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Lifelong Missionaries : Women Return to Africa and 'a Place in the Heart'

November 25, 1987|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

Helen Watkins, 83, and Ruth Warfield, 77, have crisscrossed Africa on bicycle and foot, by car and train. They have eluded pagan spirit warriors and towed 17-foot mobile homes over choppy African roads. They have heard the too-near roar of lions.

They've brought the Gospel of Jesus into Muslim-controlled areas and faced what they termed "serious hostility." They persuaded the men of the Kagoro tribe to stop beating their wives, only to be told by one man, "We don't know if we like this Christianity. How can we free ourselves . . . of our frustrations?"

Watkins and Warfield are lifelong missionaries, retired and out of Africa since 1979. They live in Carlsbad in a mountainside development owned by Sudan Interior Mission, the interdenominational delegation both have served for more than three decades.

'Can't Wait'

Recently, they decided to go back to Africa--for a three-month visit.

"Imagine that, 'at their age,' " Warfield said. "I'm sure people will think that; some may even say it. But we feel great . We can't wait to get on that plane."

Watkins and Warfield are primed to see old friends. Today, they plan to leave San Diego and (several 747s later) land in Kano, Nigeria, where they met in 1939 and spent most of their lives together.

They're wrapping up a book on the first four entries of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), which they'll distribute throughout Nigeria. That's part of the reason for the trip.

But mainly, they're hoping to reconnect with what Warfield calls "a place in the heart."

Even now, Watkins and Warfield sound as though they prefer the hardscrabble, Spartan life of the African bush, where they had no electricity and "no buttons to push," an aspect of American life that Warfield said "drives us crazy, and people act as though they can't live without them."

"What would they do," she mused, "if they had to live in Africa, with no running water, no electricity, surrounded by hostile forces?"

Full of Nostalgia

Watkins and Warfield put together a life answering that question.

They love Africa and continue to see Kano, Nigeria, as home. They talk as though they never left, as though Carlsbad is an aberration made necessary by the crunch of old age.

In the eight years they've lived in North County, they've developed strong feelings about American materialism and the way that it "suffocates" spirituality. They miss the "authenticity" of African people, their love of nature, and find themselves heading back full of nostalgia.

Watkins describes missionary life as one of hard work and strain, danger and intrigue.

"My advice would be that if you're going to be a missionary, you've got to have a sense of humor. If you can't laugh, you're sunk. You've got to be flexible and resilient and full of forgiveness."

She remembers being chased through a village one night by a marauding pagan spirit man, who was later ousted by a chieftain sympathetic to Watkins.

"The need for the work is so great, so much needs to be done," she said. "Many of the African people are illiterate. They need education and better health. They need the gospel. Many are persecuted by fear of demons and evil spirits. Everything they fail to understand about nature is explained away by evil spirits. Ignorance fuels the rise of evil spirits and makes our work more difficult."

Warfield grew up in Baltimore and Tulsa, Okla. Watkins grew up in the El Cajon and Ramona areas and was educated at San Diego State University, which gave her a degree in 1926.

"To show you how old I am," Watkins said, "they once wrote an article about me in the San Diego Sun. So you see, I'm ancient."

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