Former Missionaries Reflect On 21-year African Sojourn

October 30, 1991|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff writer

TANEYTOWN — Amid a safari's worth of stuffed wild game and portraits of African natives, the Rev. John Grimley and his wife, Mildred, have spent 10 years ministering to the members of Piney Creek Church of the Brethren.

Along the way, the couple -- who served as missionaries in Nigeria from 1945 to 1966 and are retiring Friday -- have also tried to teach members of the community what Africa is really like.

"I've gone to many school groups and shown the home films I have,and I always take him with me," the white-haired pastor said, gesturing to the stuffed baboon above the piano.

"Yes, he's my inspiration when I play," Mildred quipped.

The animals, mostly gifts from friends while the couple were in Africa, were stuffed by John, who learned taxidermy along with a friend in the eighth grade.

"We'd go to high school and give talks about taxidermy," he recalled. "We'd make sketches about how to do taxidermy and take specimens of the hawks and things we'd stuffed."

The warthog hanging above the desk in his office is one of the few animals John bagged.

"I'm not much of ahunter," he said with a laugh.

The paintings, including biblical scenes Mildred used in Africa to tell the story of Moses, are also the 76-year-old pastor's work. A portrait of their friend, Abu, an African soothsayer, adorns the wall above the couch.

Recalling their years in Nigeria, the Grimleys say they miss the African landscape even today. The town where they raised their four children -- John, 47, Millie, 45, Joanne, 43, and Peggy, 35 -- was their home for 21 years.

"They feel their roots are still there," Mildred said. "One of our daughters and her husband went with us to visit there because he said he wanted to know what made his wife tick."

Both of the Grimleys were intent on serving at a religious mission when they met as students at Juniata College in Huntington, Pa.

"I was already planningto go to Greenland, so we compromised and went to Africa," Mildred said.

After marriage, they pursued degrees at Bethany Theological Seminary in Oak Brook, Ill. Upon graduation in 1942, Mildred had earned a bachelor's degree in sacred literature, and John had a master's degree in theology.

But World War II delayed their journey until Dec. 31, 1944. The eight-month trip took them south through South America and finally across the Atlantic by boat.

"There still were submarines in the Atlantic, so we detoured down through Central America and South America to Buenos Aires," John said.

While in Nigeria, Mildred taught Bible school and English to the African natives, and John served as executive director of the churches. Their children attended a boarding school in Jos.

The churches grew rapidly while they were there and are growing still, the Grimleys said.

"When we camein 1945, there were about 600 Christians," John said. "When we left in 1966, there were 7,000 to 10,000, and now we can't figure out if there are 100,000 or 150,000."

Nigeria's population was around 1 million in 1945. Now there are about 2 million people.

Church growthcame through word of mouth and a curiosity about what was happening in the churches, John said.

"There's always a big tree in the center of the town. And during the day people of all ages are sitting there doing something or another, like shelling peanuts," he said. "The opportunity for cross-pollination between Christians and non-Christians is greater."

The Nigerians seemed more receptive to the Christian message than Americans, John said.

"There is a real need (in Nigeria) and a tremendous response. Here, there is as much of a need, maybe greater, but the response is so small. The fellowship between members is as warm and friendly, but the outreach is so difficult."

Although relations among Nigerian religious groups have not been peaceful in recent years, Muslims, Christians and animists got along wellwhile the Grimleys were in Africa.

John remembers when the local Muslim chief's wife went into labor and asked the pastor to help withthe birth. The father explained that he did not want an Islamic midwife in attendance, because she would cut the child's gums, believing it would help the child teethe faster.

"He knew that was inaccurate and didn't want it done," John said. "Still, that was amazing to meas a foreigner and a Christian. He would come to me when he wouldn'teven be with his wife."

According to Islamic tradition, Grimley said, the father could not be with his wife while she gave birth.

The Grimleys decided to return to the States when their children were teen-agers.

"Our children were in the transition ages between highschool and college," Mildred said. "We thought that maybe we should bring them back and get them adjusted to the culture shock."

Although they expected the children to have trouble adjusting to a different school system, the youths found their new classmates difficult to relate to.

"They had always been with other missionaries' kids whohad such a wide view of the world and were interested in other cultures," Mildred said. "The American kids seemed so provincial and interested in nothing but themselves and their own little worlds."

The Biafran war and the growth of an indigenous church in Nigeria prevented the Grimleys from returning, they said.

The couple pastored at a church in Paoli, Pa., for six years and another in Brookeville, Ohio, for nine years before coming to Carroll in 1981.

But the baboon, the leopard, the caracal and the rest of the Grimleys' animal kingdom will be moving to Ephrata, Pa., Friday.

After 55 years in the ministry, the pastor is settling down to dedicate more time to his painting, while Mildred, 72, will recount their African adventures in anautobiography.

"I'm not hanging up the Bible," John said, adding that he plans to fill in occasionally for vacationing pastors. "I'm just getting rid of the heavy responsibilities."

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