Retired pastor still learning about Jesus and his people

“We have to go to school [with] Jesus,” says Erwin Cornelsen. The nearly 100-year-old retired pastor reads the Bible every day: “I’m still learning what Jesus has to teach me.”

Mennonite World Conference (MWC) has always offered Cornelsen a view on the wider world. Now as a senior living Abbotsford, B.C., Canada, MWC’s newsletters are a portal to the world beyond his home.

A young village boy in West Prussia (now Poland), he remembers the excitement around the beginning of MCC and MWC in the 1920s and 1930s as they responded to hardship in Ukraine: “Mennonites from the other end of the planet [America] were coming!”

“That’s the time I became aware of the worldwide Mennonite church,” he says.

Growing up, “God, congregation, Mennonites, were at the centre of my life,” says Cornelsen. Nevertheless, he volunteered for the German air force. Teaching in Mennonite churches was ambivalent about the peace position; for a poor farm boy, the promise of free education after 12 years of service silenced concerns about military participation.

Serving during World War II, “I never had to shoot anyone,” Cornelsen says. Working with the Red Cross, his job was recovery: “We rescued everyone, regardless. I felt good as a Christian in this type of service.”

His mother had expressed her desire for him to become a missionary. The man who became his father-in-law, a minister in the confessing church, decreed Cornelsen would teach Bible classes and soon had him preaching in pubs, just after the war.

After his move to Canada, he had opportunity to take some courses the Mennonite Bible colleges in Winnipeg and Vancouver as he did his work as pastor of Sherbrook Mennonite Church, in Vancouver, B.C. “I tried to learn as much as I possibly could,” he says while taking care of the flock.

Through attending four MWC Assemblies and subscribing to MWC’s written communications, “I am very happy to know about brothers and sisters in different countries who subscribe to the Anabaptist vision,” he says. “We shouldn’t be shy to say who we are.”

A poignant memory from the Strasbourg Assembly is of his mother hugging two Japanese women; sharing a common faith and love despite their lack of shared words.

Zimbabwe was his last major travel for MWC. “I wanted to live with the people,” so he took advantage of the homestay option. “I still have correspondence with them.”

At his age, long trips are no longer in the picture, but “I had a hard time missing the last one [Assembly 16].”

“I love to think about all the Mennonites in the world to be of one mind. It will take a lot of work, a lot of patience, a lot of understanding of other cultures,” says the old pastor. “We have to learn to get along with people who think differently.”

Every day, he prays. “I don’t think only of my own congregation, but the worldwide challenge. Jesus has not expected his disciples to be practical, but to be faithful witnesses and leave the rest to God.”

“Wherever I am, I want to be just like Jesus.”

—An MWC release by Karla Braun