A video on YouTube tells the story of the disappearance of Church of the Brethren missionaries in China, 75 years ago on Dec. 2, 1937. Find it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=V39ZYoHl4A4 .
On Dec. 2, 1937, Minneva Neher was serving as a Church of the Brethren missionary in China, along with Alva and Mary Harsh. Times were difficult in the place she was serving; Japan and China were at war, and there were many Japanese soldiers in the area in which she lived. Hardship was all around.
And yet Minneva was not without hope, for the difficult times were providing ample opportunity to preach the gospel. In a letter to her parents written that day, Minneva wrote that many people in the area had moved into the mission compound, trusting that it would be a place of refuge and safety in the midst of the violence of war. She wrote, “their being here is giving us the most unique opportunity to preach the gospel that I have seen since I have been in China, as many of these folks never had anything to do with the mission before.” She and the Harshes led–among other things–daily evangelistic services.
Her hope in God in the face of difficult circumstances is a source of optimism; yet that is not the end of the story. Later that very day, she and the Harshes were called to come outside the compound to provide assistance for someone in need. They were never heard from again.
An investigation into their disappearance yielded no clues as to their whereabouts. It is presumed that they were martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ on that day. Seventy-five years later, my own Church of the Brethren congregation began our Advent preparation by remembering the faith of these co-laborers for Christ.
This story from our faith tradition sheds light on our Advent preparation in two directions. The story sheds light backward onto Mary’s story, helping us understand the great risks God sometimes asks us to take on His behalf. Mary’s choice to say yes to God is almost absurd when you consider how much she had to lose: a marriage and the source of economic security and social status that came with that; and even her very life, as she might have been executed for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. But even with these very real risks, this young girl found within herself the courage to say yes to God, and thus give birth to our Savior. Such faith ought to provoke some questions in our lives: Would I have said yes to God? Do I believe that following Jesus might involve this level of sacrifice?
The story of the Brethren martyrs in China sheds light forward into our own day, when society seems almost in a frenzy to solve all of our woes through the power of the consumer. Christmas shopping displays, carols, and TV ads appear earlier each year, and Black Friday has begun a very noted creep backward into Thanksgiving Day itself. We may ask a second set of questions about our own discipleship: With how much intention are we living our lives? What might we be willing to sacrifice in order to say “yes” to God? Do we believe that God would ask something this big of us?
When seen from these two directions, our Advent preparations take on a different tone. For what are we preparing? The coming–and coming again–of Jesus? The coming of many family members, with all the attendant presents to purchase and food to prepare? In the midst of this, might God do something else in our lives? Could Advent, with all of its extra worship, caroling, and devotional reading, become a time when something new is born in our lives? To what lengths may we go in order to say “yes” to God?
These are not simple questions. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves this Advent is the gift of time–time to examine the depths of our own commitment to Christ and the church.
— Tim Harvey is past moderator of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference and pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. A short video on the disappearance of the Brethren missionaries is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=V39ZYoHl4A4&feature . Dec. 2 marked 75 years since Minneva Neher of La Verne, Calif.; Alva Harsh from Eglon, W.Va.; and Mary Hykes Harsh from Cearfoss, Md., disappeared from their post in Shou Yang in Shansi Province.