Carl Wesselhoeft: 87 Years of God’s Provision
This past spring, I drove to Logan, Ohio for a visit with one of the most interesting eighty-seven year olds I know. Carl met me at the door of the old farmhouse that his wife grew up in and invited me into the living room to listen as he reminisced about his experiences. He took me from pre-World War II Germany, to a farm in Canada, to provincial Somalia, and back to the little church less than a mile down the road. All of the traveling and circumstances would appear random if it were not for the common thread holding it all together: God. A creative and powerful author to Carl’s story, God showed his faithfulness time and time again. God took Carl to new countries, new cultures, and new people many times, but in each step Carl was protected and prepared for the future.
Carl Wesselhoeft grew up on a rented farm just outside of Rostock, Germany. When he was ten years old, World War II began, and because of the aircraft industry in Rostock, it was among the first towns to receive heavy bombing. “One night, maybe two or three bombs fell, doing little damage,” Carl remembers, “that was cause for some excitement. The war that seemed far away had come to our doorsteps. The next night the sky was red from the burning city and my dad sent a horse-drawn wagon to get us out. Soon after that the house where I had boarded was bombed, along with the school I had attended, and was completely destroyed.”
The next four years of Carl’s life were consumed with school and housing transitions, air raids, and mostly ineffective aircraft explosions. When Carl was fourteen he was confirmed into the Lutheran church. “It was just a formality,” he says, “I did not know anything about personal commitment or faith in Jesus.” One day at school, all of the boys were taken out of the classroom and asked where they would serve in the army. They were encouraged to serve in the Schutzstaffel (SS), the protection squadron, who would later be known as the group which committed the most appalling acts against humanity during the war. Carl had heard that anyone joining the SS would have to leave the church, and when they tried to recruit him, he used his membership in the Lutheran church as an excuse not to join. The recruiters persisted, but Carl was strong in his opposition, and when they finally let up he felt a strange joy in his heart.
Near the end of the war, before his sixteenth birthday (the draft age), his father sent him to a farm in Western Germany hoping that the chaotic state of the war would allow him to avoid the draft. Carl’s older brother had been captured by the Russian army as a prisoner of war and never returned home. His parents were not enthusiastic about war and worried that if Carl joined the army in the last days of a lost war, he might not return either.
After the war ended Carl stayed in Western Germany and worked on different farms. From the connections he had made, he was able to secure a one-year farm job in Sweden. While there, a friend sent him a clipping from a British farm paper advertising farm jobs through the Canadian National Railways for anyone who could pay their way to Canada. Carl “took the bait, applying at the Canadian embassy in Stockholm to get a visa.” From Germany this would have been impossible, but he could apply from Sweden under their immigration quota. Upon his acceptance, he began the journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
When he arrived at the Office of Resettlement in Toronto, there was an older English man there for the same reason. Carl let the man have first choice of employment, “because he was older.” One of the remaining job openings happened to be with a Mennonite couple named Lorne and Marion Wideman in Markham, Ontario.
The Widemans warmly accepted Carl into their home and on his first Sunday in Canada, they invited him to join them for church. Although Carl’s family in Germany was a part of the Lutheran church, they never attended. His idea of God and religion were not positive. He recalled the German soldiers wearing belt buckles that read “Gott mit uns” (i.e. God with us). Carl remembers wondering “how religion could be of any use when both sides prayed for victory. To whom was God going to listen?” But when the Widemans invited him to church that Sunday, he decided to be polite and accept their offer. His prediction that he would not like church was confirmed when the congregation knelt for prayer. No one was going to make him kneel, and so when he was invited again the next Sunday, he declined. After turning down the invitation several more times, he finally told them to please stop asking.
Later on that year, the church held special meetings. The Widemans invited him to come with them to supper at another church member’s house and then to one of the meetings. Not wanting to ask Marion to set out extra supper for him, Carl accepted the invitation. After supper they went to church. This was the first time he heard about the love of God, Jesus’ death on the cross, and the need for each person to make a decision. Carl was interested and attended the rest of the meetings that week. On one of the evenings, he responded to an invitation to accept the Lord.
With two young children and a third on the way, the Wesselhoefts made their first journey to Somalia in 1955. When they boarded the ship in New York, they knew little about Somali culture or Muslim culture, but in the next nine years they would learn a lot.
Their first task upon arrival was to begin language studies. This was a challenging undertaking, but a necessary one considering that only one other man in the village spoke English. Relationships with the villagers were tense and this was somewhat remedied by the Wesselhoefts’ desire to learn Somali, but they had to do more to gain their acceptance.
One morning before dawn, three men showed up at the Wesselhoefts’ front door – one carrying a spear while the other two had sticks for their own protection in the dark of night. When Carl went out to talk with them, the men told him that one of the women in the community was having serious issues while giving birth, and Leota needed to come help this woman have her baby; they assumed Leota to be a midwife. Leota was not trained in the medical field at all, but she had watched several home births and was willing to offer help. After praying with Carl, Leota went with the men. Carl stayed home to watch the three little children, wondering how this would all end.
According to Carl, when Leota had arrived at the woman’s house, she could tell that the woman was in active labor, but the amniotic sac had not yet broken. Leota had enough experience to know that the sac had to be punctured in order for labor to progress smoothly. She used a pin from her hair to perform an informal amniotomy on the woman, effectively breaking her water and allowing the birth to move forward without issue. Hours later Leota returned home, now celebrated as a town hero for her assistance in the delivery process.
This circumstance was not one that the Wesselhoefts had sought or fabricated on their own. If they had been given the option to avoid the circumstance of three armed men showing up on their front porch that morning, they would have likely chosen to avoid it. God handed them this integral interaction with the villagers, and after Leota’s success with the birth, the entire village saw that the Wesselhoefts were not there to hurt them. They were a valuable addition to the community, and Leota earned the title of “village mother.” True bonds began to form between them and the Somali villagers.
The boarding school that Carl directed was for boys ages six to thirteen from all over Somalia. His first class consisted of a handful of students sitting on the ground while he taught using a chalkboard hung in a shade tree. Over a period of time, a school building was constructed and more and more students came to learn there. The villagers knew that the Wesselhoefts were Christians and they trusted them to run the school, but they made it clear that Christianity was not to be taught at the school. They did allow the Wesselhoefts to hold a small church service in their house on Sundays, which was translated into Somali, and a few locals joined.
One man who attended, Abdulah, worked as a cook at their school while his widowed sister farmed outside the village. There was a time when her field had not received much rain and was beginning to dry up. When Abdulah told Carl about this issue, Carl told him that they should pray because God cares for the widows. “We prayed,” Carl said, “and a black cloud came, and it was raining like it only can in tropical climates, and Abdulah came running from the kitchen and said that the cloud was right over her field.” Later, his wife had a dream three nights in a row in which she was told by a shining finger that she should believe in Jesus. When she woke up after the third time, she asked her husband if he believed and he said yes, and so she said she would believe as well.
There were times when they felt threatened by the government or individuals because of their Christianity, but for the most part, their time in Somalia was marked by peace and friendship with the people they lived among. In 1965, the Wesselhoefts returned to America with their five children because the nearest schooling option was a boarding school about a thousand miles away and they wanted to keep their family together.
When the Wesselhoefts returned to the U.S., they settled in Logan, Ohio, close to Leota’s family and their sending congregation, Turkey Run Mennonite Church. Carl applied to work at several factories, and in one interview the personnel manager told him, “You won’t be happy working in a factory.” Carl knew that he was right. Once again, when Carl had no idea where to turn, God handed him an opportunity. As Carl was enrolling his children at Logan-Hocking school, the principal found out that Carl had a background in education. He mentioned that there were still two teaching positions open (just days before the school year was to begin), and he asked if Carl would be interested in one of them. Carl agreed, and he continued teaching in that school system for over twenty years.
Along with teaching at Logan-Hocking, Carl found much joy in pastoring Turkey Run Mennonite Church. During his time as pastor, the church was able to update and renovate the church building to accommodate more people. Such a huge building project seemed daunting to Carl, but God filled the people of Turkey Run with energy and unity during the building process. Everyone worked together and they now enjoy the extra space for playing children as well as the convenience of indoor restrooms. Carl says, “When I stand and see the little ones having a good time, I’m overwhelmed sometimes. I thank the Lord that he has been so good, and not because I have been a great leader or anything like that. It is the Lord who gave us a heart to build.” Over the years, God has continued to bless Carl through the harmony and fellowship at Turkey Run.
As Carl looks back on his life, he can see the many ways God has taken care of him through each new leg of the journey, providing for him in ways that he could not have predicted or imagined. His safety in the midst of war, the ad from his friend telling him to go to Canada, the Mennonite family that hosted him, the love he found in Leota, the way she was able to help with the delivery to gain trust with the villagers, the job at Logan-Hocking School, the building project at Turkey Run “…there were so many things like that,” he says, “the Lord opened the doors and all I had to do was say ‘yes’ and enter.”
“You are Carl Wesselhoeft?! You were my teacher!”
By Joe Showalter
The occasion was a dinner in March, 2011 at the Rosedale International Center (RIC) in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus has become the home for as many as forty to sixty thousand Somalis over the past couple of decades. I had heard that most of the English-speaking Somalis in Columbus who were over fifty years old had probably learned English in one of the schools started by Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) workers many years ago. When I learned that Dr. David Shenk, an EMM worker in Somalia back in those days, was coming to Columbus for a speaking engagement, I asked him if he had any Somali acquaintances here in Columbus that might want to join him for dinner when he was in town. He made a few contacts, and soon we had the dinner planned, with four to six Somali guests expected. We also invited Carl Wesselhoeft, since he had also been an EMM worker in Somalia in those days, and now lives quite close to Columbus.
Carl was seated near the fireplace in the RIC dining hall when the five Somali men arrived for the dinner. Carl stood to greet them, and one of them could not contain his disbelief and amazement as he shook Carl’s hand. “You are Carl Wesselhoeft?! You were my teacher!” This man had been a seven-year-old boy in Carl’s class fortyfive years earlier, and had not seen him since. It was the beginning of an evening of great food and fascinating interchanges that I doubt I’ll ever forget.