service, one hundred years of service, missionary, William Strong, Destiny at Dolphin Bay, Return to Chiloé, Chile, the transforming challenge of mission, soldiers, story, centennial celebration

One Hundred Years of Service

Happy 2023! During this year, starting today, the international mission agency that my husband and I work with in Chile will celebrate in a variety of ways one hundred years of service in this battlefield of the great spiritual war of our time. Fittingly, we were originally known as the Soldiers’ and Gospel Mission of South America.

Before I tell this fascinating story of the founders, can you bear with a little American church history? We’re going to travel back even further in time to 1857 New York City. Robert J. Morgan shares this anecdote in his book 100 Verses that Made America.

The Manhattan of the mid-nineteenth century…

…was as needy a place as it is today, which led a lay missionary called Jeremiah Lanphier to assist in a downtown ministry to immigrants. Ever heard of him? Neither had I, until recently. He never made it to anybody’s Christian Hall of Fame. Which goes to underscore again that “…not many wise…not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world…the weak…the base…and the despised…that no man may boast…” (I Cor. 1:26-29, NASB).

This unknown servant of God, a tailor-turned-evangelist, became burdened for not only the newcomers but also for the anxious Wall Street businessmen he noticed on the streets during a financial panic. What could humble Mr. Lanphier do for them? He started a noon-hour prayer service.

It was open to anyone who worked in the area: merchants, clerks, professionals, but also carpenters and mechanics. The first day only six people showed up, late. The next week there were twenty, then forty. Before long, attendance at the Fulton Street noontime prayer meetings exploded into the hundreds and thousands. Daily prayer meetings sprang up in churches, factories, fire and police stations across the city…and the nation.

“Prayers outlive the lives of those who uttered them; outlive a generation, outlive an age, outlive a world.” – E. M. Bounds

The prayer movement spread and became a revival sometimes known as the Third Great Awakening. Multitudes were converted on the eve of the Civil War. Others, such as Dwight L. Moody, were galvanized into service for God. Approximately a million people joined American churches over the next year (at a time when the population of the entire United States was only about 30 million).

Fast forward to the year 1912…

…and incredibly you find the Fulton Street Prayer Meetings still thriving. Here I rely on the account of missionary Nell Festa Eggleston in Flying Coattails.

Our man, William Strong, up-and-coming owner of a prosperous Fulton Street insurance agency, decided to track down a potential client at a noontime prayer meeting one day. Of all places! Although from a religious family, Will disdained prayer and prayer meetings and labeled it the “old fogies’ resort.” BUT he was a determined salesman. So off he gamboled down the street.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Now a story one hundred years long.

“It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.” –Tom Brokaw

As Will searched for his client, the day’s speaker, Dr. William Pettingill, riveted his attention and “turned stone to bread” for him. One evening soon after, when he stepped off the commuter train to his suburban home in New Jersey, Will knelt behind a pile of railroad ties and gave his life to Christ.

Everything changed. Will studied the Bible every day on the train to and from the office. Over the next ten years, he and his wife, Jessie, got involved in a good church and in many ministries—the YMCA, the Gideons, with down-and-outers in rescue missions, with the WWI doughboys at Sandy Hook Fort before they shipped overseas.

“Those who pray do more for the world than those who fight; and if the world goes from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than prayers.” –Chaplain James O’Neill, U.S. Third Army Training Letter No. 5, WWII

This period of preparation led to…

Will felt increasingly restless. He was drawn to foreign missionary service, but by 1923, he was almost 45 years old. No mission board of the time would accept the Strongs as candidates. They were considered too old to learn a second language, to move to a foreign country and adapt to another way of life. Their children, Bill and Agnes, were fourteen and ten by then (four others had died in infancy). The family was comfortable and settled.

Yet God persisted. After recuperating from a serious illness, Will traveled to South America for a “short term” through connections with the Bolivian Indian Mission (which later merged with SIM). Over two months, he visited every mission station in the country—without finding a niche where he might fit in.

Finally, discouraged and nearing the end of his trip, Will took the train with a Salvation Army couple from the Bolivian Altiplano to the Chilean port of Arica. With one day left, he prayed all the way.

The boat home would sail tomorrow…

While Mrs. Gregerson, who suffered from altitude sickness, rested at their hotel, Will and Captain Gregerson visited the nearby border town of Tacna. Chile and Peru had disputed possession of Tacna since the 1879 War of the Pacific, though it was still in the hands of 5,000 Chilean troops stationed there.

As the two men passed the regimental barracks, God seemed to speak to Will: There, knock at that door. Captain Gregerson freaked out when Will suggested they ask to speak to the troops. He knew dealing with the Chilean army meant serious business.

However, to their astonishment, the Chilean commander readily gave permission for them to return for an 8 a.m. service. It went well. Will Strong was convinced that God had called him:

It’s soldiers and Chile for you.

Again, the rest is one hundred years of history.

Will wasted no time. He would not go, of course, without Jessie’s wholehearted agreement, but a few days later, she asked him, “How much is milk in Tacna?” Though many of his acquaintances thought he’d lost his mind, he sold his insurance business, tied up the loose ends of his life, bid good-bye to his relatives, and sailed for South America again in December. Jessie followed with the children in February 1924.

“The missionary heart: care more than some think is wise. Risk more than some think is safe. Dream more than some think is practical. Expect more than some think is possible. I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience. There is no joy outside knowing Jesus and serving Him.” –Karen Watson, martyred in Iraq, 2004, aged 38

Together they stepped into the unknown, into a new life of dependence on God. They would face confusion and crises, hindrances and helplessness. They never would lose their gringo accent but still managed to communicate their love to the people around them. And they would watch their children struggle in challenging school environments, then leave for further education in the States—and then return to serve alongside them.

As they trusted, God provided their every need. By the time Jessie docked, Will had already rented a large chalet and filled it with sick missionaries from the Altiplano. Theirs became a rest home and hospitality house, like every missionary home since. The bottom floor was turned into the Soldiers’ Gospel Center, their Chilean version of the Y where young conscripts could gather for recreation and meetings.

It was everything Will had desired and longed for.

Then, three years later, disaster struck…

General Pershing of WWI fame arrived to oversee a plebiscite that eventually determined the fate of Tacna: It would belong to Peru. The Chilean army was ordered to evacuate the town immediately.

And suddenly, Will’s dream ministry evaporated too. As God had opened the doors of the Soldiers’ Gospel Center, He now closed them. All the soldiers left town.

What next? One day, as Will meditated on Chile’s 2600 miles of coastline, he felt led to claim part of the prayer of Jabez: “Enlarge my coasts” (I Chron. 4:10). Soon after, he decided to start afresh in Concepción, a major port where both Chilean army and naval bases and training centers are located.

It was a MUCH bigger city. Yet, though ideally situated, Will’s new soldiers’ center ended up a failure. Concepción wasn’t a sleepy desert town with few diversions for the men. Many also lived close enough to travel home when they had time off. Another slammed door.

What now? Will recalled Captain Víctor Molina, a friend from Tacna days, and discovered that the man was now posted to Concepción! (Of course he was. One God-thing after another.)

“If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.” –C. S. Lewis

Beginning with this contact, God opened door after door to Will Strong for ministry inside the military regiments up and down the length of Chile and in several other Spanish-speaking countries. Indeed it was soldiers and Chile for him! He continued his service to the servicemen for 37 years, until God took him home at the age of almost 83.

One person led to another…

The Strongs eventually bought a farm and planted a country church in the delightful Andean foothills east of Concepción and Chillán (central Chile). When their son Bill and his wife settled in the city of Temuco to serve among the indigenous peoples of the area, Will and Jessie moved headquarters too. Meanwhile, Agnes married the Chilean pastor in rural Miraflores and spent her life there.

Then came Ione, Janet, Lois, Hilda, Lucille, Nell… and Letty from Vancouver, whom I named a daughter for. She married Pennsylvanian George Black, whom Will recruited to help in his work with the Chilean regiments and who became his “Joshua.” George served in Chile until the day he died at age 101.

Dozens of other missionaries joined their ranks. Couples and families too. “Time will fail me if I tell of” them all, says the writer to the Hebrews (11:32), but I’m compelled to mention a few more. Following WWII, Irish nurse Sadie Minnis and Canadian newlyweds, the Pooles, pioneered in the outer islands of the Chiloé Archipelago. Will and Jessie had made the first exploratory voyage there in 1943 and caught the vision.

Bernie Poole, an RAF navigator, requested to fly with those most likely to die. The war didn’t bring his date with eternity, but not surprising he and his bride volunteered for dark Chiloé. A writer’s secret: Sadie, more of a grandmother than a coworker to my husband and me, modeled the character Mabel in Destiny at Dolphin Bay. A street in the island town of Achao is named after her!

“People…ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives, and when the bubble has burst, they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted.” –Nate Saint, martyred in Ecuador, 1956, aged 32

Will Strong also wrote often for local newspapers and translated several books. In God’s Irregulars he shared the stories of many of the quirky characters he encountered in his long and variegated life. Another one-in-a-million missionary, Edith Willies Nantz, tells about Will’s own career in Soldiering for Christ in Chile.

The Centennial Celebration

Just three months before the 1960 earthquake in Chile—the strongest in recorded history—William Strong suffered a heart attack while passing out tracts in a Temuco train as it prepared to chug out of the station. He died as he had lived–in service, a soldier with his boots on. In a remarkable farewell to the gringo who cared about them, trumpeters of the Chilean army played taps at his graveside.

“Behavior is also belief… It gives an importance to our most trivial pursuits, to the occupation of every minute.” –T. S. Eliot

How can you summarize such a life? How do you describe any life of service?

  • Endless Journeys – We always seem to be traveling somewhere. A friend once commented that there is no more classic missionary activity than a trip to the airport or bus terminal! Our lives are marked in furloughs.
  • Constant Change – No day or year is the same as the one before. We learn flexibility whether we were born with the trait or not. Of course we make no end of plans, but all subject to…well, change.
  • Simple Trust – What else can we do when nothing is secure but God? We learn that we’ll live as long as He wants us to, accomplish all He has planned, and have everything He deems for our good. It requires a step of faith to rest in that, but what confidence for the soul.
  • Faithful Obscurity – Though we serve with the great-grandsons of the Strong dynasty, we also rub shoulders with so many other unsung heroes. I suspect that many people who quietly plodded and prayed in the war rooms and closets and kitchens of the world will surprise us with the caliber of their crowns someday. We just don’t know who the real honorees are yet.

“What the church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men [and women] whom the Holy Spirit can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer.” – E. M. Bounds

The year has just begun. I’m excited to see what’ll happen during these upcoming months of celebrating one hundred years of service in South America. One hint: my devotional travel memoir, Return to Chiloé, will launch soon. Stay tuned as I share the challenges that transformed my own journey.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for the sharing the history of the organization you serve with. I always enjoy learning the background of organizations, buildings, traditions, people, events etc. It helps make it real and easier to pray about when we understand the ‘history’.

    1. That’s sure true! My girls and I just participated in a historical drama at our recent conference. They will never forget it, even though much of the story is “sort of” familiar. Being there does make it real.

  2. And a small date correction might be needed as I think you meant to write 1923 he was 45 years old, not 2023.

  3. Amen. Praise the Lord for the faithful servants that He raised up! What a beautiful testimony. So thankful for GMSA. Certainly missed celebrating with you all!

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