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AKRON, Pa. – Peter J. Dyck – storyteller, Mennonite pastor, author and lifelong servant to people in need around the world – died of cancer on Monday, Jan. 4, 2010. He was 95 years old.
Dyck, who lived in Scottdale, Pa., is well known in Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and Amish communities throughout Canada, Europe, Paraguay and the United States, especially for his work with Mennonite Russian refugees and with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
Born in Lysanderhöh, Am Trakt, Russia, on Dec. 4, 1914, Dyck was a child when the Russian Revolution ushered in the start of the Soviet Union. At 6 years old, he almost died of typhoid and hunger that accompanied the Russian Famine of 1921.
Dyck and his family were rescued by food shipments sent from Mennonites in Canada and the United States, a kindness he would not forget. Six years later his family, including eight siblings, fled Russia and settled in Saskatchewan.
Dyck attended the University of Saskatchewan and Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., and graduated from Goshen (Ind.) College with a bachelor’s in English in 1952. In June 1968, he completed his master’s of divinity degree from Bethany Theological Seminary, Chicago.
During World War II, he served with MCC in England. MCC is a world-wide ministry of Anabaptist churches that responds to basic human needs and works for peace and justice.
Motivating his decision to work with MCC was his memory of the food aid he received as a child. The food had come through a newly formed MCC.
“I knew these were people that do good…. They fed our family. They fed our community. Now they are asking me to go and do something like that for others? To me, it would almost have seemed immoral not to say yes,” Dyck told author Robert Kreider, editor of Interviews with Peter J. Dyck and Elfrieda Dyck.
His decision to go was fortuitous not only for MCC, but also for Dyck. In 1944, he married Elfrieda Klassen, a nurse who also was serving with MCC in England. She too was a Russian refugee who moved to Canada.
Once the war ended, the Dycks moved to the Netherlands to direct a massive relief effort. Dyck was later knighted by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in recognition of MCC’s feeding and clothing program.
In 1946, the Dycks set up refugee camps in Germany for thousands of Mennonites who had fled the Soviet Union. Over time, they led 5,500 Mennonites by boat to South America, predominantly Paraguay. This experience provided content for Dyck’s stories and was the basis of the book, Up From the Rubble, that he co-authored with his wife.
Dyck also recorded MCC’s work in Europe and Paraguay with 8 mm and 16 mm movie cameras. He used the movie as he traveled around Canada and the United States in the late 1940s, educating people about the plight of the European refugees.
“Peter was an exceptional and admired communicator who was also a pioneer Mennonite film maker,” said John A. Lapp, executive director emeritus for MCC. He produced the first MCC films.
“Peter was a key voice in helping MCC supporters in Canada and the United States be aware of need in the world,” said Herman Bontrager, chair of the MCC board of directors. “Peter and Elfrieda were bridges in that they built linkages and relationships across continents.”
From 1950 to 1957, Dyck served as pastor of the Eden Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan. The Dycks returned to Germany with their two daughters, Ruth and Rebecca, to direct the MCC program there and in North Africa for the next 10 years.
Peter Dyck then moved into an administrative position with MCC in Akron, Pa., where he was responsible for East-West relations in the midst of the Cold War. In this role, he made numerous trips to encourage Baptist and Mennonite congregations in Russia, Siberia and Central Asia, Lapp said.
Dyck assisted Baptist World Alliance as the organization successfully negotiated with Soviet authorities for permission to make biblical commentaries available. “This project gave credence and moral support to all Russian-speaking churches,” Lapp said.
“Clearly, Peter played a very important role in how Mennonites, Brethren in Christ and the wider Christian constituency related to Christians in the former Soviet Union in a difficult era,” Bontrager said.
For two decades after his “retirement” from MCC in 1981, Dyck traveled to speak at churches, schools and retreats. He was well-known among Amish and Mennonites for his inspiring stories and was popular among young people at Mennonite high schools and colleges in the 1970s and 1980s for his ability to engage them. At 90, he could still pack auditoriums.
“He was a passionate advocate for peace, conflict resolution, justice and tolerance,” his family said. “He promoted and embodied active participation in bringing about peace in the world.”
Dyck authored five more books. Three were children’s books: The Great Shalom, Shalom at Last and Storytime Jamboree. He also wrote a collection of his stories, Leap of Faith, and a meditation on growing old gracefully, Getting Home Before Dark. His spellbinding storytelling was captured on three videos produced by Menno-Hof in Shipshewana, Ind.
From 1983 to 1985, Dyck was pastor at Kingview Mennonite Church, Scottdale, Pa.
Arli Klassen, executive director of MCC, said Dyck was very effective, not only in his ability to bring hope to many affected by World War II, but in influencing hundreds of MCC volunteers to learn new languages, skills and worldviews.
“Peter’s capacity as a storyteller, as a leader and as a grandfather has always impressed me,” said Klassen. “I pray that MCC will continue to be blessed with leaders who have the ingenuity, initiative and inspiration that Peter has modeled for us all.”
Dyck believed that credit for his efforts should be directed toward God, not him.
“It is gratifying and also humbling to think that (God’s) purposes are accomplished through ordinary people,” he told Kreider.
Surviving are two daughters: Ruth, married to Jack Scott of Scottdale, and Rebecca Dyck, married to Peter Deslauriers of Montreal, Quebec; five grandchildren: Peter Eash-Scott of Lancaster, Deborah Scott of Highland Park, N.J., Cornelia Scott of Abingdon, Va., Sasha Dyck and Michael Dyck, both of Montreal, Quebec; and two great-grandsons. He is also survived by one brother, CJ Dyck of Normal, Ill., and two sisters, Clara Dyck and Rena Kroeker, both of Winnipeg, Man.
Dyck was preceded in death by his wife, Elfrieda; one brother, John Dyck; and four sisters: Elise Quiring, Anna Neufeld, Irma Balzer and Helene Funk.
Dyck donated his body to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, the last service that he could perform for humankind.
A memorial service is planned at Akron Mennonite Church, Akron, Pa., for Saturday, Jan. 9, at 2 p.m.
In lieu of flowers and as a memorial tribute to his life of service, the family asks that contributions be made to the “Peter J. Dyck Peace and Justice Scholarship” at Goshen College (www.goshen.edu/give