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Never Give Up
Don’t give up on that obnoxious neighbourhood child – the one who’s the “bad influence” on your kids.
Please, never give up on that obnoxious neighbourhood child. You know the one. The one you prefer your children not associate with; the “bad influence.”

Vonnie-Mostat-11.17

I was that child – a precocious 11-year old who was definitely not the Christian friend you would desire for your children.

Should you risk inviting me into your home for dinner, you wouldn’t have to worry about seasoning the food; my language was peppered with expletives enough to spice any meal and raise everyone’s eyebrows a notch or two. I was also the child who did not concern herself with kleenex. Why bother when a sweater sleeve was available? While your children waited patiently to say grace I dove into my meal and wondered what everyone was waiting for!

My mother was 48 when she had me. My father, 18 years her senior and an alcoholic, died when I was three months old, leaving her to raise her three children and his three from a previous marriage. There followed three more husbands and several “gentleman lodgers.” To say my childhood was dysfunctional puts it mildly.

I was used to spending nights alone after age four while my mother sang at the pubs in Britain. I was very proficient getting myself up, fed and dressed for school. My only knowledge of God came from being told, “Behave yourself or God up there will get you and take you away.” What He would have done with me once He took me away I was never told, but I made sure I avoided Him.

My mother, my closest sibling (22 at the time and also well on his way to becoming an alcoholic) and I came to Canada when I was 11. By God’s providence we rented a cottage that neighboured and belonged to Peter and MaryAnn Konrad in Burnaby, B.C., now both home with the Lord.

We arrived November 1 and I soon had the opportunity to see their Christian evangelism in action. That was my first Christmas with a Christmas tree, purchased by the Konrads and adorned with their no-longer-used Christmas ornaments. Before we had even attended their church, Fraserview MB Church in Vancouver, we were the recipients of a Christmas box. It had girl’s clothing in it that actually fit me! All previous hand-me-downs hung like matronly tents on my short chubby body. Christmases that I could remember were always spent alone. On Christmas Eve Mother was singing at the local pub and my brother was out drinking. Christmas morning I opened my gifts by myself while they slept off their hangovers. What I beheld next door at the Konrads was something very new indeed.

My brother was unemployed for six months when we arrived in Canada. Peter Konrad spoke to a Christian friend of his working at the Sears store nearby and suddenly John had a job. (He continued working at Sears, rising through the ranks to management until his retirement a few years ago.) MaryAnn Konrad, bless her soul, invited me over for summer picnic lunches in their back garden. I became their summer pest, a fly that would not go away. She never complained or lost her smile or manners, even when I knocked at her back door in my pajamas at seven in the morning because Mother had not arrived home from visiting someone she met through the “Lonely Hearts Column” of the newspaper. MaryAnn had the grace not to ask why I was left alone.

Many was the meal I had with them; many the time I played with her children in their sandbox, teaching them, I’m sure, language they had never heard before. Peter was always kind when getting home from his job to find me sitting in his kitchen nattering my head off, regaling MaryAnn and her wide-eyed children with secrets that should have never left our home. That first summer spent playing with the Konrad children was one of the happiest summers of my life: climbing their cherry tree, playing in their vacant hen house, play-acting Bible stories, costumes included, with a willing audience of MaryAnn and Peter.

MaryAnn decided I needed to attend their Sunday school, and in short order! Since our house was either empty or my mother and brother were “sleeping it off” I figured it could not hurt. God wouldn’t “get me” as long as I behaved, and besides, they seemed to know this far-away person and even talked to him in prayer on a regular basis.

So began my adventure at the Fraserview Mennonite Brethren Church, which at that time held services only in German. But the Sunday school was something else. They gave me a free Sunday school book, pencil, pictures to colour, exciting stories and even memory verses to take home with a promise that if I memorized them regularly I would receive a prize. Wow! That meant it would not cost Mother anything and she would not get angry at me for making her spend her cigarette money. It was worth sitting through an hour of German church, watching the flies on the window ledge, just to listen to the singing, bask in the smiles and love of the people, and get to take home my treasures for the next week.

An exciting transformation began to occur in my brother’s life. His new-found Christian friend at Sears led him to the Lord. Slowly his violent outbursts dissipated, his language changed. The drinking seemed to stop instantaneously, though it took longer for the tenacious grip of his cigarette habit to end. John blossomed. My mother was slower to come around, and we moved onto another rental home, leaving the Konrads’ warmth behind.

My brother determined that I should still attend Sunday school. Through my early teen years I invited Jesus into my heart numerous times, waiting for a zap of lightning to jolt my body and transport the bad secret me into a new, clean and beautiful body that couldn’t possibly sin any more. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I fully grasped the meaning of God’s unconditional love and grace.

The difficulties of my childhood plagued me. (“You stupid girl, spilling the ketchup, I don’t love you any more!” “I’m leaving you, packing my bags now, and I’m NOT coming back!” “Forget you ever had a mother because I am going to forget I ever had a daughter!”) It was hard to grasp the concept of an unchanging God when my mother’s love for me changed on a whim. But one evening at a young people’s prayer group, longing desperately for the reality I saw in the teens around me, I cried out to God in my despair. Instantly they surrounded me with their arms and love and prayed me through the sinner’s prayer, holding me as I wept.

It wasn’t long after that experience that our gracious all-loving God gave me the gift of a wonderful Christian husband who was raised in a “normal,” stable Christian home, so different from my own childhood in every way and just what I needed. We bought a home in Coquitlam, B.C. and attended church there.

On one occasion we visited Willingdon MB Church. There were Peter and MaryAnn Konrad, sitting a few rows in front of us. After the service there were hugs and tears as we met again and were invited back to their home where I was able to tell them how their witness had sown seeds deeply into my life. I was able to tell them that my mother had now accepted the Lord. MaryAnn had tears of happiness as I shared our spiritual journey over the past ten years. They remembered me so clearly because they prayed for me and my family so often.

Later I was able to tell them that my brother John had visited England and was able to witness to my step-sister there and lead her to the Lord. Still later, after Peter’s death, I was able to tell MaryAnn that my other brother in England had accepted the Lord along with a niece and nephew. Their seed sowing had borne fruit and even traveled across the ocean!

The years passed and our son married a beautiful Mennonite woman who gifted us with two grandchildren. Now, age 56, I often hear her arranging “play dates” for our grandchildren with other children from their church family or Christian homes through the school. I know it is beneficial to encourage such relationships at an early age. I can quote all the Scriptures about the friends that we choose and relationships that will uplift us.

I listen with mixed emotions, knowing that we are known by the company we keep, and that our children need the encouragement of other Christian children even as we ourselves need Christian friends.

But I also know we are the light of the world, a city set on a hill, and salt, and that our salt needs to be shaken out of the salt shaker once in awhile; out of our comfort zone and into our neighbour’s home. I wonder what would have happened to me if Peter and MaryAnn Konrad had decided their children were not allowed to play with the pesky obnoxious kid next door.

Vonnie Mostat is a writer based in Langley, British Columbia.

Originally published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, September 28, 2004.

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