Telling A Story
That Has Told Me
By Ron Kennel
Stories have an impact on those
who hear them. Stories also have an impact on those who tell
This is certainly true for the great biblical story of salvation.
That story is told to evoke obedience and faith in God for those
who hear it (Ps. 78:1-8; Luke 1:1-4; Rom. 1:1-6), and for those
who tell it (Deut. 26:1-19; Ps. 96; 1 Cor. 11:23-34).
I found this to be true, also, for a small, recent chapter of
God's great story of salvation-the story of my great-grandfather,
Peter Kennel, Sr.
My father, Lester Kennel, who faintly remembers Great-Grandpa,
was the first to tell me about him. He told me that Great-Grandpa
came from France. So when in elementary school I was asked about
my family's nationality, I proudly said, "French!"
as though Great-Grandpa was my only ancestor. I was unaware
that his roots were actually Swiss and German. Dad told me how
Great-Grandpa had been a highly-respected bishop of our Salem
Mennonite Church, near Shickley, Nebraska. This reinforced my
identification with ministers such as my grandfather, Peter Kennel,
Jr., my uncle, LeRoy Kennel and others. I felt as though I belonged
to a family of church leaders. Dad told me that if I thought
he (Dad) was strict in his discipline of me, Grandpa had been
stricter, and Great-Grandpa had been stricter yet! This created
in me a sense of awe and fascination of Great-Grandpa. Dad also
told me that Great-Grandpa was a good manager, a hard worker,
and that his motto was "Idleness is a curse." This
reinforced within me the value of hard work and good management,
which Dad and other Kennel family members had modeled.
The images Dad gave me were later confirmed by what Grandpa told
me. Grandpa showed me pictures of his parents, grandmother, uncles,
and aunt. Their faces seemed attractive and dignified. It is
understandable then, that years later (1966) when I was taking
J. C. Wenger's Mennonite History course at seminary, I chose
to write about Peter Kennel, Sr.
In this project I was transformed from a story-hearer to a story-teller.
I felt I was doing something very significant. I was saving a
story from obscurity by writing it down.
I started by learning more of the story. I read conference and
church records. I interviewed Grandpa Kennel, great-uncles, and
other church leaders who had known Great-Grandpa. How excited
I was when I held in my hand Great-Grandpa's passport, other
vital papers, his Bibles, and his sermon notes! The excitement
of primary research made this paper the most enjoyable writing
project I had ever undertaken.
I learned many new things about Great-Grandpa. He was the only
one of his family to migrate to North America. The stated reason
was to escape military service. He could speak three languages.
He was a good preacher and a highly respected bishop. As a leader
he was progressive, yet he remained committed to Anabaptist-Mennonite
perspectives. His children respected him. In addition to his
church work, he was a successful farmer and won the respect of
the local banker, who used Great-Grandpa as a consultant. He
was clear and direct in his communication. He expressed his faith
in his daily life. He was energetic and engaging. He walked swiftly,
as I do.
The more I learned about him, the more I liked him. I began to
feel as though I knew him personally. In all my research I came
upon little negative information about him. Consequently, the
story I wrote was complementary and idealistic. Nevertheless,
in J. C. Wenger's estimation, it was good enough for an "A."
Believing that I had produced something worth sharing, I made
copies and distributed them to others in the family. One of these
was Lloyd Troyer, Jr., the son of Great-Grandpa's only daughter,
Emma. In 1967, after he and his wife, Erma, attended Mennonite
World Conference in Amsterdam, they visited France to try to
locate and to re-connect with our European cousins. This was
an important mission, since contact with them had been broken
when Great-Grandpa died in 1923. They took with them a copy of
my paper on Great-Grandpa. After an unsuccessful search, they
left their copy of my paper at Bienenberg Bible School in Liestal,
In 1969, about two weeks before they were scheduled to leave
for Kenya, Africa to visit their daughter and son-in-law, Lloyd
and Erma received a once-in-a-life-time letter. It was from a
French Mennonite minister named Andre Goll. Goll reported that
his job was to visit all the French-speaking Mennonite families
in France. He had heard of the Troyers' unsuccessful search in
1967, and had found my paper on Peter Kennel, Sr. at Bienenberg.
And, most exciting of all, he had located our relatives in the
city of Toul, in eastern France!
Needless to say, Lloyd and Erma immediately changed their itinerary
to include a stop in France. They met Andre Goll, who took them
to Toul to meet the relatives he had identified. When the Troyers
laid out photographs they'd brought along of Great-Grandpa, his
mother and siblings, they heard excited exclamations, "This
is our grandmother! These are our uncles! This is our mother!"
It was an unforgettable reunion. After 46 years, contact between
the two parts of our family had been re-established.
Since that time we have corresponded with our French cousins,
Several members of our family in the U.S. have visited them in
France. Andre Goll and his family has visited us. As a result
of all these contacts, much new information came to light, which
I compiled in a series of papers over several years and distributed
to interested family members.
In 1981 a seminary class on family and marital therapy provided
me with an opportunity to do additional research on Great-Grandpa
from a family systems perspective. I interviewed more people
who had known him. While much of what I heard reinforced my liking
for him, other things caused me discomfort. The opposition of
his siblings to his emigration--especially since he was the oldest
son, and his mother was a widow--raised questions for me about
the quality of his relationship with them. His directness in
communication sometimes seemed insensitive. The disciplining
of his children seemed too harsh. His frequent, extended absences
from home to attend to his bishop assignment must have placed
great strains on Great-Grandma who had borne ten children. I
began to wonder how he and I would have related had we been contemporaries.
This new information helped to demythologize him. He seemed more
Later that year we were greatly delighted when our French cousin,
Robert Guingrich came to visit us. He was the son of Great-Grandpa's
youngest sister, Emelie. Robert was the first Kennel relative
from Europe to visit the American Kennels since Great-Grandpa
immigrated. What a grand reunion we had! Significantly, that
year, 1981, was exactly 100 years after Great-Grandpa had migrated
to North America, never to see his family again.
In 1990 the coordinators of our triennial Kennel family reunion
asked me to give the Sunday morning meditation. Having become
Great-Grandpa's historian, I told his story. I also offered to
compile my research and write a new biography. They took me up
on the offer.
Immediately I faced a problem. Having just begun a new pastorate,
I could not find adequate time to begin this project. Three years
later, I had produced nothing. When our next family reunion rolled
around, my conscience was troubled. It was not until early I996
that I managed to block out the time necessary to write this
This time my research was primarily rechecking my sources, reviewing
what I had already written, and rummaging through my notes. I
had few new sources. I had hoped to find Great-Grandpa's name
on the immigrant ship lists on microfilm at the Allen County
Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. But it was not to be. After many
tedious hours of searching, I was unable to find his name on
any of the ship lists.
As I worked on this project, I became aware more than ever of
the challenges of writing history.
One was a justice challenge. Having been sensitized to women's
concerns in recent years, I had learned to appreciate the role
of women in Great-Grandpa's story. In my research I had gathered
some data on the women in the story, but I wished I had more.
Though I focused on Great-Grandpa, I included as much about the
women as was available to me.
Another challenge was objectivity. In spite of the fact that
Great-Grandpa had been somewhat demythologized for me in 1981,
I still felt pressured by my earlier idealistic view. Most of
the data I had gathered about him was positive. I struggled with
what negative information to include, and how to present it.
I had some anxiety about how it might be received by other members
of the family. In a few instances I omitted names of certain
family members. I left out one matter entirely-his pipe-smoking
habit--which now would be perceived as negative, but which in
Great-Grandpa's time would have been rather insignificant. However,
if I had it to do over again, I would include it with appropriate
A third challenge was accuracy. I was glad that in my recent
project I was able to correct some inaccuracies in my earlier
paper. However, while I had a good deal of reliable data, most
of my anecdotal material was based on memory, which can be subjective
and historically inaccurate. Where I felt it necessary to reconstruct
narrative on the basis of historical background, I tried to be
as accurate as possible.
A fourth challenge was evenness. Since my data covered some parts
of Great-Grandpa's journey more fully than others, and since
my resource materials varied in genre from anecdotal to statistical,
an unevenness crept into my final draft.
A fifth challenge was clarity of communication. Assuming not
all readers would be aware of the historical contexts of Great-Grandpa's
life, I provided some background information. However, I believe
that I was not attentive enough to the range of ages and the
various educational levels of my potential readers. In some places,
I could have used simpler language.
A sixth challenge was unity. In looking for themes, I found several
which stood out. One was "migration" and the other
"home." Consequently, I decided on the title, Journey
Home. Were I to do it over again, I would search for a more
Giving glory to God was a seventh challenge. I did not want this
project to be ancestor worship. I wanted it to bear witness to
Jesus Christ. So, I attempted to place it in the context of salvation
history. Great-Grandpa's ministry and faith legacy made this
a good fit.
As I dealt with these challenges, it became apparent to me that
what I was writing was not simple history or biography. It was
more a reflection on a life in the context of God's salvation
story. Thus I chose the subtitle, Peter Kennel, Sr., Reflections
on His Life and Times.
Beside these, I found preparing a book for publication to be
a real challenge. Decisions needed to be made about format, layout,
size, type, pictures, chapter headings, footnotes and jacket
design. Then, too, there was proofreading. I learned the importance
of having other people do the proofreading, and that more than
one proofreading is essential. I also had to choose a printer.
Finally, I had to decide how many copies to print and how much
By God's grace, the book was completed, and 100 copies were ready
for our family reunion in July 1996. It was well received. Since
I had done thirty years of research and writing in conversation
with the family, and much of my data had been gathered from various
family members, this project was really a family project. After
I presented it to our reunion, my uncle and mentor, LeRoy Kennel
asked me a question: "What has happened to you, personally,
during this project?" I'm still working on an answer. These
reflections are a partial answer.
Hearing and Telling, a Means
In summary, this project has deepened my sense of roots and identity.
It also helped me to become more realistic in my views of ancestors
and, in family systems language, to differentiate myself from
my family of origin. Great-Grandpa and Grandma's faithfulness
to Christ and to the church inspires and encourages me to faithful
discipleship. Great-Grandpa's decisions to migrate to North America,
to follow Christ, and to serve the church impress on me the significance
of such decisions for future generations. I am reminded how it
is only by God's grace that I am allowed to benefit from the
legacy of my ancestors.
In storyteller John Shea's words, the story I've written has
"told me." It has told me about myself. It's a story
that I have internalized. Since it is about my family of origin,
it is a vital part of my story. Most important, it belongs in
God's great story of salvation. Hearing and telling it has been
for me a means of grace.
Although I'm no longer preoccupied with it, questions remain.
I have only two copies of my book left for distribution. I've
found errors that were missed in proofreading. I wonder if the
picture I painted of Peter Kennel, Sr. is still too idealistic.
I've had second thoughts about the title. What should I do if
new information comes to light? Should I prepare a revision?
If so, how soon? When is a project like this ever finished?
Perhaps trying to answer this last question is futile. In the
final analysis, I know that what I've written is never the final
word. The final word is what God has written. About Great-Grandpa
Kennel, about me, and all of us.
Ron Kennel is pastor of Clinton
Brick Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, January 1999
updated 1 December 1999