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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 112–16 

Journeyings Outward and Journeyings Inward

Clarence Hiebert

After a three-hour presentation on cross-cultural relationships, a professor in Tula, Russia’s Polytechnical Institute, asked me, “How long did it take you to prepare that lecture?” After a moment of thought I responded, “A lifetime!”

“Courses that challenged me most had to do with world religions, travel, missiology, cross-cultural communications, radical/Anabaptist thought, and the Sermon on the Mount.”

This experience illustrates who I have become and the way I have lived and functioned. All of life has been a succession of rich input God has provided in diverse ways in a variety of places. It is impossible to offer a good summary of the barrage of life-shaping experiences, events, people, ideas and places providing input in what I have been, done, am.

My birth in Winnipeg, July 12, 1927, was as the youngest of eleven--the seventh that lived--to C. N. and Tina Hiebert. The multi-ethnic community in which we lived included Jews, Ukranians, Poles, Germans and Anglo-Saxon people. Most were foreign-born. That diversity left a significant impression on me. Orthodox, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and Jews were my neighbors and schoolmates. They informed my own Mennonite Brethren worldviews, values and lifestyle by comparisons and contrasts.

My father’s city mission work in Winnipeg represented a new venture for essentially rural Mennonite Brethren. This work was primarily among German-speaking, nominally Lutheran-background {113} immigrants from Russia. A major shift happened in the 1920s, when more than 20,000 German-speaking Mennonite immigrants from Russia came to Canada many to Winnipeg. My parental home became a center of help for most of them. The horror stories they related about events following the Russian Revolution--harassment, murder, famine, rape and property destruction by gangs of revolutionaries--became indelible in my memory and caused terrifying dreams.

Our schooling in Winnipeg was shaped in distinctly British cultural and historical ways. Our parents, though relatively poor, never interpreted our existence as being one of poverty. We felt we had all we needed though never owning a car. Music-making, sports, city/school events and a broad circle of friendships beyond church associates were a normal part of life.

There were some troubling things. Many immigrants were brilliant, astute and educated entrepreneurs who had lost all through forced collectivization in Russia. They had not, however, lost their expertise. Some became “take-over” people in church leadership; they tended to intimidate the former converts. A second troubling matter came about in conjunction with the Saturday German School conducted in our church facilities in the late 1930s. As national tensions mounted and Britain moved toward world war, some tensions arose. Some of the church leaders were pro-Nazi and Hitler advocates. Later I came to realize that these sympathies had developed out of their appreciation for the “early Hitler” in his progressive role as a reformer in Germany, a stark contrast to Russia’s Stalin.


We relocated to Hillsboro, Kansas in 1941. This small, Mennonite-dominated town intrigued me. The church services were in English. There were church-sponsored youth organizations. The friendships were more “trusted” rather than the arm's-length relationships we had known in Winnipeg. Everything was American.

My childlike profession of Christian faith was made in Winnipeg in the privacy of my parents’ bedroom. At age 14 I was baptized and became a member of the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church. Five weeks later my mother suddenly died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Just a week earlier, my parents had moved into the first home they ever purchased. There were only two at home--my sister Naomi and I. Our father’s preaching itinerary became a dilemma. Kathryn Willems, a missionary on leave from the Congo, lived with us. I still regard her as “mamma.” In 1942 our father married our birth-mother’s sister, Helen Harms--an ideal companion to our father and a devoted stepmother. {114}

My liberal arts education at Tabor was exhilarating. I dreamed about teaching. It was here I met Ferne Kornelsen, from Henderson, Nebraska. We found ourselves attracted to each other as persons and life-purposes and goals. Our courtship included many conversations, sorting out ideas, making music, and reading books together. We married in 1950. By then I had graduated from Topeka’s Menninger Clinic one-year psychiatric nursing course.

Following our marriage we moved to Winnipeg for one year, where I enrolled at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College to major in any class taught by A. H. Unruh. His teachings and relational style left a significant impact on me. Then for three years we lived in New York City, central Manhattan, where I completed seminary studies. Going there felt risky to both of us, but we were intrigued by the orientation of the Biblical Seminary in New York--their inductive Bible study emphasis. We experienced East Coast culture. For instance, we were delighted to broaden our music-making interests by singing in the Robert Shaw Amateur Collegiate Chorale.

We received an invitation to pastor the Enid, Oklahoma North Mennonite Brethren Church. This surprised us. They didn’t know us, we thought--they insisted they did. The older generation were satisfied with knowing I was C. N. Hiebert’s son. That was challenging. Could, I, should I act like C. N. or myself? We were in ministry there for five years. Here we had our first child, Tim, whom we adopted after seven years of marriage.

At Enid’s Phillips University, I completed a Master’s degree in music and was part-time instructor of worship music. My dream of teaching at Tabor began to seem more realistic.


There followed a time full of events: two years in Europe under MCC; acquiring a better command of German; being inspired under Samuel Gerber, the principal of the European Mennonite Bible School, by the idea of “incarnational ministry”; a three-month tour to America with the school’s 16-person German-French ensemble. This first experience abroad triggered a growing interest in internationalism which ultimately resulted in more than 30 trips abroad to more than 40 countries. This led to a shift in my study and teaching interests in areas like missiology, world religions, cross-cultural communications, and, for over 24 years, serving on boards focused on international agendas.

The most life-stretching experiences came through visits to socialist countries (Russia 12 times, China 3 times), India, and the jungles of {115} Panama. I had a six-month sabbatical as interim pastor of the international congregation in Kabul, Afghanistan, and spent a winter teaching in Paraguay. I would be hard-pressed to decide which shaping experiences have been most significant in my life: my 24 years in formal studies, the extensive cross-cultural exposures, or the personal experiences resulting from reflection and commitments.

In Europe we adopted a second son, Bob. After returning to Hillsboro, where I accepted a half-time teaching job at Tabor and a half-time assignment as youth minister at the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church, we adopted two girls, Beth and Sue. All our children are married now, and we have thirteen grandchildren.

My wife Ferne has been the most significant human influence in my life. Early in our marriage we reached an agreement to be open to express ideas of all kinds--even those that initially might be deemed unrealistic or far out. Her contributions in insight, wisdom, thoughtfulness, critical appraisals, counsel, shared visions, and efforts to work at making things succeed have been superb! I depend on her affirmations and counsel.


The major chapter of my life is the “Tabor Years.” From 1962-1991 I taught, mostly full time. It is difficult to summarize the marvelous input of the Tabor years: the academic colleagues who stimulated provocative ideas and creative new ways of thinking and living; the pastoral care of people like Max Terman and Bev Holmskog; the persistent probing of students. Growth and change occurred constantly. The courses that challenged me most had to do with world religions, travel, missiology, cross-cultural communications, radical/Anabaptist thought, and the Sermon on the Mount.

During this time I did research on the Holdemans, the Kimbanguists of Zaire, and musicology among Mennonite Brethren in America, the former Soviet Union, and Paraguay. Later, I served as Latin America Mennonite Brethren Missions and Services Executive Secretary and made some trips to the former USSR. The leadership responsibility I had in the revision of the Mennonite Brethren hymnal, to be published in 1995, was demanding.


Important influences on my life? Serious expositions of God’s Word, either in study, readings, or lectures and sermons, have impacted me significantly. If I were to choose a discipline of study that has the greatest worth, it would be this. I regret that I did not give serious attention to New {116} Testament Greek studies. I taught Bible courses, but I felt I did not have adequate preparation for this, the most important of studies.

I have come to appreciate the importance of the church as the body of Christ. As a hermeneutical community, clarity of both interpretation and application is more trustworthy than are “solo teachers/preachers.” I regret that we are not more disciplined as a body of Christ in giving directives and holding each other responsible in covenanted, loving/caring ways in faithfulness.

Thinking about the reality of ultimate judgment in God’s presence has been the source of God-awareness and responsible living. Again and again I am reminded that I am not on earth to fulfill my own agenda, but God’s ongoing agenda for the world through me.

Sermon on the Mount texts were quoted more often by our Anabaptist forebears than any other Bible texts. That was a good reason to take this passage for my life-guidance as well. I regard God’s agenda to be much more related to Christ-like living than dealing with other, often secondary questions relating to geography, physical well-being, or bread-and-butter vocations.

I have increasingly come to see how crucial people-relationships are. An honest, God-given love for others provides relational bridges that cover the hidden personal agendas of things we don’t know about the “other person.” It generally takes significant time and effort to have meaningful relational encounters.

Music has played an important role in my life. Music penetrates me more powerfully than many other things--sermons, lectures, articles, books. Similarly, stories and drama tend to impact me powerfully. I am aware of both the blessing and the influence that can easily come through emotional impact.

I have experienced an overarching sense of joy in life. It is the blessing of God’s presence. I celebrate the grace-gift of redemption, giving me the pleasure of being His child.

Dr. Clarence Hiebert, long-term professor at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, is currently Tabor’s Interim President.

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