Friday, July 1, 2016

My Mom's parents served as Lutheran missionaries in Nigeria

While our Sylwester family was living in Seward, my mother's parents decided to move from Eugene, Oregon, to Nigeria to work as missionaries. On December 16, 1961, The Eugene Register-Guard newspaper published the following article about their decision.

The photograph's caption says:
Now just a location on the map of Africa, Obotidim, Nigeria, will soon become the home of the Rev. and Mrs. W. B. Maier of Eugene. The minister and his wife, who have been in Eugene for 23 years, announced this week that they will accept a call to the African mission station. The Rev. Maier is the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Eugene.
The the article says:
Lutheran Pastor, Wife, Heed Summons to Post in Nigeria 
After 23 years in the pastorate at Grace Lutheran Church, Eugene, the Rev. W. B. Maier announced this week that he will accept a call to a missionary post in Africa. 
He and his wife expect to leave in about three months. 
On Monday, the Rev. Maier's request for a "peaceful dismissal" -- his release from pastoral duties at the church -- was approved by the congregation of Grace Lutheran. 
The minister will go to a mission station seminary at Obotidim, in the coastal area of Nigeria. It is a few hundred miles from the medical mission station served by one of the Maiers' three sons, Dr. William Maier, a former Eugene resident. 
Obotidim, Mrs. Maier explained, "is just a little village in quite a primitive section." 
The missionary "compound" -- which includes a high school, the seminary and boarding schools -- only has about ten residences other than the school buildings. 
Groceries and supplies have to be purchased elsewhere and trucked in, Mrs. Maier said. 
The seminary for native students now has an enrollment of about 50, the pastor said, and the mission sponsor -- the Board of Missions of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod -- hopes to expand the seminary "as much a possible." The sponsoring denomination hopes to have an indigenous ministry in Nigeria by 1970. 
At the seminary, the Rev. Maier will teach various subjects, "probably mostly advanced theology." 
The minister's decision to consider mission service came rather recently, he explained. 
"I hadn't given it any thought until Bill (Doctor Maier, who left in September for his second term of three years in Nigeria) decided to go back." 
While on a recent trip, he said, he visited the Board of Missions office at St. Louis, Missouri, and the call to Nigeria came soon after. 
"We thought about it for a while," Mrs. Maier said. ""One reason we chose Africa was that we can deal in the English language there. At other mission posts, we would have a long period of language training before beginning work." 
But, she noted, looking around the comfortable church parsonage at 1343 Mill Street, Eugene, "it's going to be quite hard to break up housekeeping here." 
The Rev. and Mrs. Maier and their family came to Eugene in September, 1938, after nine years at Pocatello, Idaho. 
At that time, the Grace Lutheran congregation was meeting in the church at 11th Avenue and Ferry Street, now a place of business. Five years ago, under the leadership of its pastor, the congregation moved to new and larger quarters at 17th Avenue and Hilyard Street. 
Remaining in this country will be four of Maier's five children. 
Both of their daughters are now married. Mrs. Albert Brauer (Alice Maier) lives in Florence, and Mrs. Robert Sylwester (Ruth Maier) in Seward, Nebraska. The Brauers have six children, and the Sylwesters have seven children. 
Don Maier is a student at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri, where he will graduate in June. He is married and has two children. 
The Maier's youngest son, Kenneth, is a first-year student at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. But he hasn't decided yet whether to follow his father and older brother into the mission field.
My Maier grandparents did move to Nigeria in 1962. At first, Grandma did not want to go, but she changed her mind when she learned that she would be able to visit Europe on the way there and on subsequent vacations. Eventually my grandparents came to love living in Nigeria. They stayed five years and left only because the Biafra war began and they were forced to depart in 1967.

My grandparents lived in Africa during the period when my age was 10 to 15. They visited us in Seward twice. The first time they visited, our family was living on Faculty Lane -- probably in about 1964. On that occasion, Grandpa gave a talk to an assembly at St. John Elementary School, and I will say more about that later in this article. The second time they visited was in 1967, when they had been forced to leave Nigeria permanently and they were returning to Oregon.

Grandpa Maier taught theology at the Nigerian Lutheran seminary. His son (my uncle) Bill worked as a medical missionary in Nigeria, and his family visited us in Seward for about a week when it moved from there back to the USA. Another son (my uncle) Don later served as a missionary in neighboring Ghana. Many years later, his son-in-law (my uncle) Abbie worked as a medical missionary in Kenya.

Three or four times a year, our grandparents mailed us a package that contained a letter and some photographs. We would send our own letters and photographs back. The packages was that they had to be tied with string so that they could be opened easily for Nigerian customs inspections.

In later years, the packages going back and forth included a reel of recording tape. My Dad would bring a tape recording machine home from college, and we would listen to our grandparents talking, and then we would talk back to them.

The photographs that my grandparents sent us showed their environment. They lived in small but nice house. Some of the photographs featured snakes. One photograph showed a snake so large that it extended across a road. One photograph showed a snake that had crawled into their home. My grandparents hired some servants, who were shown in some photographs.

The photographs that I remembered most were taken when my grandparents traveled to villages in rural areas. At that time, young women in villages normally went topless, and they appeared in many photographs. Eventually I became accustomed to seeing bare breasts in the photographs that my grandparents sent to us. (In those days, the National Geographic magazine showed bare breasts in illustrated articles about Third-World countries. When our class visited the school library, that magazine would be grabbed and studied immediately by the boys.)

When my grandparents visited us in Seward in about 1964, Grandpa was invited to give a talk at St. John Elementary School. Before he went to the school, I saw him in our home putting a lot of slide photographs into a slide projector. I noticed that some of the photographs showed topless teenage girls. I suggested to Grandpa that he should think twice about including those photographs in his talk. He dismissed my concern and said that he simply would explain to his audience that this topless clothing was common in that society. It seemed to me that Grandpa had become so used to seeing topless teenage girls during his preceding few years in Nigeria that he had lost his understanding of how these photographs would be perceived by a crowd of Lutheran elementary school pupils in Nebraska.

Indeed, later that day, Grandpa gave his slide-show talk to the entire student body assembled in the gymnasium in St. John school. I was sitting in the bleachers, cringing at my fore-knowledge that Grandpa's slid-show would include several of those photographs. As he showed the photographs and continued his talk, he did not remark immediately about the bare breasts. He continued to talk and show his slides, among which the bare breasts were interspersed. I was relieved to see that my fellow students refrained from exclaiming or laughing about those photographs. Only near the end of his talk did Grandpa remark that the topless clothing in the preceding slides was common in Nigerian village society and that we should think nothing of it.

Grandpa's talk to our school was excellent. I was impressed that he was so comfortable and articulate speaking to such a large audience.

While I was living in Seward, I thought that I myself might become a missionary in a foreign country. This thinking was part of my decision to begin learning the Russian language in Seward.

While my grandparents lived in Nigeria, they bought a lot of local art and gave it as presents to their relatives in the USA. Our family received many such presents, and so we had a lot of Nigerian hand-carved wooden masks hanging on our walls as decorations. For many years the masks retained a peculiar odor, from the wood itself or from the plant stalks on top that represented the head hair.

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