|Elvina Neufeld Martens (1926 - 2012)|
Elvina Martens passed away 05 April in Goshen, Indiana. While much has already been written about her family, and more will continue to be written about Martens' place in our collective narrative and cultural identity, it is important to mark her passing at this point and to reflect on how her life reflects the Golden Age of Mennonite culture, cooperation and inter-connectivity in the United States.
According to her obituary in the Elkhart Truth (13 April, p A6), "Elvina graduated from the University of Illinois Medical School in 1950. She served as a missionary doctor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 18 years. After retiring from the mission field, she practiced medicine in Illinois and Indiana. She was a member of the Silverwood Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Medical Association."
As remarkable as that paragraph is, Elvina represents still more to the Russian Mennonite culture. Her grandfather, A. F. Wiens was a pioneer urban missionary for the Brüderthaler Mennonites in southside Chicago before the family moved their membership and ministry to the General Conference. A. F. Wiens was one of that first generation of Brüderthaler in the United States to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago -- along with George P. Schultz. Abraham and Katharine Wiens started the Brighton Avenue Mission in 1907. Wiens had been born in Russia and was part of the Brüderthaler - Kleinie group that attempted to settle in Richmond, Texas. The Richmond community suffered greatly during the Galveston Hurricane storm of 1900 -- including several deaths. Wiens apparently moved to Kansas after the storm and then to Chicago to attend Moody in 1906. He apprenticed in Home Missions under A. H. Leaman whose spiritual heritage traces back to John S. Coffman. According to A. C. Schultz, both his father, G. P. Schultz, and Wiens had been steeped in Leaman's vision which included full evangelization and social work, "[Leaman's] mission carried on the usual church program of a Sunday School, Sunday worship, and mid week services, but expanded this into a variety of other activities ... [such as] young people's meetings, cottage prayer meetings, mothers' meetings, meetings in German, sewing classes for girls, a ministry to the shut-ins and the aged..."
In 1910, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren took direct control over the Brighton Avenue Mission. In 1917, George P. Schultz, the noted Brüderthaler evangelist from Saskatchewan, took over Wien's posting. Schultz had remained active at Moody and in the early ethnic-related radio ministry on Moody Christian Radio. In 1908, Leaman had appointed Schultz to serve as superintendent at Happy Hour Mission at 437 S State Street, instilling in both Schultz and Wiens his guiding vision -- "Leaman and all the workers believed in the philosophy that they should not only preach the gospel directly to sinners but that they were to provide for material needs also." Note that the urban ministry values of Leaman, Wiens and Schultz were directly in line with those of early inter-Mennonite foreign missionary endeavors in Congo and India at this same time.
Upon their replacement, the EMB did not have a follow-up position for the Wiens family and so they, remaining convinced of their call to urban ministry, started a new work at the Mennonite Bible Mission about a mile west of the EMB Brighton Church. While the Wien's mission was generally supported by many fellow Brüderthaler believers and extended families, Wiens severed official ties with the EMB conference and joined the General Conference Mennonites.
In 1920, Elvina's father, pastor and historian John T. Neufeld, entered the Wiens household as Wiens' eventual successor, "Perhaps the first group experience I had at the Mennonite Bible Mission was the informal gathering that first Sunday evening in September of 1920 when I first entered the Mission and the Wiens home. That evening before the group went down for the evening service they gathered for a short prayer service. This was the regular practice before every Sunday Evening Service. Then on Wednesday, of that first week in Chicago I attended Prayer Meeting at the Mission. During the forty years of living in Chicago there have been very few weeks that I have not attended a Prayer Meeting somewhere in some Church."
Neufeld was still relatively fresh from his World War I experience as one of the Camp Funston boys (recall how Major Kellogg complained that he never knew there could be so many Yoders, Neufelds and Penners). Neufeld and A. F. Neufeld were stationed at Camp Cody in New Mexico. His testimony of the harsh treatment and lack of tolerance by the United States' Army of the Mennonite conscientious objectors is instructive and very even handed.
In Chicago, Neufeld married Catherine, A. F.'s daughter and Elvina's mother. Much of the Wiens family remained in Christian service their entire lives -- but it was to the urban ministry that Neufeld and Catherine felt called, "Often times too we were told that city work was not for the Mennonites because they were a rural people. It seemed strange to us that so many Mennonite people succeeded very well in business and should not succeed in city mission work. I admit that some of the methods were crude and perhaps ill advised but in my study of city churches I find that the Mennonite Missions were founded in the most needy areas and stayed on in these areas when other Protestant churches closed and moved out."
Elvina Neufeld was born 11 Feb, 1926. On 28 December 1951, she married Rudolph C. Martens. Rather than following directly in the footsteps of her parents, the Martens followed instead after the example of Elvina's aunt and uncle, Henry and Mary (Wiens) Toews.
In 1923, Neufeld had written to his brother, Rev. Peter Neufeld of Inman, Kansas, to help find a young man to help in the mission work. His brother recommended 23-year-old Henry Toews. Toews stayed on and was graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 1927, after which he married Mary Wiens. Both Henry and Mary attended Northern Baptist Seminary after Toews completed his GED and for a time, they settled in Chicago to continue the family ministry.
In 1936, however, Rev. A. M. Eash, Secretary of Congo Inland Mission, convinced the Toews to accept the call to the Congo -- which they did for two terms from 1936 to 1946. While Toews died in 1954, he had already impacted the life and ambitions of Elvina who received her medical degree in 1950. After her marriage to Martens 1951, they went to Congo to carry on the family legacy there (also with their fellow General Conference and Brüderthaler missionary workers, amongst many other Mennonite groups and conferences and Scandinavian Baptist organizations). Many of Elvina's co-workers were the great-aunts, uncles and cousins who were held up to the author's own upbringing as examples of spirituality and Christian service.
The Martens served in Congo until 1969. According to GAMEO's article on Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (the current name of Congo Inland Mission or CIM), Congo Inland Mission ... "carries[ied] on evangelistic, industrial, educational, and medical work. Each of the four stations had a boys' and a girls' school and natives trained to teach in the outstations. One of the most important activities was the translation of the New Testament into the Kipenda language. This task was done at the Mukedi station and required nine years to complete."
In 1969, possibly coinciding with the many political, cultural and structural changes within the mission churches of Congo due to the nation's new independence from its colonial ties to Belgium, the Martens moved back to the United States Midwest where she continued to practice medicine. According to the Elkhart Truth, Rudolph, her husband, continues to reside in northern Indiana.
Elvina's sister, Esther Kressly, is a noted Mennonite historian.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from John Neufeld's historical manuscripts. General background information is from the Elvina Martens obituary in the Elkhart Truth, GAMEO.org, the Moody Bible Institute Archives, and Willard H. Smith's Mennonites in Illinois.