MEDINA, Ohio (Mennonite Mission Network) — The younger of two sisters who helped pioneer the Mennonite church in northern Japan was noted for her wisdom and kindness.
Rhoda Magdalena Ressler, 98, of Medina, Ohio, died on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008, at The Inn at Medina.
With her sister, Ruth, Ressler spent 25 years in Japan – 21 of those years with Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network. The Resslers were instrumental in establishing a Mennonite church in the town of Kamishihoro in the country's northernmost region of Hokkaido, where they taught the Bible, made friends and offered themselves as a Christian presence.
Yukari Kaga and Mary Beyler, current full-time workers in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido that includes Kamishihoro, remember previous generations of Japanese Mennonites speaking fondly of the Resslers. Former Kamishihoro leader Keisuke Matsumoto, who died in 2005, repeatedly told Beyler and Kaga that the dedicated ministry of the Resslers is the only reason a Christian church exists in the village.
In a 1999 gathering at the Kitami Mennonite Church, Matsumoto said the Resslers were his first contact with Christianity. He was skeptical of the good news preached by representatives of the country that had bombed his country, killing his two aunts. He went to their church to prove that Christian faith was not truth.
“If those missionaries hadn’t been Mennonite, I wouldn’t have become a Christian. The call to peace called me,” he said. “These American Christians were so kind, I gradually gave up the desire for revenge.”
The Ressler sisters had intended to serve at an orphanage in China through Mennonite Central Committee, but during their 1949 sea voyage, Mao Tse-Tong established the People’s Republic of China.
“And so we found that our town was gone,” Ressler said, recounting the story of the journey. “We talked to the governor of Guam, and he said this: ‘You’re going to occupied Japan. McArthur has the mosquitoes counted in Japan, and he’ll know of any kind of religious work that is going on.’”
MCC sent them to teach English in Kobe, Japan, for three years. They also did relief and rehabilitation work in Osaka.
After starting with the former MBM in 1953, the Resslers studied language in Kobe before moving to Kamishihoro in 1955. A church building there was dedicated less than two years later. Kaga and Beyler have heard from church members that the Resslers paid for and worked off the building costs. They also started a kindergarten class at the Mennonite mission, working in rural evangelism for a decade.
Charles Shenk arrived with his family in Japan in 1957. He said he, as a young mission worker, sat at the feet of the Resslers and his other senior colleagues on the Japan Mennonite mission team. Shenk was impressed by Ressler’s wit, wisdom and merry mischief, plus the way of loving, self-giving service that she showed in rural Hokkaido.
“She was capable of making a feminist statement in the midst of what felt to her to be a male-oriented, or -dominated, mission structure there in the 1950s and 1960s,” Shenk said. “Very early on, she had gotten the message from someone that preaching and baptizing were not part of her job description, presumably because she was not ordained, but also, clearly, because she was not a man. And she would not let us forget that.”
Shenk said the Ressler sisters “blended into the community around them and shared of themselves and their resources with unflagging generosity and friendliness.” After the Resslers returned to Ohio in the 1970s, Shenk said many members of the Kamishihoro Mennonite church worried about the sisters and urged them to return to Japan so their friends could take care of them.
Today, the Kamishihoro congregation remains small, but active, said Beyler, who serves in Japan through Mennonite Mission Network. Currently, two new believers are studying in preparation for baptism.
In 1966 the two returned to Osaka. They worked on English instruction in the Japanese university and schools and taught Bible classes to interested students through 1973, when they returned to Ohio.
In Ohio, Ressler lived on her mother’s farm near Sterling, Ohio, before moving to Waverly, Ohio. She moved to OrrVilla Retirement Community in Orrville, Ohio, in 1988, living there until earlier in 2008.
Ressler was born June 7, 1910, near Smithville, Ohio, the daughter of missionary parents Jacob A. and Lina (Zook) Ressler. Her father, J.A. Ressler, was in the first overseas mission group appointed by the Mennonite Church and spent nine years in Dhamtari, India. She graduated from Goshen (Ind.) College and earned a master’s degree in deaf education from the University of Pittsburgh. She taught in Pittsburgh and the Scottdale, Pa., community for a number of years. Active in her church and the Mennonite Publishing House community (now Mennonite Publishing Network), she directed a women’s choir, taught Sunday school and Bible school and cared for her aging parents until their deaths.
Ressler was skilled in knitting and crocheting. She and Ruth made hundreds of dolls for benefit auctions throughout Ohio. She loved gardening, flowers, music, reading, sewing, flower arranging, piecing and binding comforters and was a creative and resourceful cook. She was faithful in her contacts with Japanese friends, serving as a gracious hostess and tour guide when they visited her in America. Ressler was a member of Oak Grove Mennonite Church in Smithville, Ohio, where she remained active in Oak Grove’s Mennonite Women organization late into her life.
She was preceded in death by an infant brother, Luke; a sister, Ruth; a half-sister Emma (George) Townsend; and nephews Norman and Paul Townsend. Surviving are several cousins; nephews J. W. Townsend and George Townsend; niece Rebecca Tice; and countless friends.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions will be received by Oak Grove Mennonite Church, 7843 Smucker Rd., Smithville, Ohio 44677 and will be directed to Oak Grove Mennonite Women and Hospice of Wayne and Medina Counties. Gift designations will be honored.