Erwin Rempel, who served with Mennonite Mission Network and a predecessor agency, Commission on Overseas Mission (COM), from 1975-2009, died June 25.
Three months after a cancer diagnosis, Erwin H. Rempel, 76, died June 25, at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Erwin and Angela, his wife of 55 years, served with Mennonite Mission Network and a predecessor agency, Commission on Overseas Mission (COM), on four continents from 1975-2009.
An avid gardener, Erwin planted berries and fruit trees wherever he lived, turning the land into an oasis. He had a special fondness for raspberries. He was known as "Early Erwin," not only because he was usually up before dawn, but because he worked far ahead on ministry assignments. He was famously early to meetings and was among the first of his colleagues to adapt new technologies, like email and Excel spreadsheets.
Preceding Erwin's June 30 memorial service at Ridgeway Mennonite Church, his grandchildren and others at the burial service tossed bouquets of raspberry plants and flowers onto their grandfather's casket, in recognition of his love of creating beauty and delight wherever God called him to serve.
Angela and Erwin served in Brazil from 1975-1982. Following this assignment, Erwin assumed the role of COM's executive secretary in the Newton, Kansas, office from 1982-1994. Starting in June 1994, the Rempels worked as co-directors of Mennonite Ministries in Botswana for six years, in a joint assignment with Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, COM and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
The Rempels returned to Newton in 2000, where Erwin helped with the integration of the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church mission agencies. Until his retirement in 2008, he served with the new Mennonite Mission Network. A few months after Erwin retired, he and Angela had their most adventurous "unexpected invitation" to ministry. Their skills were requested for a two-month assignment in Afghanistan, where a mission worker had been taken hostage.
Paulo Henrique de Souza, a musician at the Gama (Brazil) Mennonite Church, remembers Erwin's smile and his willingness to make himself available to others. "I remember our friendship with joy," de Souza said. "I would enjoy living those years again with Pastor Erwin!"
Missionary colleagues, Betty and Otis Hochstetler, also mentioned joy in their interactions with Erwin. They recalled his sense of humor, even as Erwin and Otis worked with youth from the Gama Church to dig a mile-long trench through hard clay to bring water to the church campground.
"We admired his deep faith, expressed in ways we understood," Betty Hochstetler said. "He was sincere and authentic with no hidden agenda."
The Hochstetlers remember Erwin as resourceful — someone who came up with ingenious solutions to problems. After church camp property had been stolen several times, Erwin built a lockable trailer to store mattresses, cooking pans and table service for the campers. The trailer was then parked several miles away, at someone's home, for safe-keeping.
An able administrator, Erwin was organized and served as the executive secretary of the Brazilian Mennonite Church for several years.
"He traveled many miles to the far-spread churches to see and hear their experiences," Betty Hochstetler said. "He identified well with the local people. No one was too insignificant to be included."
Marietta and Sheldon Sawatzky recalled Erwin's conscientious and faithful leadership, both in Newton and during visits to them as COM workers in Taiwan.
"His administrative acumen and production of precise financial and strategic documents, presented with his cheerful demeanor, are distinct memories," Sheldon Sawatzky said.
Stanley Green, former executive director of Mission Network, said that Erwin was one of the best administrators he has ever encountered.
"He brought diligence and a gracious collegiality to his work," Green said. "Erwin greatly assisted the merger of Mission Network's three predecessor agencies. He was a bridge person who helped to advance a climate of trust between colleagues who came together from different organizational cultures."
Green described Erwin's role as project transition director in the early days of the merger, when he coordinated the work of nine different teams and was charged with developing an infrastructure to make the new institution functional.
"In this role, as in all his work, Erwin never tired, caring deeply about advancing God's mission in the world and giving his best to make that possible," Green said. "I give thanks to God for Erwin's life and legacy that inspired so many of us who were blessed to be called his colleagues."
Born Aug. 8, 1944, in Bell, California, to Henry H. and Elisabeth (Eitzen) Rempel, Erwin lost his parents to cancer early in life. His father died when Erwin was 12 years old, and his mother died 15 months later.
In 1957, Erwin and his two younger siblings moved to his Uncle Alvin and Aunt Lena Eitzen's farm in northeast Montana. Erwin graduated from Lustre (Montana) Bible Academy and Grace Bible Institute, Omaha, Nebraska. At Grace, he met Angela Albrecht, from Bloomfield, Montana. They were married June 4, 1966.
Erwin pursued seminary education and graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, with a master of divinity, and from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania (now Palmer Theological Seminary), with a master of theology. He also studied at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) in Indiana. This background equipped Erwin for his life's ministry as pastor, international mission worker and mission agency administrator. He served as pastor at Indian Valley Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, from 1968-1975, before beginning overseas mission work.
In 2011, Angela and Erwin moved to Harrisonburg, where they became members of Ridgeway Mennonite Church. Erwin applied his administrative skills to support a variety of Ridgeway's ministries. The Rempels moved to Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community in 2017.
Erwin was preceded in death by his parents; his brother, Norman; and members of the family who raised him — Alvin and Lena Eitzen and cousin Howard Eitzen. He is survived by wife Angela; daughter Marcia (John) Weaver, of Broadway, Virginia; son Marc (Hannah) Gascho Rempel, of Corvallis, Oregon; daughter Carla (Micah) Hurst, of Hesston, Kansas; grandchildren Evan and Rachel Weaver, Katherine and Madeleine Gascho Rempel, Jeremiah and Shawna Hurst; and his sister, Barbara (Elwyn) Busenitz, of Newton.
Memorial gifts may be designated to:
- Mennonite Mission Network, 718 N Main St. Newton, KS 67114-1703
- The Erwin Rempel Fund for AIMM Ministries at Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, P.O. Box 744, Goshen, IN 46527
- Virginia Mennonite Missions,601 Parkwood Drive, Harrisonburg, VA 22802
To learn more about the Rempels' life and ministry, read their autobiography, Unexpected Invitations: Surprises, adventures and opportunities in Mennonite ministry. To purchase a copy contact Angela Rempel: firstname.lastname@example.org