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Missionaries Take Up New Challenge: Writing : Now Retired, Their Stories Describe Lives of Sacrifice and Dedication

July 14, 1986|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

They are modest, unassuming people who worked for their God in exotic, if unglamorous, locales that were generally Spartan and frequently dangerous.

They were devoted missionaries--ministers, doctors, nurses, teachers, musicians--whose lives, even in exotic-sounding places like China and Brazil, Lebanon and Thailand, India and West Africa, may have seemed humdrum on a day-to-day basis.

But they tell of surviving war, witnessing revolution, fleeing for their very lives, talking with world notables such as Mohandas Gandhi--and journeying for 19 days holding a box of hatching eggs, a commodity as precious to a missionary in a raw jungle as a Bible.

They are often surprised at the results of their labors, the monuments to their lives of sacrifice: a new hospital, a flourishing school, an expanding church, a choir that is a community cultural highlight.

Now, in their retirement years, these Presbyterian missionaries have taken up a new challenge: writing.

Wisely, most are writing about what they know best: their lives as American missioners.

Nineteen persons regularly took part in a just-completed, six-month artist-in-residence program underwritten by the California Arts Council in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts. Sessions were held at Westminster Gardens in Duarte, a facility operated by the Presbyterian Church (USA) for retired missionaries, ministers and their spouses.

Their teacher, Phyllis Osanna Love, said some of her students hope to see their work in magazines; others aspire to having a book published either commercially or privately.

These are a handful of the group and their stories:

Edith Moser, now 90, and her husband Homer had been missionaries 48 years in 1972 when they retired to Westminster Gardens. The mission years for the couple, both Midwesterners, began in 1922 when they went to a mysterious, faraway place: "We didn't know where Brazil was," Edith Moser said.

Her late husband, an expert in agriculture, asked to go to Brazil.

"We went to a 15,000-acre plantation in the state of Mato Grosso that had been a sugar plantation during the days of slavery," she said. "About all that was left was the remains of two old slave houses.

"The nearest town had 100 people; 600 miles away there was a larger town. We were the only Americans. Sometimes a couple from town would ride eight hours on horseback to visit us.

"We were 20 years in one spot, and we worked. "

Illiteracy, she said, was 98%, and there was no school in the vicinity.

"The school, we decided, was a worthwhile work," Moser said. "We took only children recommended by ministers of established churches there and in the states around. We had 50 to 60 boarding pupils and we all ate at the same table, our children with the schoolchildren."

Two of the Mosers' five children were born in Brazil. The first arrived prematurely and Mrs. Moser gave birth "with no help, no other woman." The second son, also born there, died at 2 of pneumonia after a five-day illness.

In the beginning, Moser said, the Brazilian parents were reluctant to send their daughters to the mission school.

"It was the day of chaperones because girls as young as 12 were literally abducted from the dance floor," she said. "Sin is not worse now. It's as it always has been, back to biblical times."

The Mosers learned how to process sugar, coffee and corn meal and to live off what they could produce on the plantation: "Our supplies came three days on oxen-back for the first 10 years." An on-going problem was the poor quality of the chickens ("the strangest feathered birds we had ever seen") they purchased from the passing caravans. They resolved to improve the local chickens through interbreeding.

Moser tells the story in "Chickens," written in the Westminster Gardens writing class, of which she was the oldest member.

In it she relates how the family traveled to Sao Paulo one December for a mission meeting and to do some shopping. Mrs. Moser also purchased six eggs from a Rhode Island Red chicken farm near the city with the idea of improving the local strain of chickens. The eggs were carefully wrapped and packed.

"I carried that package personally during our long trip home," Moser writes. "First there were five days on a wobbly narrow-gauge train, transfer to a 24-hour boat, wait four days in a hotel to get a small river boat to take us up the river for eight days--then a day of eight hours on horseback to our farm."

Fortunately, Moser said, one of the plantation hens was in a maternal mood. Five of the six eggs hatched: "I cared for those precious little peeps with gratitude, loving care and great hopes."

Her hopes were dashed when one of the chicks--the lone rooster among them--died.

"I had to start all over again," Moser said. Later, after the advent of air service, she could order chicks sent by plane and receive them within three days.

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