WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada)—From sea-faring cowboy to Christian book publisher, Ken Schwartzentruber embraced life and adventure with a zeal rooted in his commitment to God. He passed away Nov. 17, 2016, in New Hamburg, Ontario, at the age of 88, with his family by his side.
“Over the years, Daddy’s hands carried out – in very practical terms – the work of God in the places where he lived and served,” daughter, Michele Rae Rizoli, stated in the family’s tribute. She reflected on the symbolism of a photo of Ken’s thin, fragile hands resting on a blanket, while touched by the hands of his family members. “He was quiet, bordering on gruff, determined, driven, sometimes stubborn, hardworking, innovative, witty, and above all an affectionate, loving, and committed husband, father and grandfather.”
Ken and his late wife, Grace, served with Mennonite Board of Missions (now Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada) in Brazil from 1961 until retiring in 1993. In addition to serving a local congregation with Grace, Ken managed four bookstores in the Livraria Cristã Unida (United Christian Bookstore) chain, and launched a publishing company that breathed life into more than 30 books.
Ken learned to work with his hands on the family farm near Petersburg, Ontario, and like many young Mennonites in their community, left school after completing eighth grade to “help out.” Ready for a new adventure by the age of 17, he put his “cowboy” skills to work aboard a ship transporting farm animals to post-World War II Europe. The trip sparked his desire to explore the world and to become involved in mission work.
Upon returning to Canada, Ken began dating Grace Bender and discovered that she shared those desires. They married in 1952, and Ken began preparing for ministry. He completed high school and moved to the United States to attend Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen Biblical Seminary. After graduation, the Schwartzentrubers returned to Ontario where Ken served as a part-time pastor. He also held a few other jobs to put food on the table – including one at a Christian bookstore in London, Ontario, an experience that prepared him for his role in Brazil.
With three young daughters in tow and another baby on the way, the Schwartzentrubers couldn’t have arrived in Brazil at a better time. In 1962, a year after their arrival, Pope John XXIII introduced reforms to create more openness in the church. “There was a new openness for lay people to read the Bible,” said daughter, Virginia Hostetler.
To feed a growing hunger for theology among the populace, the bookstores offered a wide selection of resources from many denominational publishers.
“I remember Daddy and his publishing colleagues making a point of choosing titles that an average reader could understand; in other words, not dense theology,” Virginia said.
During their 32 years in Brazil, the Schwartzentrubers befriended Otis and Betty Hochstetler, who also ran bookstores through Mennonite Board of Missions.
“Ken was a dear friend who loved the church, his family, and reflected this in his way of working in the bookstores and with people,” Otis wrote in an e-mail. “Ken had the gift of knowing what and how much to have in stock for the needs of the Christian community and beyond.”
Ken empowered others to use their gifts, too. In the early years, he trained male employees for bookstore ministry only to see them leave to become pastors. Although that might have indicated the impact of Christian literature, it frustrated him. He changed his approach. He began hiring and training women because he knew they would stick around; at that time, women were not permitted to become pastors.
In a message to Ken’s family after his passing, Cirlei Gimenez Palmiri, one of the women he mentored, wrote: “He was a man of character who feared God. He didn’t talk much, but he spoke with his life.”
Keeping the shelves stocked permitted Ken to indulge in his love of travel and his hands-on approach to life. He frequently bused to the large city of São Paulo to personally select books from publishing houses for his stores. At other times, he used the family’s well-used, second-hand Volkswagen to transport goods like church pump organs and books. He repaired and maintained the van to meet family needs, too – once adding a platform over the rear seats to create a camping van.
Ken made use of what others might cast aside. Portuguese-language sermons were verbally translated into English through a microphone that he connected to an amplifier in a small suitcase, and guests listened through headphones he created from brightly coloured plastic dishes and wire.
Ken’s passion for ministry and his inclination to work with his hands continued after retirement. He spent many hours volunteering at the Mennonite Central Committee’s New Hamburg (Ontario) Thrift Centre. After Grace’s death and a period of loneliness, he met and married Robena Gerber.
When he was once asked what he would do differently if he knew his life was almost over, Ken replied, “I wouldn’t do anything differently because every day I try to live the way God wants me to live.” He will long be remembered by his commitment to those words.
Ken Schwartzentruber was born to the late Allen and Elizabeth (Wagler) Schwartzentruber in Petersburg, Ontario, on Apr. 30, 1928. Left to mourn his passing are his wife of nine years, Robena Gerber; his children, Virginia (Michael) Hostetler, Willie (Winfred) Stolzfus, Michele Rae Rizoli, and K. Daniel Schwartzentruber (Karen McDonald); 14 grandchildren and seven spouses; eight great-grandchildren; his brothers, Vernon (June) Schwartzentruber and Leonard (Delphine) Schwartzentruber; and sister-in-law Eleanor Roth; as well as nieces, nephews, and countless loved ones in Brazil.