A Glimpse into the Mid-Century Brethren in Christ Missionary Mindset?

Martha Lady served as a missionary nurse in the Brethren in Christ Church's Macha Mission Hospital in the 1950s and 1960s. (Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

While scouring the web recently, I came across a fascinating bit of history: an interview with Martha Lady, conducted as part of the University of Kentucky’s Frontier Nursing Service Oral History Project.

Lady, who grew up in a Brethren in Christ home in Kansas, served as a missionary nurse in Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia) in the 1950s and 1960s, before returning to the U.S. to serve with Frontier Nursing Services in rural Appalachia.

I’m still making my way through the whole interview; it’s rather long, and much of it concerns details about Lady’s work with the Frontier Nursing Service relevant only to those who want to know about the program. But there are a number of interesting tidbits. Thus far, I’m most fascinated by Lady’s discussion of the similarities she found between those she served in Zambia and those she later served while in midwife training in rural Appalachia. Here’s a snippet:

I was intrigued with the similarities I found between [people in Appalachia] and the people I worked with in Africa.

. . . [In] my class there were four of us who were home on furlough from Africa, and we all had the same type of feeling. I think part of it is their close living in na-. . . with nature, especially your women that were having babies. To them this wasn’t any big deal. “This is what I’m here for. I’m . . . I was born to have children, let’s get down to work and have a baby.” And that’s . . . they went to work as though this is something . . . what we do and let’s not make a big fuss about it, very much like our African women did. But I think it was just sort of a basic oneness with nature. Something that . . . I don’t know what it was, but there was something very, very closely connected. . . .

[T]hey’re not complicated with a bunch of . . . their lives aren’t complicated with a lot of civilization. I don’t mean civilization, but a lot of fancy tape, fixings from . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what it is except that it’s a . . . as one of our doctors in Africa said, “Life is basic,” and that’s pretty much what it was. Just not as complicated. Maybe that’s the word I want.

This is a fascinating glimpse into the way at least one missionary from the Brethren in Christ Church — a self-proclaimed “rural person” — perceived the Africans among whom she worked.

My reflections lead me to a couple questions: To what extent was such thinking representative of Brethren in Christ missionaries in this era? If representative, to what extent did it shape their ministry approach?

I’ve set up a link to the entire 47-minute interview below. If any of you want to listen to the whole thing and encounter problems with this interface, let me know (in the Comments section) and I’ll try and fix it. (Keep in mind that the audio doesn’t start until about :11 seconds in.)

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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One Response to A Glimpse into the Mid-Century Brethren in Christ Missionary Mindset?

  1. David E Byer says:

    Thanks, Devin. The doctor’s remark “Life is basic” reminds me of a conversation I had with Dr. Alvan regarding his general medical practice in rural Ohio after he returned from Zambia. I’m sure he used the same phrase, and may very well have been the physician to whom Martha Lady referred. So now we have two Brethren in Christ missionaries who thought in the same way. I’m not sure what to say about shaping ministry approach.

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