Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Church of God and Eastern Europe


Much of what happened in World War II seemed to mock the faith so deeply treasured by the Church of God believers from Eastern Europe, as researched by Walter Froese.With that thought in mind, Dr. Froese, distinguished Professor of Church History Emeritus at the Church of God School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana, introduced his newest volume at the Anderson-based North American Convention in June 2010.

Froese, a German Canadian of solid Mennonite stock came to the Church of God through the influence of the girl he met and married. He dedicated his volume to the loving memory of his now deceased Church of God-born wife, with whom he spent his adult life and through whom he came to fully appreciate the heritage and history of the Church of God.

In his history of the Church of God people in Eastern Europe, Froese, describes these people as People of Faith in Turbulent Times (p 187). He concludes that despite such difficulties, the Church of God lived on. With the nose of a true historian, he notes the overall political developments, especially in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Froese finds the emphasis on racial differences, the desire for domination of one country over another, and the rampant hate propaganda towards other human beings required for fighting and killing in a war–all this posed challenges to many believers in their faith in God as Lord of everything and in their conviction that God's will for all of God's children is love towards everyone (emphasis added).

Growing up in southwestern Michigan, as I did, brought me into close contact with Church of God people of German descent. Twenty-five miles to the south was First Church of God, St. Joseph, which served as a German-speaking Missionary Home in the early 20th century. They finally became an English-speaking congregation following WWII, when their Anderson College graduates began returning home as English-speaking adults.

Benton Harbor-St. Joseph became a strong center of German influence. Walter Butgereit, pastor in Benton Harbor for four decades, visited in my South Haven home in the late twenties or early thirties. I later attended AC (mid-forties) with the Macholtz brothers, as well as Dottie Koroch, who came out of the Benton Harbor German church, before investing a lifetime with Weatherall Johnson, founder of Bible Study Fellowship.

My younger friends today include Mike & Carol Stadelmayer, pastors at Mio, MI and Dr. Georg Karl, pastor at Vincennes, IN and author of Six Stages of Forgiving Others (pictured below). Mike’s dad and mother, Rudy (now deceased) & Elsa, came from East Prussia (Poland) and number among my decades-long friends. I have long attended Camp Meeting with Georg’s dad, Julian.

Once much revered by the church, and especially by pastors across the Church, is the name Ewald (E. E.) Wolfram. Dr. Wolfram came from East Prussia to Benton Harbor, finished AC just as I was beginning, and became the church’s preacher’s preacher, working primarily out of several Agency positions in Anderson. It was a great loss to the church when the Wolfsdram's were killed in a flaming auto accident on south Florida US27.

These names shared off the cuff barely scratch the surface of our church family. Our founder, D. S. Warner, preached in German on numerous occasions. Many later emigrated here during the WWII years. Benton Harbor-St. Joseph, MI became a center. Another was Edmonton, Alberta. Families like the Ratzlaff’s and Butgereit’s migrated further south to rural areas like Marion, South Dakota, and southwestern Michigan, and elsewhere.

Dee Padgett, now retired in Kentucky, is part of the Dan Ratzlaff clan from PA. Dr. Leslie Ratzlaff, founding Dean of Warner Southern University and former Dean at Warner Pacific College, came from the Marion, S.D. clan. Another of my favorites, Dr. Albert Kempin, came out of Lithuania to Philadelphia, then spent his life in Oregon-California.

So you understand why I found Walter Froese’s history of the Church of God in Eastern Europe so fascinating. Many of their descendants became my teen friends, peers, and lifelong friends, brought together by a great World War. It was a tragedy for all of us, but it provided an opportunity to transform a tragedy into blessing.

While I remember the fear I felt in our community when we heard rumors of the German Bundists in training in our southern Lake Michigan dunes, I look back and see the profound impact of the German influence upon the Church of God Movement. They greatly influenced who and what we are today.

After meeting Dr. Froese and selling numerous copies of his book at NAC, I regretted not sitting in his Church History classes, although I took my history classes under some respected historians. I found Dr. Froese a delightful friend, a historian with a reformer’s zeal for detail, a warm and enchanting human being.

Church of God readers will be especially blessed by reading this volume about a specific segment of our ethnic influences. It should enlarge your understanding of some of your friends, of whom you may have little or no awareness of the struggles of their forbearers. It should expand your appreciation for their contribution to our present church life in America, as well as cause you to better appreciate the great diversity we have in the Church of God, Anderson.

From Warner’s World, we are

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