There was always room at Wilma Shank's table, whether her home was in Belgium, the United Kingdom, Côte d'Ivoire or the United States. Wilma and her husband, David, served with Mennonite Board of Missions from 1950-1989. She died March 31.
Wilma E. Hollopeter Shank lived out her deep faith in Jesus Christ with conviction, tempered with grace. Her table was a place of hospitality on the three continents she called home. Wilma's curiosity and joie de vivre remained contagious until the conclusion of her 97 years. Wilma died peacefully in her sleep March 31, at Greencroft Retirement Community in Goshen, Indiana, due to complications from a fall.
Wilma and her husband, David, served with Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM), a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network, in Belgium (1950-1973) and in West Africa (1979-1989). Theirs was a trail-blazing ministry, first, in post-Christendom Europe and, later, from a home base in Côte d'Ivoire, where they worked with members of African-Initiated Churches (AIC), whom many missionaries refused to recognize as brothers and sisters in Christ. David and Wilma's life work was recognized in a book, Mission from the Margins. The Shanks' way of engaging with global communities in mutual partnerships continues to be a model for Mission Network's ministries. The Shanks were attentive to the ways in which God is already at work in every culture, while also recognizing that Jesus critiques every culture.
The primary AIC with which the Shanks engaged was the Eglise du Christ — Mission Harris (Church of Christ — Harris Mission, formerly the Harrist Church). The head preacher of the Anono (Côte d'Ivoire) congregation, Richard Djorogo Adja, wrote of the deep sadness his community felt when they learned of Wilma's death.
"With Wilma's death, the Harrist Church loses one of its worthy daughters," Djorogo Adja wrote. "She was a woman whose commitment, competence and spirit of initiative always guided her actions in the service of the church. [The Shanks] were deeply in love with peace and open-mindedness. Wilma, we love you. We have become heirs of your faith and ministry."
Ministry of hospitality
Rachel, one of the Shanks' daughters, said, "I breathed in much information at the dining room table, not only about food and manners. [I also learned] about community, values, faith, the world around me and parenting, to name a few."
Rachel said that, as she met people from around the world and from all walks of life, she observed how her mother fed everyone and treated them with warmth and acceptance. She expressed gratitude for learning that good food, coupled with caring conversation, brings out the best in people.
"My mother's hospitality was the perfect backdrop to my parents' involvement in other people's lives," she said. "At her table, I learned that food does more than feed the body ... and I discovered that the world was more than just mine."
In an email to the Shank family, Annelise Goldschmidt, one of their former MBM co-workers, thanked God for Wilma's life, witness, faith and prayers. She also acknowledged Wilma's gift of hospitality. Goldschmidt said that she was the fortunate beneficiary of many of Wilma's table settings when the Shanks retired and left Côte d'Ivoire in 1989. The items served Goldschmidt well for 15 years in Côte d'Ivoire and then, traveled to Senegal with her, when she began ministry there. She wondered what stories the dishes would tell about the conversations they "overheard" from Wilma's guests from around the world.
Wilma instilled culture, as well as an obligation to speak out against injustice, in her children. Her house was filled with music — the hymns of the church, European classics, Black gospel and "a touch of country," according to a biography by David.
Early ministries in the United States
Born May 30, 1924, to Ray and Velma Spicher Hollopeter of Boneta, Ohio, Wilma attended Sharon Center schools, where she graduated as the high school valedictorian in 1942. She attended Goshen College, where she sang in a women's quartet, taught Sunday school and engaged in outreach activities with local churches. She was a member of the Foreign Missions Fellowship, through which she discerned her call to overseas mission. After graduation, Wilma returned to Sharon Center to teach high school and manage a school lunch program for two years. During this time, she was also active church extension ministry.
In 1948, she married David Shank, whom she had met at Goshen College. The newlyweds lived in Goshen, where Wilma taught elementary school, helped establish Wawasee Lakeside Chapel, and served as a member of a peace team that visited churches in Canadian provinces, Pennsylvania and New York.
Post-war relief and church planting in Belgium
In 1950, David and Wilma began their four-decade long ministry through MBM. They spent their first 23 years of ministry in Belgium, where they provided emergency relief and care for children who had been orphaned by World War II. They also developed relationships with immigrants, created the Brussels Mennonite Center and re-established several Anabaptist congregations, after nearly 350 years without Anabaptist churches in the country. Wilma played the organ for services at the Evangelical Church of East Brussels.
After leaving Brussels, the Shanks returned to Indiana for three years (1973-1976). During this time, they helped establish Assembly Mennonite Church, while David taught at Goshen College. Then, they moved to Scotland. Wilma completed two years of graduate studies at the University of Aberdeen, and as a member of the Group for Religious and Biblical Studies, provided administration for the Documentation and Resource Center. During this time, David did research for his doctoral dissertation on William Wadé Harris, the founder of Church of Christ — Harris Mission.
Working alongside AICs
From 1979-1989, the Shanks worshiped and built relationships among the AICs and other churches in Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, South Africa, Togo, Transkei (now Eastern Cape Province, South Africa) and Zaïre (now Congo). Wilma helped organize two Pan-African conferences for people in AIC ministry, one in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, and another in Kinshasa, Congo.
David and Wilma spent their retirement first in Sturgis, Michigan, and then at Greencroft Retirement Community in Goshen. In 2010, just a few weeks before David's death, Goshen College honored them with its "Culture for Service" award for "their lives in mission work around the world, always with a deep respect for the local people and culture."
Wilma served the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference as a visiting minister and was ordained, with David, as an ordained conference overseer. She and David traveled to Europe and West Africa on fellowship visits. In 2000, they made their final trip to Belgium, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Anabaptists returning to Belgium.
Wilma remained an active Anabaptist peace witness, through writing letters to politicians, and participated in her local congregation, Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship, until her death. Her family and friends remember her as a woman of deep Christian faith, a gracious and caring presence, an avid reader, a lover of many musical genres, an exemplar of good taste, and an eternal optimist.
Wilma was preceded in death by David and four siblings: Carl, Glenn, Phoebe Yoder and Sheldon. She is survived by her children: Rachel (Jim) Shenk, Goshen; Crissie (Tim) Buckwalter, Goshen; Stephen, Brussels; Mike (Carol), Madison, Wisconsin; former daughter-in-law, Jean Gerber, Singers Glen, Virginia; four sisters-in-law; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Memorial gifts may be sent to Benin Bible Institute, which the Shanks helped establish. Write "Wilma Shank memorial for Benin Bible Institute" in the designation box.
Memorial gifts may also be given to Amigo Centre in Sturgis, Michigan. Please designate that your gift is in memory of Wilma Shank. This ministry grew out of an MBM initiative and continues its mission to connect people with God, creation and one another.