MISSIONARIES to Sarawak: Martha Anne Graf The first to evangelize by “gospel boat”

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M iss Martha Anne Graf, a Swiss lady, was born on 28 June 1896 in Thal, Kt. St. Gallen, North Eastern Switzerland. Since her early years she had the thought of becoming a missionary. Her mother passed away after she completed high school. Her home church was unable to support her in realizing her dream. So, at eighteen, she left for America to equip herself for mission work. She arrived not knowing anyone in the United States.

The following year, 1915, she entered Cincinnati Missionary Training School as a night student for two years before enrolling herself as a regular student and graduating in 1919. She also entered Cincinnati University for a year. From 1920-1922, she studied at the Ohio Wesleyan University and received A.B. after 2 years.

Teaching and Evangelizing in Kutian
Apparently “Ga-Siew-Ing嘉秀英” was the Chinese name she adopted after arriving China. She served as a missionary in China for 29 years. The Cincinnati Branch of the Women’s foreign Missionary Society sponsored her and she was commissioned under the name of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society (W.F.M.C.) of the America Methodist Episcopal Church, during a meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, on 29 October 1922 to serve as a missionary with the Methodist Episcopal Church Foochow Annual Conference. After taking a two-year course, she started her work with the Kutian District Methodist church, in education and women’s ministry until 1928. She was the principal of Kutian Yu Xin Girls High School. Kutian, in earlier English documents it was also known as Kutien or Kucheng.

From 1928 to 1929, she returned to US for furlough and joined Drew Theological Seminary for extension course. From 1929 till 1936, after returning to China, she was working in evangelistic work in schools and villages. When she returned to US for another furlough from 1936 to 1937, she joined the Union Theological Seminary, New York for intensive courses. In 1937 she attended lectures at Universities of Basel and Zurich, Switzerland, then later went to Denmark to study at the International Folk School at Helsingore. She was the evangelist in Kutian from February 1938 till June 1944. During this time, the Japanese were invading China and life was getting very difficult. She had to flee out of China as a refugee. Once she recollected that there were Japanese soldiers guarding all the roads. She just took her accordion in her hands and marched over the mountain, singing gospel hymns and playing her accordion. Nobody stopped her.

When she returned for the third furlough, in 1945 she enrolled into Hartford Seminary, Connecticut for a semester and the second semester she enrolled into the Merrill-Palmer School, Detroit. From February 1947 till January 1951 she continued to serve in Kutian as an evangelist. By then the Communists had taken over China, expelling all foreign missionaries and she returned to America. In September 1951 till January 1952 she continued her studies at a Biblical Seminary in New York.

Sibu, the paradise in the south

In September 1952, Miss Graf left her home again, heading towards Asia. This time she was posted to Sibu. Arriving in Sibu in November, she was happy and surprised to find some of her long lost Kutian friends in the little town nicknamed “New Foochow”.

She recalled that, “Before coming to Sarawak I thought I would never forget the pain I endured while serving in China. At that time there were so many fellow missionaries forced to leave China, I thought we would be posted to different places and would meet again. However, coming to Sibu, Sarawak is like going to the paradise in the south, here I met so many colleagues, friends and church members and it was such a joy to meet them again.”

That year Martha was posted to serve at the Women’s Society of Christian Service of the Sarawak Provisional Annual Conference. Her work included evangelism, home visitation, giving literacy classes, helping in the Women’s Society of Christian Service and also teaching at the seminary. Martha, Miss Ellen Atkinson and Miss Katherine Wingert were the pioneer women missionaries sent to Sarawak by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of Methodist Episcopal Church.

“The Lady with the Gospel Boat”

Martha was the first to use the “gospel boat” (motor launch) which was given by the Women’s Division of Christian Service. She travelled by boat along the Rejang River, visiting the 52 Methodist churches along the river, carrying out the training and ministry for the Women’s Society. The boat helped her greatly in her ministry and also helped in spreading the gospel in Sarawak.

Along the Rejang River, Martha was known far and wide as “The Lady with the Gospel Boat”. As she speeded up and down the river in her motor launch people hailed her at almost every dock. They wanted to ride! They wanted to catch rides to the hospital, or to church, or to school, or to meetings, or just to ride.
The name of the boat was ‘Louise R’, with a length of 27 feet, containing a small apartment, with three possible sleeping places and a stove for cooking. In 1952, Martha was ordained as a Reverend. In 1953 the boat broke down for no known reason and could not be used again.

Martha served in Sarawak for ten years. In her report to the Annual Conference in 1953 she said that, “Travelling by road in the Rejang Basin is dangerous. Most of the roads are not solidly paved, the wooden plank roads may shake, the earthen roads are often muddy and slippery, lodgings at night are infested with louse and gnat. I can only sleep on the long bench of the church sanctuary, the table in the school or on the floor, often woke up by babies crying at midnight.”

“Despite such hardship, I have to thank the staff of the Women’s Society as well as the Principal for their kind treatment, often giving me eggs, chickens, Ovaltine drink and other delicacies.” In 1953, she evangelized in 38 different places and delivered over 220 sermons. Wherever she went she encouraged the congregation to learn singing hymns, to use a new method to teach the children and to pray at home and in public and to be witness for Christ. As she was an “Ang-mo” who could speak Foochow fluently, a lot of people were curious and were attracted to the evening gathering.

To help members of the Women’s Society to understand the Bible better and to get closer to God, in 1953 she printed 1,000 copies of a devotional handbook on the Gospel of Luke. In each gathering she would ask the congregation to memorize one verse per week, to learn to sing one hymn from the Hymns of Universal Praise per month (making 12 hymns a year). Every year, she would lead Bible study on one book of the Bible. She said she could not forget an old lady of seventy who had only a tooth left, but she could recite thoroughly.

In her report to the Annual Conference in 1955, she stated that she was worried that the congregation of the churches would be like the Laodicean Church, engrossed in money making, self- sufficient and neglecting their spiritual life. They preferred to work in the pepper garden or tap rubber on Sunday rather than going to church. Many were Christians in name only. They were not reborn and they didn’t have high aims in life or the heart to serve in church. This ‘Lukewarm’ scenario was dangerous.

Martha returned to US for furlough again in 1957. She studied in the Scarritt Seminary from October to December and later went to Switzerland and other places to give talk and sharing. In 1958, she returned to Sibu again and was appointed as the person-in-charge of the Mission Board. However in her report she also mentioned about ministering at the Sarikei Methodist Town Church for nine months. As the pastor she tried to set up a centre for family worship so as to “make a Christian family and bring the whole family to the church”; and not send a ‘representative’ to church every Sunday. She also wanted to train true Christians who lived a devoted Christ-centered life. She also suggested setting up a lay training centre. In 1958, Dr Ivy Chou from Methodist Theology School released the lay training course which was successfully conducted in five churches, later the course was conducted from time to time. Martha was one of the lecturers of the course.

In1962, Martha retired and returned home. Lau Tiong Kii, a member of Doh Ang Methodist Church, southern bank of Sibu said that Martha used to supervise the women ministry’s work in Doh Ang Methodist Church and if she missed her boat, she would stay in his home and Martha could speak fluent Kutian Foochow. She once asked his family if there was anything they wanted and his father, Lau Tiew Chuong, said, he would love to buy a bell for the church. So when Martha returned to Switzerland she bought a bell for them. It was wrongly sent to Sungai Bidut’s Ching Ing Methodist Church. However, it was later returned to Doh Ang Methodist Church. The bell is still working today.

The ex-President of SCAC, Rev Ling Tiing Hui and his wife recalled that Martha was once serving in MangKuong Ming Kuong Methodist Church, Binatang (now called Bintangor). She once went to someone’s traditional latrine (toilet) and she fell into the big wooden pail full of human waste because the wooden planks couldn’t take her weight. Beside the big pail there were few more small pails under the man-hole. Soiled she laughingly said she couldn’t understand why there were so many buckets there and had spoilt these small pail because of her body build.

A brief summary
Martha Anne Graf was a Swiss who went to the seminaries in America. She served as a missionary in Kutian for 29 years and later served in the Rejang Basin for another 10 years. She worked among the women and was most concerned about the cultivation of spiritual life in the family. She believed that weak spiritual life came from lack of teaching. Thus in collaboration with the theological school she initiated the lay training courses to foster the spiritual life of the laity, enhance spiritual knowledge and improve the fellowship between God and the people.
Compiled by Menglei
Translated by KT Chew

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