. So she inspires me with courage, even as I’m not entirely persuaded by her final stance of sticking with the church she’s stuck with! I’m younger after all and still have some “givens” against which to discover, wrestle, accept, or create. To keep asking, as she did as a writer, “Are these true words?”

I’m beginning to ramble here, I think. (It’s the blog temptation.) But I want to be sure it’s clear I’m recommending this book. It seems to me that in the vacuum created as our “official” MB histories become outdated, and perhaps unfashionable as a genre, that the stories of individuals such as those in Leaders Who Shaped Us (previous post) or memoirs like this begin to fill in the places where we’ve been as church and community. They fill in the naming not only of those individuals but of our ethos. Readers of all ages, especially Mennonite Brethren, will find this informing as social and theological history. 

But it’s a great read on a simply personal level as well, for enjoying another person’s history, travails and triumphs, learnings. It’s well-written. And sometimes it’s funny, perhaps unintentionally. Katie Funk Wiebe wishes she’d laughed more, so I’ll sign off with one passage that made me laugh in rueful recognition both times I read it:

Some ministers, such as the late popular Canadian MB preacher and university professor, F.C. Peters, made ex cathedra statements in a letter to the Mennonite Brethren Herald, “I also hope that we will not have to discuss the matter [of women in the church] again for the next few years.” This was in 1975, when the discussion was just beginning. He dismissed the matter as if women were children who could be sent out to play with a giant-sized bottle of detergent and a washing machine.

3 thoughts on “Claiming a blessing

  1. Dora, Would you be willing to have me do a blog post link on this one? I am trying to collect reviews of Mennonite memoirs, and you just saved me the task of reviewing this one, which I also read. I share both your appreciation and an inability to identify with all of it. Identification, however, is not the point if one views memoir as social history, which I think is a very important role for Mennonite memoir.

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