Sometimes it takes a momentous event to shake you out of complacency – to shake you out of your routine – shake you out of taking for granted all the imperceptibly small things that add up to something big.
The event today was a funeral for my friend Paul Penner.

I had not been back to Toronto United Mennonite Church for quite some time. I had been busy making music at a high Anglican Church downtown for a while, so being on Queen Street east today, in the embrace of my cultural family, was one of those moments.
It was one of those gatherings where several generations mingle in orderly chaos – grinning grandmothers struggling valiantly in walkers, gentlemen in suits reciting genealogies, itchy children in white collars, talented teenagers astounding their elders, precarious toddlers drooling over crustless sandwiches – one of those occasions where you look around and feel like you are a part of a warm, whirling contiuüm much larger than yourself; something that has been around for ages and will endure.

When Paul Penner’s life story was recounted today, memories of our journey to Ukraine came flooding back. Paul was born on the shores of the Dnieper river. He and his family were forced to leave there after WW II and came, via a circuitous route, to Canada. Our tour to Ukraine in the 1990’s took us from Kiev to Sevastopol, to small farming communities and struggling rural schools, across the Black Sea to Odessa. Our aim was not only to revisit the Russian Mennonite homeland, but also to reunite family members who had been separated after the war. Paul was particularly successful. He rediscovered two nephews with whom he kept in touch. Both of those nephews now live and flourish in Canada.

One thing that sustained our tour group was singing hymns. When we encountered difficult or joyous memories along the way we would sing “So nimm denn meine Hände” in German. Our mutual repertoire of hymns was a welcome outlet for things we could not express in words. Even so, some stories were so painful, at times it was too difficult even to sing.
Paul and Marie Penner were always committed to mentoring young people. When I came to Toronto in the 1980’s they helped me connect with other musicians, they fed me, and forced me to join up and take my part. Above all, they kept me connected with my heritage community who happened to be very good at singing together.

Years ago I learned how to read music at Listowel Mennonite Church on the fringes of fertile Perth County dairy country. Each and every Sunday morning, standing for hymn singing with my friend Kris Culp, we subconsciously absorbed fabulous poetry, common practice harmony and above all the ability to work together, to perform as a group. Kris and I would spar in a tacit understanding that we would never, ever sing in unison. She and I always had to sing a different part, so we cycled through alto, tenor, bass and the tune during the several verses of each hymn, unknowingly practicing all the rules of voice leading, counterpoint and harmony. I imagine nearly everyone else at Paul Penner’s funeral experienced something similar growing up.
As we sang together today, celebrating a life well lived, at least one singer was shaken out of complacency and truly appreciated that unspoken bond of music, heritage and family.

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8 Responses to An aspect of being Mennonite

  1. Margaret Friesen says:

    Those of us who have been part of TUMC for many years, take the wonderful 4-part singing — that produced a particularly amazing sound today — a little for granted. It’s not unusual, but today was particularly good. Marie turned around during the first line of “Praise to the Lord God, the Almighty”, and was just beaming. We have a number of budding young musicians in our church now, who we really cherish. To see 16 yr old Isaac Thiessen (the cellist) singing in the choir today was heart-warming. What was also great to see were all the former church members, frail members unable to attend anymore — that was a tribute to Paul, as was all the music. I didn’t realize you had a history with Paul & Marie in your early years in Toronto, and that you renewed that connection on a trip to the Ukraine.

  2. Renee says:

    Stephanie, I’ve just read this touching account of Mr. Penner’s funeral and what it meant to you: to be in the midst of your people and to be reminded what a good feeling it is to feel, deeply, it “shake you out of complacency – shake you out of your routine – shake you out of taking for granted all the imperceptibly small things that add up to something big.”
    And now I say thank you for making time to put these feelings into words here. It makes us others, who read it, shake, too, and remember where we! started out. As you say, ” small things … add up to something big”. –Renée

  3. Gini Reimer says:

    Thanks, Stephanie for posting your thoughts so eloquently regarding hymn singing in a Mennonite community. All the music at Paul’s funeral made it a very sacred time. I’m reminded of a funeral I attended of a friend’s father years ago. There was not one piece of music: no solo, no choir let alone congregational singing. It felt so incomplete to me. Having such a rich musical heritage is indeed a privilege.

  4. Kris Culp says:

    Lovely blog post, Steph, and lovely memories :-)

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