Saturday, 19 April 2014

Easter in the mission field

In August 1948, Joyce Peel wrote her first Annual Letter to the Church Missionary Society in London, outlining her first five months of work in the South Indian mission field. She expressed enthusiasm about the Easter play performed by the children of the mission school at Palamcottah. ‘[A]s they acted that well known story,’ she recalled, ‘something became apparent: the Hero Who never appeared in person but Whose presence was indicated by a movement a look or a hush, was Himself really there. This was no play acting, it was the drawing of the audience into the very presence of their Risen Lord.’ She was surprised to learn, when asking afterwards about the children, that most of them were Hindu. ‘Hindu in name perhaps,’ she told the CMS, ‘but Christian in spirit.’[1]

Easter in the mission field was certainly very different from Easter at home. ‘It seems so queer to have got to the Thursday in Holy Week, and to have seen no sign of Easter – eggs or cards – in any of the shops,’ wrote Dr Hilda Haythornthwaite of St Stephen’s Hospital, Delhi, in 1924, ‘I can’t say I’ve looked for them certainly, but its queer to be in a land that doesn’t keep Easter.’[2]

St James' Church in Delhi

For many women missionaries, however, celebrating Easter in a non-Christian land was a rewarding and heartening experience: a time of joy and hope. Serving in the mission field was tough. Converts were few in number and disappointments aplenty. Promising young Christians in whom missionaries had invested much time, effort, and love fell by the wayside. Sickness, loneliness, and depression loomed. The Easter observances, particularly the celebrations on Easter morning, served to remind missionaries of their purpose, providing much needed spiritual sustenance.

Women missionaries were touched and encouraged by the participation in the Holy Week services of the children and adults with whom they worked. They saw this as a sign that their work had not been fruitless; that, at this time, ‘the teachers and the children’s hearts [had been] touched, by the love of the Lord Jesus.’[3] At the CMS station at Meerut, Miss Tucker reported that pupils purchased ‘The Story of the Cross’ by Laubach to read on Good Friday.[4] This story was re-enacted in churches. On Easter Sunday, baptisms were held and missionaries noted the number of communicants. In her report to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in 1942, Stephanie Broomfield described the little Easter service prepared by children in the village of Yeli, Ahmednagar district. There was a procession, singing hymns and stopping at every house. The children called out loudly: ‘Christ the Lord is risen to-day’ and each householder ‘(duly prepared) popped out with an answering ‘Alleluya’ and an offering of grain.’[5]

Special treats were organised and missionaries’ Indian co-workers enjoyed a well-earned break. The nurses and doctors at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi went on a picnic outing – half the staff on Easter Monday and the other half on Easter Tuesday. This treat was partly financed by gifts from patients. ‘I believe they enjoy it immensely,’ the doctor wrote, expressing regret that she was unable to join her colleagues due to a previous engagement.[6]

The message of Easter and happiness of the mission’s Eastertide celebrations emboldened women missionaries to continue in their difficult daily work. Dr Haythornthwaite concluded her report to the SPG in good humour: ‘The ants are so pleased Lent is over!’ she joked. ‘I was given some sweets in a tin on Easter Day, and the lid wasn’t quite down. When I came back to my room I found a double pilgrimage going on. Their house is apparently on the roof or somewhere, but they were coming all the way down the wall, across my writing table into the tin, and out again, each with a fragment of sugar. One doesn’t realise how far reaching our abstinences are – how many ant homes have been destitute, I wonder!!’[7] India may have been vastly different from 'home' but for women missionaries, the joy of Easter remained the same.  

May you have a happy Easter! And may any eggs or sweets you receive be kept far from hungry ants!  

[1] CMS Archives, Birmingham. Annual Letters. 1940-1949. Joyce Peel, 1948.
[2] SPG Archives, Rhodes House, Oxford. Medical Missions Department. 470. St Stephen’s Hospital, Delhi. Reports, circular letters etc. 1919-1925. Dr Hilda Haythornthwaite, 1924.
[3] CMS Archives. AL 1940-1949.  Miss G.E.G. Tucker, 1945.
[4] Ibid.
[5] SPG Archives. E series reports. E95/12. Nasik. Stephanie Broomfield, 1942.
[6] SPG Archives. Medical Missions Department. 470. Dr Hilda Haythornthwaite, 1924.
[7] Ibid.