No. 5, Fall 1998
Benjamin B. Janz (1877–1964)
In his memoirs, a classmate of Benjamin Janz recalls a snowball fight on the grounds of the Gnadenfeld, Molotschna, high school during the early 1890s. All ran for safety as one side was vanquished, except for “little Janz” who, undaunted by the volley directed toward him, stood his ground. Years later, when Janz was spearheading the Mennonite emigration from the Soviet Union, the exasperated chairperson of the secret police passport department in Moscow shouted at the petitioner, J. J. Thiessen: “So you come from Janz. For three years I have not crossed myself (in the Orthodox church fashion), but if I could ever free myself of Janz, I would cross myself three times!”
Here was a persistence and stubbornness that, together with the efforts of other Mennonite leaders, enabled over 20,000 Russian Mennonites to leave Soviet Russia for Canada during the 1920s. Janz himself escaped only a few hours before his scheduled arrest by the secret police. Today Janz’s surviving letters still capture the drama and tension of those days.
As a young man, Janz, against his parents’ wishes, left the established Mennonite Church in Russia to join the Mennonite Brethren. Though staunchly loyal to his denomination, he was always a Mennonite ecumenist, believing that when members of a community worked together on common tasks they also built a common faith. In Russia he worked together with other Mennonites on issues related to both emigration and economic reconstruction. Once in North American he felt equally comfortable at Mennonite Central Committee gatherings or conferences relating to relief work and immigrant problems. A speaker at a service honoring Janz’s immigration work noted that while in Russia he concluded “that Janz was a minister of our denomination. . . . Only in 1930, here in Coaldale, I learned that he was your minister, but let me tell you he is nevertheless our Benjamin Janz.”
Most of Janz’s friends were unaware of the many letters he wrote. Here was inter-Mennonite dialogue and pastoral care at its best. Conference leaders, MCC officials, college presidents and periodical editors were on his mailing list. His single-spaced and often long epistles reached ministers in Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Canada and the United States. In the letters there was a touch of sarcasm for the arrogant, for those who had quarreled an insistence that wrong be made right, and finally, a reminder to the penitent that God loved and forgave. Little wonder that his correspondents felt free to confide their innermost problems to him.
Janz was a strong advocate of the believers church. Born in a religious, ethnocentric community, he still found it neceessary to engage in his own “salvation by faith” pilgrimage. In later years he never tired of advocating spiritual rebirth, practical discipleship and the need for a circumspect lifestyle. For him these issues constituted the essence of what it meant to be the church.
Janz struggled with the redundancy brought on by old age. His roles as shepherd, church statesman and committee member gradually succumbed to the frailties of old age. He found it difficult to leave the public stage, to suffer patiently and waste away. In the end, as he expressed it to his good friend, J. J. Thiessen, he went “with God.”