boehm-croppedMartin Boehm, one of the two founders of the United Brethren Church, passed away on March 23, 1812. It seemed to have been somewhat unexpected; he had enjoyed good health, and was riding short distances on horseback until a few days before his death. But when it came, it came fast, with increasing weakness and debility.

At one point, Boehm asked to be raised up in bed, saying he wanted to sing and pray. He did both in what historian Henry Adams Thompson described as “a clear and distinct voice.” He then laid back on his pillow. “And behold,” Thompson wrote, “he was no more.”

Boehm’s story is one of the best-known United Brethren stories. In 1756, at age 31, was selected by lot to become a Mennonite pastor, but he felt unworthy and lacked confidence in his preaching skills. It was written that he would “stammer out a few words and then be obligated to sit down in shame and remorse.” He agonized over this for months, and after much prayer, realized that though he preached about salvation, he, himself, was not saved. Toward the end of his life, as he reflected on those early days as a minister, Boehm said, “I lived and preached according to the light I had. I was a servant, and not a son.”

One day as Boehm plowed his fields, he knelt at the end of each row to pray, and the word “Lost, lost” continually hovered over him. Finally, halfway through a row, he broke. Falling to his knees, he cried out, “Lord save, I am lost!” The words of Luke 19:10 immediately came to him, “I am come to seek and save that which is lost.” Joy poured through him. He ran to the house and told Eva what had happened.

From that day on, preaching became a joy—a passion—and he zealously spread the message of salvation to which he had been oblivious for so long. Lives were transformed.

About ten years later, Boehm preached about his “Lost, Lost” experience at Isaac Long’s barn. William Otterbein, in the audience that day, had experienced something very similar several years before. So after Boehm concluded his message, Otterbein embraced Boehm and said, “We are brethren.” And here we are today, 250 years later.

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Throughout 2017, as we celebrate the United Brethren denomination’s 250th anniversary, we are looking at events from our history.

With rebel activity rising, the UB Mission board removed its last missionaries from Sierra Leone at the end of 1994. The next month, rebels captured Mattru Jong. When the Sierra Leone army regained control ten months later, our hospital had been totally trashed. Everything was gone—the generators, medicine, equipment, beds, linens. Only the building shell remained. The Mission board announced they wouldn’t invest to reopen the hospital.

Then along came Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), better known as Doctors Without Borders. This European organization, which won the 1999 Nobel Peace Price, provides healthcare in war-torn and unstable situations. When things stabilize, they leave.

MSF entered Sierra Leone in 1994 during the early days of the rebel war. In the years ahead, they supported several dozen medical clinics scattered throughout the country. Among other things, they vaccinated tens of thousands of children for measles.

MSF signed an agreement with Sierra Leone Conference to run a clinic out of Mattru Hospital. They poured thousands of dollars into the facility–renovating the buildings, clearing brush, installing a generator and pump, bringing in new equipment. By 2000, Mattru Hospital was flourishing once again. In addition to the usual medical services, over 100 kids, plus their mothers and often siblings, stayed at the hospital as part of a feeding program. The spiritual emphasis was missing–that’s not part of MSF’s purpose–but quality healthcare had returned to that part of the country, with services offered at little or no cost.

A fair amount of the staff hired by MSF were United Brethren people who had worked at Mattru prior to the war. MSF’s head nurse, a German woman who had served in various world hotspots, told Global Ministries director Gary Dilley that in many places, hospital personnel were poorly paid and therefore didn’t put much effort into patient care. But Mattru, she said, was different. She was impressed by the dedication and personal attention of the hospital workers. “To me,” Dilley wrote, “it showed that she was coming in contact with Christians.”

On March 22, 2002, Medecins Sans Frontieres concluded its work at Mattru and transferred control to Sierra Leone Conference. MSF, essentially, took some devastated buildings, turned them into a well-equipped hospital–and then gave it all to us. It’s always interesting to see how God carries out his purposes.

Duane Reahm retired in 1981 after 12 years as bishop. He had given 22 years as a United Brethren pastor, and 20 years as a denominational official–eight years as Director of Missions, four years as Bishop of the East District, and eight years as Overseas Bishop.

Now, he and his wife, Leona, looked forward to a long retirement, and to doing a lot of traveling. The United Brethren magazine said after his retirement, “He says he wanted to retire in good health, and he’s done that. Great health, in fact, and lots of energy.”

But who can predict the future?

In 1986, Reahm was stricken with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This disease gradually—so gradually—steals muscle control until, eventually, it reaches the most important muscle of all, the heart. He fought a valiant fight. The spirit and strength he showed in those final years remain as an enduring legacy, on top of the legacy he left as a servant of God in this denomination.

With the onset of ALS, God allowed Duane Reahm to go down a much different road than he and Leona had planned, a road nobody would choose for retirement. But he traveled it faithfully and patiently. And along the way he left his mark on the many people who watched with admiration his difficult journey.

Bishop Emeritus Duane A. Reahm passed away March 19, 1991, at age 73.

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John Russel was born March 18, 1799. As a teenager, he apprenticed with a blacksmith. Russel’s father made two purchases for him: a set of blacksmith tools, and a slave to blow and strike for him. When the blacksmith decided to move, Russel and his slave opened their own (well, Russel’s) blacksmith shop.

Russel’s grandfather emigrated from Germany around 1756, and was soon converted under the preaching of William Otterbein. Otterbein frequently stopped at the Russel home, and he preached the grandfather’s funeral sermon.

John’s parents were godly persons (with a blindspot, like so many others from that time period, when it came to slavery), and he grew up sticking to the straight and narrow. Not long after starting the blacksmith shop, Russel knew God wanted him in the ministry. He abandoned the shop, set the slave free, and headed off to the annual meeting of Pennsylvania Conference.

Bishop Christian Newcomer licensed Russel to preach and placed him in charge of a circuit of churches in Virginia. Historian Henry Thompson wrote, “He had little knowledge and no experience, but he had a flaming zeal for the salvation of souls.”

Russel got off to a great start, with people flocking to hear him preach. The next year, he was given a huge circuit which started in Hagerstown, Md., then meandered through Chambersburg, Carlisle, and other parts of Pennsylvania, with preaching points located far apart. When his horse broke down, he traveled on foot.

In 1819, the 20-year-old Russel traveled with Newcomer into the wilderness of Ohio, which was quickly becoming settled and needed preachers. Russel was assigned to a circuit in southern Ohio that took him up to seven weeks to complete. This was the frontier. His constant traveling included dense forests, drenching rain, drifting snow, deep rivers, makeshift shelters, and a lot of mud.

One time, while riding in southern Ohio, Russel came across a man chopping wood.

“Where is Lazarus?” Russel called out.

“What did you say?” the man replied.

“I said, where is the body of Lazarus?”

The man shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Russel told him, “If you come hear me preach, I’ll tell you where Lazarus is.”

The man, curious now, came to the service. Russel’s first words upon entering the pulpit were, “There is a man here who wants to know where the body of Lazarus is.” He then used the story of Lazarus to present the Gospel, and the man became a Christian.

In 1834, Russel was involved with starting The Religious Telescope, the first denominational publication. In 1838, he moved to Baltimore to pastor the Otterbein Church–the church which William Otterbein pastored for 39 years. He was elected bishop 1845-1849, and again 1857-1861.

Russel retired to a home in Maryland near the Antietam battlefield. During that bloody Civil War battle, his home was turned into a hospital, with all fourteen rooms filled with sick and wounded soldiers. Russel died December 21, 1870.

Robert Rash was born March 16, 1904. He would go on to serve 43 years as a United Brethren minister. He started and pastored a number of churches, and served 24 years at the national office–16 years as Director of Christian Education, and eight years as bishop. He was a marvelous servant of the Church–a godly man able to do a lot of things well.

Rash grew up on a farm in Ohio, and at age 19 became a Christian during revival services at the Victory Chapel United Brethren church near Cridersville, Ohio. The next year, in April 1924, he married a girl from Victory Chapel, Kathryne, and they moved into a small farm owned by Robert’s father.

That fall, during revival meetings at Victory Chapel, Robert once again found himself at the altar–this time to follow God’s call into the ministry. He and Kethryne sold the livestock and farm equipment, and he began pastoring churches in Indiana and Ohio. He finally got around to entering Huntington College in 1931.

In 1932, Rash and another HC student started a UB church in Decatur, Ind. He became pastor of College Park UB church in Huntington in 1934, and in 1936 started a church in the Grayston Avenue community. In 1937, he was assigned to the UB church in Zanesville, Ind., and from there started a church in nearby Bluffton. Three churches in one decade.

The 1941 General Conference elected Rash as Director of Christian Education. He served 16 years in that role. He wrote and spoke extensively and provided leadership in a lot of different ways. In 1952, Huntington College conferred the honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.

Robert Rash was elected bishop in 1957 and assigned to the West District, which stretched from Ohio to California. Clarence Carlson was bishop of the East District. During the next four years, six of Rash’s seven conferences showed membership increases.

In 1961, General Conference re-elected Carlson on the first ballot. On the second ballot, there was a tie between Rash and Clyde Meadows for the other bishop position. Rash, who was chairing the meeting, urged the delegates to vote for Meadows. It took a fourth ballot, and another plea on Rash’s part, but they did elect Meadows.

During the next four years, Rash pastored a couple churches and did other things. Then, in 1965, he was again elected bishop, this time taking the place of the retiring Clarence Carlson. He returned to the West District.

While holding meetings in Kansas in August 1968, Rash suffered a severe heart attack, followed by a second heart attack while in ICU. He recovered, but was unable to complete the last year of his term. After the 1969 General Conference, he became a chaplain in Huntington for the hospital and nursing homes, which daughter Eva Nell Anderson described as “some of the most satisfying and rewarding years of his long career.”

Robert Rash passed away on January 198, 1975, while watching TV with his wife. They had just heard a Gospel song about heaven. He turned to Kathryne and said, “Wasn’t that a beautiful song?” Those were his last words.

Dr. William D. Witte in his Civil War uniform.

Dr. William B. Witte in his Civil War uniform.

In 1856, we appointed our first two missionaries to Sierra Leone: Rev. J. K. Billheimer of Virginia, and Dr. William B. Witt of Cincinnati. They sailed from New York City on December 5, 1856, and arrived in Sierra Leone about 40 days later.

Dr. Witt served 18 months before illness forced him to leave Africa. Mission director Daniel Flickinger said he provided valuable, fruitful service to people both spiritually and physically, “being well skilled in the science of medicine, a fluent preacher, and a warm-hearted Christian.”

Four years after returning to the States, Witt entered the Civil War as a physician with the 69th Indiana Infantry Regiment. The regiment formed with about 1000 troops on August 19, 1862, and ten days later suffered 218 casualties in the disastrous Union defeat at Richmond, Kent. The entire regiment was captured. After going through a prisoner exchange, they reorganized at the end of November. The 69th Indiana went on to participate in numerous battles, including Chickasaw Bayou, Milliken’s Bend, Port Gibson, Champion’s Hill, and Vicksburg.

Witt died on March 13, 1864 on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The regiment was moving from its inland camp at Indianola to Matagorda Island. That required crossing a 300-yard stretch of Matagorda Bay in a makeshift raft consisting of pontoon boats tied together.

As Witt’s group crossed, carrying full equipment, an incoming wave swamped the raft. Witt–doctor, minister, missionary, soldier–was among the 23 men who drowned.

Bishop Christian Newcomer

Bishop Christian Newcomer

The day after Pennsylvania Conference ended in April 1829, Bishop Christian Newcomer, now 82 years old, crossed the Allegheny Mountains to meet with United Brethren people in Ohio.

He was gone 11 weeks, from April 11 to June 25, and traveled 1500 miles on horseback. During that time, he attended three annual conferences and one General Conference, and did other peaching along the way.

Historian Henry Spayth wrote, “Daily and continually, whether in the house or on the highway, in conversation or meditation, his mind appeared to be filled with but one thought, and that thought was the salvation of a lost world.”

In October of that year, Newcomer wrote in his journal, “My feebleness is increasing; the strength of my constutition is gone.” But he was still bishop, and he kept at it as much as he could.

Newcomer’s last trip occurred on March 1, 1830, when he held a quarterly local church conference in Boonsborough, Md. On the way home, his horse stumbled and threw him to the ground. Despite suffering four broken ribs and a pierced lung, he got himself home, where a doctor was summoned. But he kept getting worse.

On March 12, 1830, Bishop Christian Newcomer climbed out of bed to kneel in prayer. Then he laid down and passed on to Glory.

Abbie Swales and Henry Becker

Abbie Swales and Henry Becker

On March 11, 1916, Abbie Swales began her first term as a United Brethren missionary in Sierra Leone. She would serve a total of five terms up through 1941, all of it at the girls’ school at Bonthe.

Throughout those years, Abbie knew a Sierra Leonean named Henry Becker. Henry was one of their brightest, most spiritual young ministers. He became a highly successful minister and evangelist in the Gbangbaia area.

World War I brought high prices for all kinds of products, and Henry was drawn to the opportunity to make money. He left the mission staff and became a successful trader. Along the way, he drifted into polygamy. However, despite his backslidden condition, Henry continued attending church services, which meant continual contact with missionaries.

They all worked on Henry, trying to bring him back to the Lord. But he was thoroughly entangled in business matters and polygamy, and though he felt God tugging on his heart, he didn’t know how to extricate himself. One Sunday morning at the end of the service, he stood and told the young men in the congregation, “You know what I once was and what I am now. I beseech you, do not follow in my footsteps. Be true to the Lord.”

This struggle continued for years.

As Abbie Swales began her final term in 1937, she developed a special burden for Henry Becker. She contended, “He once knew the Lord. He HAS to return to Him.” For the next three years she prayed for him and pleaded with him, but he remained unmoved.

Finally, the time came for Abbie to leave Sierra Leone for what would be the last time. While waiting for a ship, she spent three weeks living with missionaries George and Daisy Fleming in Gbangbaia. Every day, she walked down the hill to Henry’s house to urge him to return to the Lord. And every day, the Flemings watched her come back in tears, her mission a failure.

The day Abbie departed for Freetown, she told George Fleming, “I am committing Henry Becker to you now. Don’t forget about him. He MUST come back to the Lord.”

Some days later, Fleming paid a visit to Henry Becker. He found Henry sitting at a table with a letter in his hands–a letter which Abbie had written in Freetown before leaving the country. Henry had just received it that morning.

After reading the letter, Henry said to himself, “What can you do with a woman who won’t give up on you?” He then knelt at the table and surrendered himself to the Lord. When Fleming showed up shortly thereafter, he told him what had happened and said, “I have committed what is left of my life to Him.”

Within six months, Henry Becker was back in the ministry, and remained there for the rest of his life. Fleming wrote, “I never heard him preach an evangelistic sermon that did not bring a response. Ever since his return to the Lord, he has been making up for lost time.”

Becker continued serving as a minister into his 80s, and became known as “the grand old man of the conference.” He passed away in his 90s. Fleming described him as ”a grand Christian gentleman, beloved by all.”

Abbie Swales passed away on Christmas Day, 1965.

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On March 9, 1841, the US Supreme Court handed down a ruling in favor of some slaves from Sierra Leone. The story was told in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 movie, “Amistad.” The case directly influenced our decision, 15 years later, to begin mission work in Sierra Leone.

In 1839, a Spanish slave ship left the island of Sherbro in Sierra Leone with a load of Mende and Sherbro slaves—perhaps several hundred in all. After the ship reached Cuba, 53 of them were bought and placed on a smaller ship, the Amistad, and sent to plantations in Cuba.

During the journey, Joseph Cinque led an attack on the ship’s crew, killing all but two crew members. They ordered that the ship be directed to Africa, but the crafty Spaniards sailed a zigzag course, and the Amistad drifted northward for two months. Finally, in August 1839, an American ship seized the Amistad off the coast of New York. By that time, only 39 of the original 53 Africans remained alive.

The Sierra Leoneans were taken to Connecticut, where slavery was still legal. But anti-slavery activists came to their defense. A Connecticut court declared that the Africans were not truly slaves. The case continued to the Supreme Court, which also sided with the Africans, declaring that they had been illegally transported and held as slaves, and had rebelled in self-defense. It ordered them freed.

News of the slave ship landing in New England spread quickly. Christians rallied around the Africans, providing food, clothing, and other support. The case also drew attention to their homeland. The sad case of the Amistad created much interest in missions.

The Sierra Leoneans returned to Sierra Leone in January 1842, accompanied by missionaries who started what became the Mende Mission. When United Brethren decided to begin work in Sierra Leone, missionaries from the Mende Mission helped us get settled. Then, in 1882, all assets of the Mende Mission were transferred to the United Brethren church, greatly expanding the scope of our work in Sierra Leone.

hazel300Hazel McCray served 16 years as Executive Secretary of the Women’s Missionary Fellowship, 1977-1993. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, and passed away March 8, 1993.

Hazel was born and raised on a farm in Northern Illinois. She married Robert McCray, and they farmed for 31 years near Claytonville, Ill. They were key laypersons in the Claytonville UB church.

Over the years, Hazel held pretty much every position in the Women’s Missionary Association at the local and branch levels. She joined the WMA’s leadership board in 1961, and served as its president for 14 years, a position which also put her on the executive committee of the Board of Missions.

In December 1977, Hazel was elected Executive Secretary of the WMA, and began her work the following spring. She simultaneously held the title of Associate Director of Missions. During her years in the national office, she visited the United Brethren work in Honduras, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Hong Kong, Macau, and India.

Hazel was not only gifted in administration, but was a talented speaker who was much in demand. She was as an unflinchingly strong advocate for the WMA (which, during her years, changed its name to Women’s Missionary Fellowship). She loved the WMA, and loved United Brethren missions.