Book Review: You Never Gave Me a Name

by Katie Funk Wiebe 

The title of this book comes from difficulty Katie had with her name. Her birth certificate said Katie and not Katarina. To her, the name “Katie” sounded like that of a Russian peasant and she wanted something more sophisticated. 

She quotes the African-American writer Ralph Ellison who says “our names being the gift of others aren’t really ours until we make them our own”. She says “That was the lesson I needed to learn. It took me many years.”

This book starts with Katie moving from Saskatoon in 1945 to Winnipeg to attend MBBC. The college tried to indoctrinate her into the MB view of women and at one level she accepted that view because, after all, she was getting married – but, on the other hand, she was not totally comfortable with limitations that view placed on women.

Right after their wedding they moved to Yarrow, British Columbia where Walter had a contract to teach at the Yarrow Bible School for one term. Lack of money was an issue and continued to be a challenge throughout their marriage. Walter could not accept the notion that Katie might work outside of their home to help with income. Yarrow was not just financially difficult but lonely and theologically a drought. I quote: “If Coaldale, where Walter had spent many years, was the concentrated essence of Russlaender conservatism, Yarrow wasn’t far behind.” She was unhappy there.

The following spring, 1948, they moved to Hepburn for various teaching jobs for Walter. A first child is born. After 2 years they moved to Winnipeg so Walter could continue his education at MBBC. A second child was born. Then back to Hepburn and a third daughter. During the Hepburn years she takes her first steps in writing.

Walter was always looking to do more studying while teaching. In 1959 they moved to Kitchener/Waterloo where Walter would teach at Ottawa Street Bible School and attend Waterloo University. In Kitchener the family lived near libraries. Katie read voraciously, and she could go to hear public speakers. Slowly she found it more productive to write articles than to work part-time for $1.50 an hour. Through her husband she was offered to write a women’s column for The Christian Leader. She wondered why Orlando Harms had not contacted her himself. A fourth child was born, a boy. Again, not enough money was a challenge.

In the fall of l961 they decide to accept an offer for Walter to be the book and literature editor of MB Publishing House and they move to Hillsboro, Kansas.

In June of 1962 her husband Walter dies after only 15 years of married life. 

How I received shoes as a writer

Katie didn’t believe she could call herself a writer. Men were writers, not women. She uses schlorre (leather slipper) and shoes as metaphor. For her schlorren represented poor and landless Mennonites and shoes stood for landed gentry. At this time she was not writing very much and yet she wanted to. This part of her life she likens to wearing schlorren – she has not arrived.

And being a woman did she really dare to try on writer’s shoes? Fear and guilt sat on her shoulders. What about being a mother? Shouldn’t she be making another batch of cookies instead of imagining writing?

After writing for The Christian Leader, first under Walter’s name, eventually under her own name for 30 years, authoring Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy plus other writing assignments she finally realized she was wearing writer’s shoes.

My long day’s journey into the women’s movement 

Over the years she increasingly heard comments from women about the neglect of their spiritual gifts in the church. In the 1970s and 1980s church statements had grand phrases such as “all believers have spiritual gifts which they should use;” but if women felt called to ministry they should be counseled against that call. Her own journey as a woman in ministry was a roller-coaster ride. It took awhile for her to realize that the women’s movement was bigger than herself. It was happening outside of the MB church and it was an idea whose time had come.

Now she started attending conferences outside of the MB church on the role of women. She was relieved and overjoyed to meet women that felt the same way she did. She was not a misfit.

Katie and other MB women saw a need to make women of the churches more aware of the legacy of service and church involvement earlier women has passed on to them. A grant of $2000 from the Board of Christian Literature to edit a book of women’s biographies proved very insightful as to what earlier women had contributed to the church. Women had been present at the forming of the MB church, they had brought an awareness of mission, sewed, baked and made the life of their congregations strong through their contributions.

The struggle went on. She continued to write and travel, accepting every opportunity to speak or write papers on the role of women for study conferences. She did this till late in life and then decided she had to leave the struggle for women’s gifts in ministry to be recognized in the church to the next generation.

Words from an amateur at growing old 

While some cultures see elders as men and women to be honoured and cherished, our society is burdened with dread and loathing of aging. Not willing to accept our societies view of seniors she once again goes searching for meaning of old age.

She quotes Elbert Cole, Methodist minister and founder of Shepherd’s Centers of America “The faith community has the missing piece of the puzzle regarding the aging society. There is a theological task for older adults – It is to find meaning in old age by discovering the unique contribution each can make.”

An identity crisis can come with old age just as they cropped up at various times in earlier life. With retirement she lost her identity as English professor. Was she a worthwhile person when she wasn’t earning money? Who was she now?

In struggling with these kinds of questions in her usual ways she finds four insights into ways in which people of older age can find meaning for their lives.

  1. Elderhood: From Age-ing to Sage-ing Elderhood is an ongoing transformative process that enables us to bless all that we have lived through and to convert this rich experience into wisdom.
  2. Forgiveness: As elders it is time to release others and ourselves through forgiveness.
  3. Harvesting one’s life: Tell your stories. You seed the future with wisdom by sharing stories of life’s transforming moments.
  4. Research your genealogy.

Many years after high school, Katie makes a pilgrimage back to Blaine Lake. Her parents don’t live there anymore. As she sees the familiar family home, visits the store where she so often helped her father, walks the streets she ponders the legacy of her parents and ancestors. Does she want to accept her heritage with the stories of a people enduring hardships, courageously making a new life in a new country, keeping their faith through trying times?

Her answer is a profound “yes” and with that she accepts and is proud of her name.

Erna Neufeldt
February 2, 2010

You Never Gave Me a Name – Cascadia Publishing House, 2009. ISBN: 9781931038560