In Unexpected Invitations, Angela and Erwin Rempel tell of serving together in Mennonite ministries for four decades. From Brazil to Botswana and Pennsylvania to Kansas, they heeded God’s calls with a spiritual ease born of trust, akin to the farmer in Mark 4 who sowed the seed and rested while God produced a crop. The farmer then harvested the produce with his sickle.
Their discernment of life’s invitations shows they knew when to rest and when to act. Angela writes: “We didn’t set out with clearly defined goals. We simply sought to follow the Lord’s leading, one step at a time.”
Step by unexpected step, they partnered with God in the pastorate, on the mission field and in denominational mission leadership.
A pastor’s daughter, Angela Albrecht grew up in Fortuna, Mo., and Bloomfield, Mont. Erwin Rempel spent his teenage years with an uncle and aunt in Lustre, Mont., after both parents died of cancer. Angela and Erwin met at Grace Bible Institute in Omaha, Neb., and married on the day after graduation in 1966.
The newlyweds’ first unexpected invitation came when Erwin was asked to serve as a summer pastoral intern at Grace Mennonite Church in Lansdale, Pa. He accepted, and that fall began preparing for further ministry by enrolling in a four-year master’s degree program at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Two years into his studies came unexpected invitation No. 2: Would he serve as pastor of Indian Valley Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pa.? He said yes, finishing seminary in Pennsylvania while serving that congregation for seven years.
After two invitations to Pennsylvania, the next call led much farther afield: In 1975 the Commission on Overseas Mission of the General Conference Mennonite Church sent the Rempels, now with two small children, to Brazil, where they served as COM’s first mission workers to the Portuguese-speaking people.
One day in 1982, Angela was pondering the present and future: “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I feel settled and satisfied here? Why do I keep wanting to go back to the U.S.? . . . A bit later that day, Erwin brought in the mail — and everything changed!” COM wanted him to become its executive secretary.
Stunned at first, after much prayer they discerned it was God’s will and moved to Newton, Kan., now with three children.
As executive secretary in the mid-1980s, Erwin guided COM through a struggling economy and declining contributions. Angela worked in communication roles with COM, The Mennonite and Mennonite Weekly Review.
Believing it was better to leave when things were going well than to stay too long, the Rempels transitioned again after 12 years with COM. Times were changing. Momentum was building to merge the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church. They found a new niche with Mennonite Central Committee and Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission in Botswana, beginning in 1994.
In 2000 they moved back to Newton so Erwin could serve with COM in development work. He became transition director for the merger of the MC and GC mission agencies. Angela and he both worked for six years in administration for the new Mennonite Mission Network.
“The mission transition process was one of the most politicized projects I have experienced,” he wrote. He navigated the waters until June 1, 2008, when they both retired. They continued to serve at their congregation, First Mennonite Church of Newton, and experienced the growth of their family.
One of the biggest surprises of their ministry was still to unfold. In 2008 MMN invited them to go to Afghanistan after mission worker Al Geiser was kidnapped. They were assigned to record all actions and details of the situation. They went, and Geiser was rescued (he was killed in Afghanistan four years later).
Today the Rempels live in Harrisonburg, Va., close to two of their three children and their families. From this vantage point, Angela reflects: “Having attained age 70 . . . there is more of life to look back upon than there is life to anticipate. We’ve seen tremendous changes in technologies and lifestyles. We cling to the basic beliefs of our Christian faith and the Mennonite perspective, even though at times there are more questions than answers.
“Amazing is the word that best describes the cascading chapters that opened throughout the years. Had I set out to design my ideal life, I couldn’t have imagined anything better.”
The Rempels’ story mirrors God’s unexpected invitations in the wider Anabaptist community from the 1960s to the early years of the 21st century. With steady hands, the Rempels applied the sickle of focus needed for God’s harvest during years of growth and change for their denomination and its missions. Their story parallels the story of God’s faithfulness to the wider church.
The book can be ordered at unexpectedinvitations.com.
Laurie Oswald Robinson is a freelance writer in Newton, Kan.