By Russ Kuykendall
Marie Rempel was one of “the lost generation” who came of age during the Great Depression. But Marie spent her life seeking the lost of her generation.
Born in Garwin, Iowa, she immigrated with her parents, Herman and Shada Dunbar, to Vulcan, Alberta, Canada, in 1917. As a teenager, Marie moved with her parents to the Grande Prairie district of Alberta, graduated from Grande Prairie High School, and enrolled at the Peace River Bible Institute. After a year, she transferred to Alberta Bible College (ABC) in Calgary, followed by her future husband, Frank Rempel.
In college, Meredith Bergman and Marie organized a Sunday school that became Parkhill Church of Christ (now, Oak Park Church of Christ, Calgary). When Frank and Marie graduated from ABC in 1942, they were called to serve Tuxedo Park Church of Christ (now, Bow Valley Christian Church) in Calgary. In late 1945, they agreed to organize a church in Grande Prairie.
About a year later, Tom and Leota Rash asked Marie and Frank to join them as missionaries to India. Frank preached his farewell sermon in Grande Prairie on October 5, 1947, and, after raising support, the Rempels traveled to Delhi, India, in early 1949. When asked for a final destination at the Delhi train station, Marie replied, “Why Kulpahar, of course!”—not realizing Kulpahar was an out-of-the-way village where the Rashes, Dolly Chitwood, and Leah Moshier had purchased the property of an old Disciples of Christ mission.
SERVING IN INDIA
Over the next several years, first India Bible College, and later, an orphanage and school were founded. With the Rashes, the Rempels focused on the college, organizing churches, and educating young Indians as preachers for these new congregations. Frank kept Kulpahar’s power generator running and worked on improvements to the mission. Marie taught local women basic hygiene to help their families avoid water and food-borne illnesses.
Marie and Frank embraced Indian culture—learning four Indian languages, adopting Indian dress, and enjoying the Indian cuisine of curry. Frank played cricket, India’s national game, with the locals. Marie stretched rupees to extend Christian hospitality to all—Muslims, Hindus, and Christians—in their home. While embracing Indian culture, they told a story that transcends culture and time—the good news—the gospel of Jesus.
In 1956, after six preachers had been trained and as many churches organized, Kulpahar’s India Bible College was closed for lack of funds. In late 1958, Marie and Frank moved to the much larger city of Kanpur where they wrote, edited, and published Christian literature in four Indian languages, and an English-language periodical, The Christasian, initiated in 1955. They were described as “missionaries’ missionaries.”
The Rempels returned to Grande Prairie in 1969 and purchased a local stationery shop, expanding it to sell books and offer customized printing. Their plan was to work the store for a few years, then retire and write. But in 1973, they were called again to the mission field, this time in Kenya. Marie was 57 years old; Frank was 59. Within six months, they had learned Swahili well enough to teach and preach among two Nairobi congregations.
One of the five churches they organized in Kenya was perhaps the first enduring church among the nomadic, Maasai cattle herders of the Rift Valley. They also did some of the first preaching and evangelism among the nomadic cattle herders of western Kenya and eastern Uganda, the Kara Pokot, then with some 450,000 people and no Christian witness.
SPREADING THE GOSPEL
In August 1978, Marie and Frank returned to Grande Prairie. But just after Christmas, Frank died after a series of severe heart attacks. Marie went to work at Heritage Lodge, a senior citizens residence. Later, she was organist for justice of the peace weddings, and she kept active organizing “sings” and participating in a local service club.
Whether in India, Kenya, or Canada, Marie ministered and spread the gospel. She taught the local Roman Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross Bible choruses for children. She loved children, and loved teaching them the Bible, whether in Sunday school, at camp, or Vacation Bible School. She promoted missions by introducing us to Indian curry and chapattis (an Indian bread) and saris and chai (Indian tea).
She regularly opened her home to others. She showed us the “Willow” porcelain milk pitchers given her by Dr. Zoena Rothermel, and described this direct-support missions pioneer and physician. By Marie’s influence, several people have served on mission fields, and others actively promote cross-cultural mission work.
When I was a teenager, she gave me a concordance and other Bible and theological study tools. She believed in an educated preaching ministry—that used good grammar! Marie was a critic to preachers—to Frank, her husband, to her nephew, Allan Dunbar, to this great-nephew, and no doubt, to others. But she did so quietly and constructively.
When a talented, capable young preacher—not long out of Bible college—came to her distraught that an elder had told him he was unsuited to ministry, she listened. Then she quietly replied, “Some people you must write off as ignorant, and ignore them.”
Marie could talk to anybody—from the crusty old Alberta farmer to the members of the local chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, from the poverty-stricken Indian widow to the queen of the district where she lived, and from the Maasai tribesman to expatriate British Kenyans, including Joy Adamson of Born Free fame.
She wasn’t afraid to upbraid those who needed it. As a young woman, she tied her unruly nephew Lyle to a table leg when he wouldn’t stop pestering! More than once I heard her remark to a young Indo-Canadian in his native tongue that caused him to stand straighter before he turned around in utter confusion to find an elderly, pasty-white-skinned woman with bottle-blonde hair speaking flawless Hindi or Urdu! Like the apostle Paul, she was all things to all people for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22).
RESPONDING TO THE CALL
After spending peak earning years on the mission field, returning to the mission field when most would plan for retirement, she worked into her 70s, retiring only when forced to. Marie died not destitute, but, frankly, in poverty.
Some might ask, “Why?” Why would one so educated, so gifted with people, so adept in languages and in understanding of culture—and an ability to transcend it—pursue a path to poverty? Again, as with the apostle Paul, Marie responded to this call:
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! (Romans 10:13-15, King James Version)
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Marie Lucille (née Dunbar) Rempel, 92, died of natural causes October 12, 2008, at Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Grande Prairie, Alberta. A version of this article was delivered at a memorial service October 18 at Grande Prairie Church of Christ in Alberta, Canada.
Russ Kuykendall, a great-nephew of Marie Rempel, serves as senior policy adviser to a federal, Canadian cabinet minister.