ABBOTSFORD, British Columbia (Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network) — Jacob Giesbrecht’s down-to-earth roots and his commitment to God gave him an indomitable spirit and the ability to connect with people wherever he went.
He and his wife Dorothy were mission workers in India from the early 1950s until 1977, assisting with leadership training and church development in Saraipali and the surrounding area. They served with the General Conference Mennonite Church in India through the Commission on Overseas Mission, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness.
Giesbrecht died May 16, 2008, shortly after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was predeceased by Dorothy (nee Andres) in 2005.
Before his diagnosis, Jake had become reacquainted with fellow mission worker to India, Helen Kornelson, who had been a bridesmaid when Giesbrecht married Dorothy Andres in 1952. Dorothy Giesbrecht died in 2005. Shortly after his diagnosis, Jake proposed marriage to Kornelson.
“He looked hope in the face, and in front of his four children and six grandchildren he asked Helen to marry him,” son Gary wrote in a tribute to his father.
“It came as a big surprise to me,” Helen said in a telephone interview. “I will miss his friendship, his companionship.”
One of 11 children, Jake Giesbrecht spent his formative years on the family farm in Waldheim, Saskatchewan, before attending Swift Current Bible College. One summer a crop failure forced him to look for other means of support for his studies. He found work in Churchill, Manitoba, where he roomed in a barracks with 14 men who drank and gambled in their free time.
Giesbrecht wrote about this period of his life in an informal autobiography. “The whole season was an experience that I could not have gotten anywhere else, an experience of a fallen world of men and their need for God.”
After Giesbrecht graduated, he met Dorothy Andres at a Bible camp in north-eastern Saskatchewan. Andres, a nurse, had applied for mission work through COM. She was called to India for medical ministry in 1951, just as the couple were discussing marriage. Dorothy accepted the position in India without formally accepting the engagement. She left in August.
In December of that same year, COM invited Jake to go to India for mission work. He promptly mailed Dorothy an engagement ring. In August 1952, he travelled across the ocean with a wedding cake baked by Dorothy’s mother and they were married on December 4 at Jagdeeshpur Church.
Three of the Giesbrecht children – Gary, Hazel and Larry – were born in India, while daughter Hilda was born in Winnipeg, Man. during a North American Ministry leave.
Jake drew upon his farming experience and mechanical ability throughout his tenure in India. During the first two years as he studied Hindi, he maintained the hospital generator and mission vehicles. Crop failures in the mid 1960s resulted in a famine that found Jake coordinating various agencies including Mennonite Central Committee and Oxfam. He oversaw food-for-work projects like road construction and dam-building, facilitating irrigation for an additional wheat crop each year.
Gary Giesbrecht noted his father’s ability to relate to everyone in the community, which eased the process of bureaucratic negotiation and relationship building.
“Dad didn’t fit into one of the castes, so he could have tea with people from the high and the low castes, and sometimes got them to work together. He could talk to all of them. He had quite a way of mixing it up,” the younger Giesbrecht said.
In 1977, in a Volkswagen van held together with ingenuity and epoxy glue, the family left India by driving to England before returning to British Columbia. Giesbrecht pastored the Prince Albert Mennonite Church for two years. Then he sought to establish a church among the Indo-Canadian community in the lower mainland of British Columbia. He was instrumental in establishing the British Columbia Centre for World Missions, and helped mobilize retired missionaries to meet the needs of refugees arriving from East Asia.
Giesbrecht reflected upon his commitment to God in his autobiography.
“All through my life the Lord has been completely faithful. In fact, the tough times have been the times of connecting closer with my dear Lord Jesus Christ," he wrote. "Psalm 40:1-13 has been my experience and the Lord continues to be my close companion, praise his name!”
A memorial service was held at Olivet Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia, on May 22, 2008.
The family of Jake Giesbrecht and Mennonite Church Canada are currently in the process of establishing a memorial fund in India for Jake and Dorothy Giesbrecht.