SOMETHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MARTIN… AND SHARON
I am told that when Martin Durksen was asked to be the subject of this story, he didn’t respond with an immediate yes. In the end, Martin weighed out the discomfort of putting himself out there for our whole community to see against the encouragement and inspiration that his story would bring to our congregation. Fortunately for us, the latter value won out.
On a balmy November afternoon, Chris Fowler and I spent an hour and a half with Martin and Sharon (more on Sharon later) on her farm in Welland and then another hour and half with Martin in an empty Chinese restaurant awash with vintage 1980s décor. I was overwhelmed with God’s activity in and through this man, Martin, who humbly and simply says yes to God’s leading. Chris and I were also struck with Sharon’s uncomplicated and absolute faith in God as she navigates single parenthood with Robbie, her forty-seven year old son who suffers from a “mosaic of just about every kind of disabilities…from autism to you-name-it; he’s got it. And he’s also an epileptic and suffers from grand mal seizures.”
If my introduction has been confusing, stick with me. I was confused too. Hopefully it’ll start making sense sooner than later. You see, several weeks ago, I was asked to write a story about Martin. I was, therefore, somewhat baffled when I was told we’d be meeting him at a farm in Welland where he was rebuilding a deck for a woman named Sharon. Who was Sharon? Wasn’t this story about Martin? Were we just there to pick up Martin and take him to lunch? Was this just an insignificant stop on our way to getting the real story from Martin? Not so much…
As we sat in Sharon’s sunroom, replete with two dogs and various collectibles and memorabilia in every nook and cranny, and heard her amazing narrative and Martin’s involvement in it, my task eventually started to take shape in my mind. Yes, this was a story about our congregant, Martin. But understanding his history and friendship with Sharon was not only a great entry point into getting a picture of this energetic, understated servant, it was also key to knowing what we mean at Southridge when we say that “unlikely friendships [have the potential] to transform our faith.”
Martin was born in Saskatchewan in the spring of 1943. His given name is Cornelius (Corny) Martin Durksen (named after his grandfather, missionary and bible teacher, Cornelius Cornelius Peters). Martin decided at a young age that: “As long as I counted to God…that was more important than fitting in with my peers.”
Martin recounts an incident from his teen years. It was important enough that he drew our attention to it several times. For me, this God-shaping event emphasizes how important it is to understand God’s work in our lives and, equally important, how critical our response to it is.
“At the age of seventeen, I rolled Dad’s new tractor in the field. When I fell off and looked around I thought I should jump aside and just then the tractor came down where I had been lying.
“The fact that I was not killed in this mishap suggested to me that God had plans for me in this life.
“Dad was very calm about it but said I could go to my room for the day. I remember thinking: no one will ever trust me again. Then, that afternoon, Len Martens from Home Roofing called and asked if I would take his truck with a load of MCC stuff to Kitchener!
“God showed me that there were still people who could trust me to do a good job.”
This looking for and recognizing God’s movement and provision in his life and in the lives of those he cares for has been his unwavering posture ever since.
Before landing at Southridge in the early two thousands, Martin had serve as chair for the Baptist Haiti Mission Board for about thirty years, and organized work trips to Haiti for many years; chaired for Turning Point Ministries
MB Board of Church Extension, Bethesda Board and MB Conference Committees. He also looked after bussing for Camp Crossroads for eighteen years.
I could easily triple this list of service and leading that Martin has been involved in in his several decades of following Christ. His story is replete with instances in which he became aware of a need and responded to said need by meeting it directly or finding someone else who could meet it.
Regarding Sharon’s story specifically, a comically repeating theme emerged. It went something like this: “Sharon’s house needed (fill in the blank); I knew a guy… When I told the guy, he said, ‘Sure,’ and sold me the materials at cost. But then these materials needed to be installed… Then I remembered: I know a guy who knows a guy who could do that. When I explained Sharon’s situation, he volunteered to do the work for free…” And on and on Martin and his connections go whether it’s brick laying, barn door rebuilding, fencing, siding, windows and, believe me, the list goes on.
Sharon says that when Martin is working on her property, there are constant honks of people driving by who know him.
Martin’s story first intersected Sharon’s about twenty years ago when Sharon had to leave an unsafe living situation overnight. Sharon felt it was no longer safe staying in Burlington. She needed to find a place not just for herself and Robbie but also for her barn animals. She sold her farm, left her affluent lifestyle behind and, literally overnight, needed to find a place to live. Her father wasn’t supportive – he never got over the death of his wife and wanted Sharon to stay and look after him. Her husband had troubles of his own and didn’t lend much support to her and Robbie.
An important note to make at this point is that it was Martin who told us about much of this and other hardships suffered by Sharon. The refrains over lunch were: something Sharon never told you is… Or something you need to know about Sharon is… Sharon was not interested in recounting disappointments that she had suffered; rather, she was singularly interested in telling us about how God met her needs and how she was sent “God’s angel, Martin.”
Welland was completely foreign to her. As she and Robbie went through the house, she felt this was where they were supposed to be.
Enter Martin who, at that time, was working for Wright Fuels. Sharon’s house was heated with oil. It was his job to sell heating to new customers. It didn’t take long for Martin to recognize Sharon’s great need. Her situation never left his heart and mind.
Years later, being part of our Welland site and its anchor cause – along with our youth’s involvement in Mission 360 — Martin saw an opportunity. He approached our youth leader and together they concocted a plan. He went back to Sharon’s house; at first, she didn’t remember Martin from their original meeting. When realization finally dawned on her and she understood that he wanted to bring some youth to her property to do work, she was skeptical – she was told by a friend to not trust church groups who want to “help.” “There’s always a catch with religious people,” said the friend.
Reluctantly, Sharon agreed with Martin’s proposal. She thought four or five young people would show up, do some half-hearted work – like some teenagers are wont to do – and leave to never be heard from again. Much to her amazement, however, two busloads of kids showed up. And then, later that same day, a third one came.
Sharon was impressed with these atypical young people giving up time during the summer, and a church who would prioritize serving those in need. And, she said, “From that moment on, Martin has never left us.” I snuck a peak at Chris Fowler to see if this had the same emotional impact it had on me. It did.
In the ensuing six years, Martin seldom goes any significant length of time without being at Sharon’s farm working on some project or other. And when he does have to leave on an extended Mennonite Disaster Service trip, he leaves Sheila, his wife, with phone numbers of people who can help Sharon in any given emergency.
Here I pause to point out that which, for me, was one of the biggest takeaways. Not unlike Martin telling us things about Sharon, which she wouldn’t have told us herself, Sharon told us things about Martin which he likewise wouldn’t have told us himself: most of the above work, for example. Sharon’s recurring refrain was, “What Martin didn’t tell you [because he’s too humble] is…”
As we were about to wrap up our conversation with Sharon and take a tour of her property – it was important to Sharon that we see all of Martin’s direct handiwork and/or the things he made happen – she made sure that if we hadn’t quite gotten the point yet, we would before we went to lunch. She left us with these thoughts: “Martin never left Robbie and me. Martin has been a man who never stops giving.
“There’s one thing you need to know about Martin: Martin is not just a friend. Martin is family. And we’re part of Martin’s family too… Martin is so happy to work with the Lord. The good Lord doesn’t ask Martin to do things, He works through Martin. He’s so happy to serve.”
And finally, she told us she believes that God has chosen Martin and that not everybody is chosen. To which Chris remarked, “I wonder if more people are chosen and they’re just not listening…”
As Chris and I drove away from our lunch with Martin, we reflected on Sharon for whom it’s difficult to attend church because she’s a 24/7 caregiver to her son, Robbie. We thought about her saying that Martin has never left her and Robbie, and were reminded of the scripture: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).
When Chris and I were with Martin and Sharon, as we walked around her property, and later as we sat and had lunch in the Ontario Street Canton House restaurant, we experienced the holy privilege of being gathered in His name…and He was with us.
We had caught a glimpse into an unlikely friendship that had so deeply affected two lives and which, for me, had given a window into what God’s kingdom could look like in our world and in our relationships.
This story was written by Rocco Maiolo.