19.07.2018

“It was God’s calling”

Willy Peters (1940-2016), a Mennonite pastor who knew how to serve

N o v o s i b i r s k -- Willy Peters, or Vassily Yakovich Peters in Russian, was born in the Ukrainian Mennonite colony of Chortiza on April 30, 1940. But times were highly unsettled and the baby WiIly had little chance of growing up in Ukraine. After the massive German attack on the USSR of 22 June 1941, an edict of the Supreme Soviet on 28 August decreed that all ethnic Germans in Western USSR be deported eastward away from the approaching Wehrmacht. By the following year, Willy’s family had been deported to Tayshet in Central Siberia. The city is an important rail junction on the Trans-Siberian Railway, 245 miles east of Krasnoyarsk. Willy’s father, Jakob, had been forced into the involuntary Labor Army (“Trudarmee”) and consequently spent years as a logger in the forests of Tayshet region. But the family was exceptionally fortunate in one respect: Jakob’s wife Maria (born Toews) and their children were permitted to live with him in Tayshet.

The family remained subject to the Soviet military regime (“Kommandatura”) until its dissolution in 1956. At that time, the family was permitted to move south-eastward to the 1948-founded industrial town of Angarsk near Irkutsk. It was there that young Willy received his training as an electrician. He then remained an electrician for the remainder of his working life.

Willy’s future wife, Maria Gunther, was also born in Chortiza – in 1941. Her family was among the 313,000 Germans overrun by the German army before they could be evacuated eastward. She along with her mother and sisters then fled westward along with the retreating Wehrmacht in 1943-44. Maria’s father had disappeared during the course of WW II and was never found. Due to the agreements in Yalta of early 1945, the USSR was permitted after the war to repatriate former citizens of the USSR from refugee camps in Western Europe. The 200,000 ethnic Germans forced to return eastward included Maria’s mother and siblings – they had been waiting in a refugee camp in Yugoslavia. Her mother was then forced to eke out a subsistence living for herself and her children by working as a maid for military officers in Berdsk just south of Novosibirsk.

By the late 1950’s, the Mennonites of Central Siberia knew about the whereabouts of other members of their faith in the region. In the early 1960’s, Willy Peters began the search for spouse and ended up making repeated treks to Berdsk. Willy and Maria were married in October 1967; the couple immediately moved back east to Angarsk. Their three children were born in Angarsk: Anna (1967), Andrey (Heinrich, 1970) and Katharina (1974).

For Mennonites, Angarsk had only house gatherings to offer and the family chose to move to Berdsk in 1976. Almost immediately, the family joined the large Mennonite congregation meeting in a redone private house at Ulitsa Proyektnaya 13 on the western fringe of Novosibirsk. Pastor in Novosibirsk at that time was Bernhard Sawatsky (also “Sawadsky”). The congregation, registered since 1967, had nearly 400 members in its chapel plus over 40 smaller gatherings in Tomsk, Berdsk, Barnaul and throughout Altai region. Church services in Novosibirsk took place on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Mennonite-Brethren congregations were strong to the west of Omsk, but Novosibirsk was by far the largest gathering of “Kirchliche”, Church Mennonites.

Willy began by singing bass in the Novosibirsk choir; his son Andrey joined in 1983. After the choir director’s departure westward in August 1988, Andrey Peters became the new director. After Sawatsky’s death in May 1988, Jakob Dirksen succeeded him as head pastor in Novosibirsk. But the emigration to Germany had been in high-gear since 1986 and Dirksen, who was already perched on packed suitcases, accepted his new calling with reluctance. After Dirksen’s departure in early 1990, 50-year-old Willy Peters was ordained and commissioned as the new head pastor in May. Since Willy had only begun preaching in 1986 and had not served previously as a pastor, his appointment was not entirely without dissent.

Why did Willy and Maria Peters not join the massive trek westward? “We saw it as God’s calling”, Andrey explains simply. “My parents were convinced that we had been called to stay here and serve those who remained behind. We are not called to be there where life is most comfortable, but there, where God desires to use us.” Andrey believes his father was called because of his broad acceptance as a convinced Christian. “It was easy for him to get close to people. He was a gifted counselor and knew how to converse with people. People felt the love of God in his presence.”

Ben Falk, a retired farmer from Ontario and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker in Neudachino east of Omsk during the 1990’s reports: “We were quite familiar with the entire Peters family and were amazed by their survival during those difficult, poverty-stricken days. We never, never heard a word of complaint from them. Willy had an amazing attitude of gratitude and service to others.”

Retired seminary professor Walter Sawatsky points out that 90% of Russia’s Mennonites, roughly 100.000 persons, moved to Germany during this last great exodus. For the Russian Mennonite movement, that was a nearly fatal blow. But Sawatsky adds that at the same time “immigrants to Germany formed numerous relief/mission agencies and church associations (for Russia) that became the primary Mennonite support up to the present day”.

In addition, he stated that “Mennonite church bodies in Germany, Netherlands, Canada, and the MCC have long sought to walk with ‘the left behind’ through personal contacts.” The Peters family has served as a lightning rod attracting Mennonites seeking contact with Siberia.

Willy had stopped working as an electrician when his firm folded in 1990. After 1996, he and his family were supported by former church members who had emigrated to Bielefeld in Germany. He visited Germany several times after 1990. In January 1997, Willy made his sole trip to a major Mennonite event when he and Nikolay Dueckman from the Mennonite-Brethren congregation in Maryanovka near Omsk attended the Mennonite World Conference sessions in Calcutta, India.

The end began for Willy Peters in 1999 when he suffered his first stroke. Son Andrey had been assisting him since 1997 and was consequently ordained as an additional pastor on September 29, 2000. Two additional strokes and a heart attack followed, Willy became less-and-less able to fulfill his pastoral duties. Andrey reports: “Even when my father could no longer preach, he was still able to greet people in a friendly fashion and encourage them.” Quite unexpectedly, Willy passed away at home on April 20, 2016. After his funeral in Novosibirsk two days later, he was buried in Berdsk, where his parents are also interred.

When the Novosibirsk house caretaker moved to Germany in 2005, Willy, Maria and son Andrey moved into the church headquarters. As of 2018, only daughter Katharina, who is single, remains in the family apartment in Berdsk; Anna and her two children have also moved from Berdsk to the Novosibirsk church.                                                      

Through deaths and emigration, Church Mennonite ministry in central Siberia has shrunk considerably since 1990. Andrey is now the leading and virtually sole pastor; services outside of Novosibirsk are held occasionally in Artyemsk, Barnaul, Grishevka and Ordynsk. The tiny pastor-less Church Mennonite group in Neudachino lost its pastor through emigration; it does not relate officially to Novosibirsk nor to the Mennonite-Brethren group in the same village. Its sermons today are read from a book by a member of the congregation.

That Willy’s entire family, including his widow, remains in Russia, is a true rarity. Willy’s sister (a second Maria Peters) and the widow Maria’s sister (Anna Gunther) reside in Bielefeld. A Church Mennonite mission work, administered from Bielefeld remains active in the Orenburg region of the Urals. Willy Peter’s devotion to his church, his solidarity and sense of duty in illness and adversity, the refusal to abandon the remnants of a church, remain the lasting testimony of his life.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Florida, 19 July 2018
“kant50(at)web(dot)de”

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #18-8, 1.315 words. There is presently no German version of this article.