Escape: From Siberia to California


In the summer of 1981, Rev. John Block called me as a representative of Greenhaven Neighborhood Church in Sacramento, and asked if I would be interested in candidating for the vacant pastorate of the church. The church, he explained, was “Mennonite Brethren,” a group about which I knew very little.

John answered my questions, and a few months later I accepted the congregation’s call to minister. That conversation led my family and me into the spiritually enriching community of Mennonite Brethren people. It also led to a rich friendship with John and his wife Kathryn. John, more than anyone, has guided me in understanding the history and vitality of this remarkable people we’ve become a part of. He has lived eighty plus years of that history with sharply observant eyes and alert mind.

John’s family, and so many other Mennonite Brethren, paid a high price for their beliefs. They lost their farms and their fathers, but never their faith. They set out for North America with plenty of hope but little else. As they traveled from one end of the earth to another, danger hovered ever near. From the Ukraine, they moved to Siberia, then China, and finally, after long delays and many disappointments, to North America. They buried at least one newborn baby along the way.

They arrived in the new world with no possessions, but that didn’t matter. They rolled up their sleeves and put their hands to the immediate task ... and then the next and the next. They worked hard and prayed hard, not merely as individuals seeking to better themselves, but as a community, seeking to bless and lift all its members. Together they found lands, built homes, planted orchards, and raised the next generation.

In God’s providence, they outlasted the evil empire of the USSR from which they had fled. Inexorably, their hearts were drawn back to the Russian soil from which they had sprung. Some urgent spiritual imperative beckoned them back to the places they had once known as home, places almost sacred now because of scenes of suffering and sacrifice imprinted in their history and geography.

John tells his story with grace and good cheer, the kind of cheer that draws its character from a life of plowing through adversity. He doesn’t dwell on the struggles and sorrows; that would give them too much attention. Instead he chooses to give glory to God and to celebrate life.

Readers familiar with “The Fiddler on the Roof” will surely notice how many themes from that joyous musical also echo with-in the events of this narrative. The Fiddler, who symbolizes tradition, exerted a powerful, unseen influence over the lives and destinies.

Gary Hardaway
Fresno, California
April, 1995

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