View from Afar

We were visiting relatives in Corn, Okla. I was 12 and my mother took me to the Old People’s Home. She wanted me to meet an old lady who lived there-Paulina Foote.

“She was in China-remember that,” Mom said.

The place smelled awful, the room was dark, and a tiny lady was lying on a bed. The conversation was brief-but it seemed long. The entire situation was uncool for a 12-year-old.

Four decades later I am in the Et Cetera Shop in Hillsboro looking for airplane reading for my return trip to Chicago. I find a slender book, God’s Hands Over My Nineteen Years in China, written by Paulina Foote. Twenty cents is not a high price for airplane reading.

In the thicket of Bible verses and gospel choruses, Foote tells her amazing story. She was born to a poor family in Aulne. Her father-a Russian immigrant-worked at the Marion quarry. She attended Tabor Academy, then Tabor College, and taught in one-room schools.

Her dream was to be a missionary. As a single woman, she was thought qualified only to teach the children of missionaries. The Mennonite Brethren Church sent her to China in 1922.

By the 1930s, China was in the first stages of World War II. The Japanese were invading Manchuria; the local government was torn by civil war between the Nationalist Chinese and the Red Chinese.

Missionary families were packing their children off to safer areas. Foote learned Chinese, adopted an orphan daughter and cared for two other girls left behind by missionaries.

After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese sent most westerners in China to internment camps. Except for Paulina Foote. She smuggled messages back and forth across Japanese lines to interned missionary families. Once she knew the Japanese were no longer looking for her, she took off on her own.

At this point she finds she is a prim, single woman alone in China with no instructions from men-not male missionaries and not mission board executives in Hillsboro.

Throughout the remainder of World War II she wanders across China via wheelbarrow, trucks, mules and riverboats. She preaches, she tends the sick.

When a communist general takes over a mission compound, she is appalled by this banditry. But she negotiates with him, discovers he speaks a little German and is not such a bad fellow after all.

Japanese troops leave a compound littered with corpses-resulting both in a stench and serious health hazard. So she crosses the battle lines and informs their commander that this mess needs to be cleaned up. She gets permission to bury the bodies.

When a local congregation of Chinese is feuding, she decides she is the person who understands Scripture (and common sense) best. She feels no demure womanly restraint in preaching to them.

She is ecumenical-she stays with missionaries of many traditions. By the end of the war, she is happy to bounce around in jeeps with American GIs, and discovers K-Rations are not so bad. Rumors circulate of how, years earlier, she provided nursing care to Chou En Lai during the Great March.

The story begins to attain the outline of legend. Think Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen” or Ingrid Bergman in “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.”

When the war is over and she is again in contact with Hillsboro, she decides to do a victory lap, so she travels alone to re-contact churches throughout China in another 2,000-mile excursion.

Finally, she returns to America. Before departure from Shanghai, she finds a western outfit in a thrift shop. When she boards the boat for California, she is wearing an orange turban, a long green coat and white canvas shoes.

In San Francisco, she is greeted by Mennonite Brethren Church leaders. They inform her she will be speaking at the church in Reedley, Calif., and she becomes suddenly self-conscious. She reverts back to fear and insecurity. She has nothing appropriate to wear, consistent with her role as a modest missionary lady.

At 12, I was too na?ve-make that ignorant-to see anything more than a strange old person. I did not know what questions to ask of a woman who had danced on the stage of history. Today, I pray that I have grown enough to know the strangest people have the best stories-if only I have eyes to see.

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