To God be the Glory! My life as God's servant in Africa
by Susie Brucks Dyck (1983)
My Arrival In This World
Every autumn before the beginning of school, the teachers from the various Mennonite schools in the Orenburg area, gathered together in a conference to discuss plans for the coming terms. These conferences were held in a different location each year. In the year 1909, the conference was to be held at Stepanofka. My parents were to be the local hosts. Stepanofka was a small Mennonite village in Orenburg County, three days train travel east of Moscow. My father was an ordained minister and also served as the village teacher.
Much hard work and preparation went into these conventions and everyone looked forward to the time of fellowship and encouragement. The Stepanofka sessions were held in the large classroom, while the meals and entertainment took place in my parents' one bedroom apartment at the end of the building. Here all the visiting teachers spent their time between sessions.
My mother was an energetic teenager. Although she was seven months pregnant, she worked very hard preparing the food for this occasion, so eager was she to impress and please all of the guests with her delicious delicacies. On the day before the convention Mother prepared a huge kettle of meat. She struggled with the heavy weight, but finally managed to get it into the oven. It was while she was lifting the kettle out that it happened - sharp pains announcing the premature arrival of her first child. Mother hid her anxiety and discomfort and continued to serve meals to all of the guests. As soon as the last teacher had departed, she threw her exhausted body onto the bed and went into heavy labour. There was no doctor in the village, but father rushed to get Grandmother Dueck, four miles away. Upon her arrival, she immediately announced that the baby could not possibly live. She waited by her daughter for many hours, unable to do anything.
Finally, however, I was born, weighing only three pounds. Grandma Dueck wrapped me in blankets and prayed - nothing else could be done. There were no such things as incubators in that area. I made no sound for three days for I was too weak to cry or eat.
After three days, Grandma Dueck embraced her son-in-law and daughter in an attempt to comfort them. She told them that they must prepare for my death and give me to God.
Father and Mother knelt by my cradle and told the Lord that if it was His will to take me, they would accept His will. However, if God would will to let me live they would dedicate my life to His service.
God answered prayer in a miraculous way; it was as if I had suddenly been awakened with a spurt of vital energy. Almost immediately I began to scream, kick and yell for food, which I attacked ravenously. Eventually I was the healthiest one of the family, even after eight others had arrived. My existence was a miracle. I was dedicated to God and preserved for a purpose.
My Background and Childhood
My early days were spent in the tiny village of Stepanofka. I grew up in a Mennonite family that had settled there together with other Mennonites. The Mennonites are part of the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation. One of the most prominent leaders in this movement was the former Dutch priest, Menno Simons. His converts and followers became known as "Mennonites". This eventually became the denominational name of the church.
Because of the terrible persecution in the Netherlands, many Mennonites left that country and sought refuge in West and East Prussia, the Vistula Delta and Schleswig-Holstein. Here they lived for about 250 years.
In 1789 the Prussian king issued an edict which forbade Mennonites to buy more land. Since most Mennonites followed agricultural occupations at the time, this was a severe blow to them. There were also the problems of military service, which the Mennonites refused to render on biblical grounds, and the payment of taxes to the state church. Therefore the invitation of Catherine the Great of Russia to settle her newly conquered territories was a welcome one which many Mennonites accepted. Among other things, freedom from military service for all time was promised.
From 1789 on, Mennonite colonies flourished in the Ukraine, but the spiritual life in the settlement lagged. Contacts with a German pietist pastor, Eduard Wuest, led to a revival and to the formation of a new church which called itself the Mennonite Brethren Church. This group insisted on a new birth experience; on knowing the Lord personally; and on a separated life before baptism by immersion.
As the colonies grew, less and less land was available. This led to the formation of daughter settlements in various parts of Russia, one of which was the Orenburg settlement. Here my father ministered in the Mennonite Brethren Church of Klubnikowo.
My dear mother gathered us around her knees almost every evening for singing and a Bible story. One after another we gave our hearts to the Lord.
One day our parents had gone seven miles away to the village of Alisowa to visit my mother's parents. They took along the younger children, wrapped in sheepskin blankets. I had to stay home with another girl, Anna, who was to help me milk and feed our animals. As I sat spinning wool the thought came to me - today is a good day to accept the Lord. I began praying to God, telling Him that I was a sinner and asking His forgiveness. I then thanked Him for my salvation. After this I went into the barn to help Anna with the feeding of the animals. I had drawn a verse from the Scripture box which read "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble" (James 4:6, KJV). In the evening when my parents came back I told them all about it. I already had told Anna in the barn. She had heard me singing and asked me, "Susie, were you converted just now?" I didn't know what conversion meant, so she had to explain it to me. She knew all about conversion, but she never was converted herself, and eventually ended life by hanging herself.
A year after accepting Christ I was baptized in the Tchuran River by Rev. Rodnitchnovo.
The Russian Revolution Brought Hunger, Banditry and Destruction
Hard times came with the beginning of the First World War in 1914. During this time the Mennonites were involved in alternate service in the forests and on the Red Cross trains tending the wounded. My father received a call to go to Tiflis to give first aid to the wounded government soldiers. Unfortunately, while he was working there, the school was without its school teacher. My Uncle Jacob Dueck, my mother's brother, offered to substitute as teacher in the school.
After the Czar was dethroned in March 1917, revolution, communism, destruction, banditry, war and hunger engulfed our homeland and also flooded our Mennonite colony, claiming many victims.
The first order of the new Communist government was that every farmer must take all his grain to a Pokrofka (government post). This left us without seed for the spring seeding or food for our cattle. The grain was all brought to one spot and dumped on the ground. There it rotted while the farmers starved.
Another order by the new government was that all chickens and feathered birds must be taken to the government post. There we saw a large pile of rotting birds which were lost as food while people starved. When springtime came, no seed or food was available.
Nineteen twenty-one was a terrible year. Many starving beggars appeared at our door; sometimes we had as many as a hundred in a day. The weather was bitterly cold and snowy, with six foot snow drifts. We had so little food to give to our cows that we had to help them get to their feet each morning.
One day we went to Alisowa to visit our grandparents. All along the road were frozen bodies still standing in the snow. In the spring the Mennonites took sleighs and gathered the bodies for burial. Otherwise the Plague would be even more devastating. The starvation and death had already brought so much sickness; also the home-coming soldiers brought lice, typhus and malaria. Many people died. Our family suffered greatly from malaria; both my mother and Sarah, the eighth baby, lay for weeks racked with fever. My hands were full and I continually wondered what was to become of us all.
Living around our area were many Russians, Bashkirs and Tartars. One day a Bashkir woman, obviously pregnant, leading a small boy by the hand, was at our door. She was swollen from the effects of starvation. Our Father made a bed for her on the hay in our barn and gave her some food. During the night she gave live birth to a baby. In the morning we found the boy asleep, while the mother and baby were both dead.
If anyone had to leave our village for any purpose, they made a point of giving a wide berth to the Tartar villages, as terrible rumours went around that they were living on human flesh.
Whenever they came through our villages their presence was announced by the loud squeaking and grinding of their wooden wheels on their carts and the loud yelling by the drivers, and the whipping of their half starved horses. We all drew back in horror as they passed by. I recall father hurrying the girls into the family bedroom as he did not want us to be seen by them. All of them carried wooden spoons tucked in the side of their right boots. Their knives were tucked into the left boots and tin cups dangled from their belts. We usually gave them bean soup with pork. I recall that they were very fond of tea.
One day during the awful famine period, our father was not at home. Some of the Tartars came to the door. Mother was terrified and would not loose the chain across the door, but our cat slipped through the opening. As soon as it reached the door step, they all grabbed it and tore it to pieces. We watched in horror as they began to eat our cat. Mother pulled us away from the window saying that children must not see such things.
In the spring of 1922 we received food and milk from America. Our brother Henry and sister Tena had been suffering from malaria for so long they could not seem to recover. They lacked the physical resources to fight the disease because of malnutrition. When Henry saw the cans of milk he told his father that what he needed was a whole can of milk. His wish was granted. He drank and drank, and it seemed to be the medicine he required, for he then began to recover.
Bands of soldiers began roaming the country, killing people, raping the women and taking everything in sight. We continually prayed for protection and leading during those terrible times. How wonderful to know the God of heaven and hide in Him when the tempest rages.
One day, as I looked through the window, I saw what seemed like a whole army arriving. We all huddled into a corner, crying, praying and clinging to Mother's skirt. They crowded into the house until there was standing room only. They went through every box and cupboard, taking all our hams and other food. They then went into the barn and took our horses. Even though they had stripped us of all food, we said a prayer of thanks to God as we saw them leaving. He had preserved us through another harrowing experience.
Clothes were a very real problem in those days. I recall watching my mother sewing patches onto the patches. Most of our clothes looked like the patchwork quilts that are so popular today. Since we had sheep, we spun our knitting wool and knitted our socks and gloves by the light of a small kerosene lamp.
Our Farewell to Russia
Along with our new Bolshevik government came many new laws restricting our freedom and ability to function. It was not long before religious instruction in schools was forbidden. Next came the decree that teachers who were also preachers of the Word of God were no longer permitted to teach. This left our father without a job.
In 1923 many Mennonites emigrated from Russia to Canada. This continued on until 1926. One day our parents gathered the family about them and asked them to pray about leaving Russia, and if so, to which country we should journey. We all agreed that we should move to Canada. From that day on we made preparations for our departure. My mother was expecting her ninth child and finding everything very difficult.
The revolution had taken most of our worldly possessions, but we gathered what few things remained and held an auction sale. The money we received was far short of our requirements. We borrowed money from an uncle. At first our relatives ridiculed us, but eventually they all joined us in emigrating to Canada.
It required two neighbors in two sleighs to take our large family to the city of Orenburg ninety kilometers away. The first night we slept in a Russian village. We continued on to Orenburg the following day. We remained at Orenburg for over two weeks before we were able to get passage on a train to Moscow. There were about twelve families, mostly relatives, in that basement apartment. When we finally left Orenburg for Moscow my Uncle Jacob was left behind - his roll of bedding was too large to go through the door of the train. His wife and children went along with us to Moscow, where she gave birth to a baby immediately after her arrival. Uncle Jacob arrived two days later.
Our stay in Moscow was prolonged because of the mounds of red tape which we had to wade through before receiving our exit visas from Russia. After many weeks we were able to board a train to Riga. There we boarded a boat to Liverpool where we received a royal welcome.
We were offered so much delicious food most of which we had never seen or heard of before. We had been so hungry for years; this remains a thrilling memory through the years. We had been chosen to survive.
From Liverpool, England, we sailed to Canada on the Empress of France, arriving in Quebec on May 9th, 1926.
A New Beginning in Canada
On our arrival in Canada we were ushered through customs and then immediately put on the train heading westward. Looking through the windows of the train we seemed only to see rocks and huge stones. Mile after mile, day after day, nothing but rocks. What a disappointment! We thought that Canada must be a very poor country.
We got off the train in Winnipeg, where I was sent to stay with a couple who had two boys my age. I remember the horror of clutching my few things while saying goodbye to my parents and getting into a strange car with strange people in a strange land who spoke a strange tongue. This family lived in Summerfeld, Manitoba.
My sisters, Nita and Anne, were taken to some other places in Manitoba. They both enjoyed their stay, but I cried continually from loneliness.
My folks went to the house of Siemens in Altona, Manitoba for a few days. They marveled that my parents had separated me from the family so quickly. After they came and picked me up we all went to Coaldale, Alberta. Here we lived on a beet field eight miles out of town. Our housing was two granaries pushed together. We could look through the walls. We carried our water from the neighbours and used an outside toilet. As we had no furniture, we slept on straw ticks.
The arrangement was that we were to work for two different beet farmers. The farms were four miles apart. The farmer with whom we were living had 40 acres. Early every morning Father and the six children worked hard on those 40 acres. Later we would walk four miles to a Hindu's ten acre farm, work some more, and then walk the four miles back home. This we did every day, working long hours. The arrangement was that we were to receive one third of the proceeds from the crop when it was sold in the autumn. Until that time we were paid nothing. It was a long hard summer; once more we were hungry.
After doing a long morning's work I recall that we would hike over to the Hindu's who would give us hot water for our tea and dry bread. This was our lunch. Father would cheer us up on our return walk home, with his exciting stories, always making them comical. It eased the burden and took our minds away from our aching sore feet. At home were Elizabeth, 3 years old, Sarah, 2 and now Frieda, the baby. Mother, who had given birth on August 6, would give us soup with fruit and macaroni in it.
Our hopes for survival almost left us again when, in early September there came an early frost and snow. It froze the diapers hanging on the line inside our house. All the beets were frozen in the ground until the following spring. We would receive no money for our summer's work.
Because the owner of the 40 acre beet field had not harvested his beets he was not obliged to pay us anything, but he gave us $5.00. Father and I walked the ten miles into Lethbridge to the Royal Bank. The bank manager was a Christian. He asked where we had come from and why we had received such a small cheque for our summer's work. After hearing the details, he wrote it all down. Father, on arriving home said to his wife "Mother, we cannot remain here; we could starve to death and no one would be the wiser. We must move into the city where we can find some work and people will help us to survive." Father found a very cheap house and we moved into town. He was also able to get occasional jobs.
I was able to find work in the home of a lawyer who had three daughters in school. They were all very kind to me. The family saved its leftover toast and put it into a bag for me to take home to my family on my day off once a week.
The banker called the coal company and had them bring us a ton of coal. He also sent over a load of groceries and clothing.
My sister, Nita, worked for a Jewish lady; and between us all our family managed to survive that winter.
The younger children were able to go to school now that we were living in Lethbridge. In the spring we all moved back to Coaldale, living in a cook car on a farm. Nita and I tended sheep and were well paid. We enjoyed this very much, and with our combined salaries were able to begin paying back our uncle the money he had loaned us for our fares to Canada. Father eventually took a loan from the bank and bought a farm in Coaldale where he grew sugar beets as well as grain.
Although our family had little of this world's goods, we were happy and thankful to God for our freedom and the joy of His presence in our home. We expressed this through family singing. We also sang duets, trios, and quartettes.
Our Bible schools in Russia had been closed with the new regime, so now that we were in a new land new Bible schools were established. I was one of the first to attend the Bible school in Coaldale. How I enjoyed the teaching of God's Word. Later on I attended Prairie Bible Institute at Three Hills, Alberta. Here they put a strong emphasis on missions and evangelism. I was not able to finish my studies because of dire circumstances at home. I went back home to help.
My Missionary Calling
At sunset one evening in the summer of 1934, after my work was finished for the day, I knelt in the sugar beet field. I was reading Psalm 119. The Lord began to speak to me, calling me to go to the foreign field as a missionary. I found it difficult to believe that God would want me when there were so many capable people around; so, like Gideon, I put out a fleece. I told the Lord to give me an open call to go - the next Sunday when the first minister would give his message, let it be from Mark 16:15 "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature."
The next Sunday morning I waited eagerly to see what the Lord's answer would be to my prayer. There were many people in the church, children in Sunday school and young people in the choir. I taught in the Sunday school and then hurried close to the front for the morning service. Rev. John A. Toews announced his text: Mark 16:15 "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." A shiver of excitement went through me. God had answered the request I had made to Him. It was not even missionary Sunday. When he had finished speaking, we stood and sang a couple of songs, then the next speaker was introduced, Rev. B. B. Janz. He said that he couldn't understand it but God had made him change his message for this morning - God must have some purpose; his text also was Mark 16:15 "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." I found it difficult to sit still - God had answered my request not just once, but like Gideon, twice.
On the way home in our Bennett wagon (car wheels underneath and horses in front) I told my parents of my experience. They told me that they would pray for me.
After a couple of weeks I felt that I should tell the church about my Divine call to the mission field.
Several years passed and nothing happened. In the fall of 1939 my parents decided to move to British Columbia. Once more we were auctioning off our belongings in our yard, and in the middle of it three elders arrived from our church - Mr. Enns, Mr. Ewert and Mr. Esau. They approached me directly saying "We have a commission from the Lord to ask you, Susie Brucks, if you would be willing to go to Africa as a missionary." They then asked if I would be willing to write to the African Mission Society for application papers. I told them "No," they had better ask my cousin because she had the necessary education, having finished both high school and Bible school. The brethren told me they were not sent to my cousin, but to me. They then said they would request the application papers on my behalf. I agreed to this. The forms did not come until after we had moved to Yarrow, B.C. I completed them, and decided that they would not consider me because of my lack of a formal education. But I soon received the news that I was accepted as a candidate.
Brother and Sister Henry Bartsch, also Mennonite immigrants from Russia, had also received a call to go into the mission field when missionary A. A. Janzen from the Belgian Congo reported about that work. In 1932 the Bartsch family left for Africa. Their friends soon organized the African Mission Society in order to support them in material goods and in prayer. Soon the Society was sending out other workers to their field of labour.
The war prevented my departure. In 1943 the Mennonite Brethren Conference accepted the work of missionary A. A. Janzen at Kafumba, Belgian Congo, and also that of the African Mission Society at Bololo, Dekese in the Congo, which the Bartschs had begun.
In the fall of 1943 I went to Toronto to take a one year Missionary Medical Course. In March of 1944 I received the call by night letter from the Mennonite Brethren Foreign Missions office at Hillsboro, Kansas. I was to prepare immediately to sail to Africa. I took the train west to say goodbye to my parents. Our church in Yarrow, B.C. had been notified, and the next Sunday morning I was ordained as a missionary to Africa. Three brethren laid their hands on my head while the church prayed for me. It was a solemn occasion as they dedicated me to the work in Africa, and a most blessed day for all of us.
The following week I left for New York. There I met my future co-worker, Kathryn Willems, and Dr. Lohrenz from our Mission Board in Hillsboro, Kansas. We had a good time of fellowship. Here Kathryn and I waited until June 13 for our necessary papers. We boarded the boat on June 13, and waited until 1 A.M. before the boat left the harbour. The sailors were superstitious, and did not want to leave until the fourteenth. As the boat was making its turn to leave, water poured into our cabin through the portholes. I was swept off the bunk. There were 70 missionaries and their families on board this ship. We sailed toward Portugal. Conversations were filled
with excitement and high hopes as each one set out on this new adventure with God. In Portugal I became very sick and was told that I might have to have an operation on board the boat.
However, we did make it to the Belgian Congo. We arrived on a Monday and on Wednesday I was on the operating table. Dr. Osterholm was my surgeon. When I was able to travel, Anna Goertzen and I went by train to Kinshasa; there we took a nurses tropical medicine course. Since the hotels were full, we had to live in the zoo in Kinshasa. It was another new experience to be awakened by monkeys every morning. After finishing our course, we left by river boat for Kikwit, and from there by kipoy (hammock) to the Kafumba station deep in the forest. The kipoy is a chair fastened to two long H poles, with two carriers in the front and two in the back. Everything was so thrilling; the kipoy carriers were Christians who sang hymns in their own language. I joined them in English. I was young and starting out on my lifetime adventure with God.