NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — When the Steel Wheels come to Bethel College Sept. 20 to do a benefit concert at 7 p.m. in Memorial Hall, it will be one more link in a chain of connections aiding Russ Neufeld in his battle with cancer.
Over the last 14 months, Neufeld and his wife, Kendra, have been supported in nearly every way possible by a community of family, congregation and the Mennonite organizations each works for.
In July 2015, Neufeld, the information technology director at Hesston College since 2010, began experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath while on a family vacation in Colorado.
It was Stage 2 lymphoblastic lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He began a six-month course of chemotherapy, finishing in early 2016.
Russ Neufeld and Kendra Duerksen met as freshmen at Hesston in 1995. He grew up in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and she was from Mountain Lake, Minn. After finishing their two-year degrees, both went east, to Harrisonburg, Va. Kendra completed a social work degree at Eastern Mennonite University. Russ went to James Madison University, majoring in physics.
He began working for Mennonite Media (then part of Mennonite Board of Missions) as a college student, in the recording studio. When he got his green card in 1999, he went full-time with what’s now called MennoMedia, taking on the webmaster position. He continued in IT with Mennonite Mission Network until moving to Hesston College in 2010.
Russ Neufeld and Trent Wagler, the Steel Wheels’ lead singer, also met in Virginia. Both were in bands — “a bit more punk than the Steel Wheels,” said Neufeld, who plays electric bass. “We would often open for each other.”
“I remember Russ as one of those [examples] of a free-spirited Canadian,” said Wagler, “who looked for what was fun and joyful but also wanted to learn and get as much as he could out of the world. I thought he was inspiring. I looked up to him.”
The Neufelds moved to Newton in 2002, where they had their two children, now 12 and 9. Kendra has worked in development at MMN for almost 12 years.
In 2007, the band was fairly newly formed as the Steel Wheels, and they played at Bethel College as part of a “Mennonite tour” to Mennonite colleges and schools in the Midwest. Though Wagler and Neufeld had run into each other occasionally over the years, that was where they reconnected. Neufeld helps sell merchandise when the band is in the area.
At the numerous concerts the band has done in south-central Kansas since 2010, the Neufelds have almost always been there to help sell merchandise, freeing band members to talk with friends and fans.
Neufeld completed his chemotherapy in early 2016 and started what was supposed to be several years of maintenance chemo.
Friends, family, employers and their congregation have been supporting the Neufelds throughout. Several members of Kendra Neufeld’s family are in the Newton area, most of them active at Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton.
In June, tests showed a recurrence of the cancer. This time, it was determined a bone marrow transplant would be needed.
Neufeld is now in Omaha, Neb., after receiving a transplant from his brother, Ryan. He must stay in Omaha 100 days post-transplant, waiting to see if there will be a rejection. Kendra is there, by his side.
Her MMN colleagues, she said, “wanted to do something to help us [with medical expenses].” The first idea was to get the Steel Wheels, who were touring in the general area of northern Indiana, to do a benefit concert in Goshen or Elkhart in early September, but the band wasn’t able to fit that into their schedule.
Uncharacteristically, they have a free day following this year’s Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, where they will be Sept. 17-18, before playing a gig in Kansas City. And so the Sept. 20 benefit concert at Bethel was born.
There are no advance ticket sales. There is a suggested $20 donation at the door for adults, $10 for students, and children are free.