International Bulletin

of Missionary Research

Vol. 39, No. 3
July 2015
pp. 142–45

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My Pilgrimage in Mission

Henry Hale Bucher Jr.

Born of missionary parents in South China in 1936, I would learn later that Japan and China were at war. As bombings near us on Hainan Island increased, our family of five escaped by Chinese junk in 1939 to Haiphong (then French Indo-China). Hong Kong was our next destination on the way to the United States. We children were relieved when our first snowy winter ended, and our family enjoyed a late spring vacation at the Ventnor, New Jersey, seaside Houses of Fellowship for furloughed missionaries, predecessor of the Overseas Ministries Study Center now in New Haven, Connecticut. By late 1940 our family had returned to Southeast Asia, to the School of Chinese Learning in Beijing. As Japanese incursions intensified, our family evacuated with the school to the Philippine Islands.

Escaping World War II

My first recollection was hearing our parents and their colleagues lamenting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Hours later, Japan bombed Manila, putting enemy citizens under house arrest. My brother was born under Japanese occupation. By early summer 1944, the Japanese command interned all Allied citizens. We were taken to the University of Los Baños near Manila, where we lived behind barbed wire for nine months. My strongest memories revolve around hunger, hope, and the other people of faith, including Roman Catholic priests and nuns, whose sense of humor helped us strengthen our faith and broaden my ideas about the larger family of missionaries.

The word “miracle” took on new meaning on February 23, 1945, when the U.S. 11th Airborne and Filipino guerrillas rescued us at morning roll call within Japanese-held territory. Delirious with joy, we had no idea that we had to be taken by amphibious tanks into the security of a U.S.-operated hospital prison. We wanted to celebrate, but U.S. paratroopers had to burn our barracks to emphasize that we all must leave now, with only what we could carry. All internees were rescued, but some died soon after from irreversible malnutrition. We later learned that the Japanese high command had issued a “kill order” for us for that very day and that Filipino intelligence had alerted General MacArthur to the urgency. With the battle of Iwo Jima in progress, the general assigned the rescue mission to local U.S. and Filipino operatives.

After our dramatic rescue, recovery and exodus seemed less memorable to a nine-year-old. During that recuperation, we focused on food and finding clothes that were acceptable. Repatriating us to Los Angeles, the overcrowded USS Eberle was accompanied by U.S. destroyers as we zigzagged to avoid attacks by Japanese submarines. Even more dangerous was one of the worst storms at sea recorded during the war.

For our missionary parents, we were headed home; for us four siblings, “home” was a vague concept, but it always included grandparents, extended family, and a brief respite at the residences reserved for returning missionaries in Ventnor, New Jersey. On my first day home from third grade in North Carolina, I was weepy. My mother checked areas of my head for wounds, asking if I had been in a fight. It took a while for me to admit the trauma of seeing so much food at school thrown into garbage cans. In fourth grade (Hartford, Connecticut), my class assembled Red Cross kits in small boxes with basics (washrag, toothbrush, soap, etc.). I told my teacher privately that I had recently received one of these. She was delighted to have me explain to my classmates the relevance of this project.

In less than two years we were back in Hainan. My father traveled extensively into the interior, assisting in postwar relief; my mother, a certified teacher, was an educator and homeschooled the four of us while also teaching in the mission school. In 1947 my older sister and I went to Shanghai American School, but in April 1948 we were evacuated with classmates on the USS Repose (a navy hospital ship), as Chairman Mao’s military successes exceeded U.S. expectations. The decision to return to the United States was difficult but obvious. Did we want to risk more time in an internment camp—run by Communist China?

Now we had almost a year in the Ventnor missionary residences, and I finished eighth grade without any evacuations. We moved to Haddonfield, New Jersey, where we lived my high school days without a move. My English teachers would question some words in my essays that were Hainanese, words that had quietly joined our family vocabulary. We were very involved in the Presbyterian Church and in all of its activities. Several of the Haddonfield churches sponsored a weekend with international students from nearby universities. After church that Sunday our family hosted a Lincoln University student from Cameroon. He later attended Temple University, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on mission.

College Studies and Travels

My Sunday school teacher in Haddonfield was an accomplished physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs. I followed his advice that I attend Davidson College, where I enjoyed every moment except ROTC. Nevertheless, I won the five-dollar prize in the contest to create Davidson’s ROTC motto: “Parati sed Paci” (Prepared, but for Peace).

Between my first two years at Davidson, I spent the summer in a World Council of Churches work camp in Finland, building a church on Aspö, a small island. It was part of the post–World War II reconstruction emphasis, and I reveled in befriending students my age from around the world. We completed only the foundation; a later work camp finished the church. It is ironic that the tune to the hymn “We Would Be Building Temples Still Undone” is Finlandia! During the World Student Christian Federation meeting in Finland in 1968, we visited the completed church. I realized that my two very different pilgrimages were symbolized both by a building and by a living group of students with a mission.

The Junior Year Abroad program of the Presbyterian Church fascinated me. Many students favored Paris, London, Madrid, and other historic centers of learning. What intrigued me about the Presbyterian JYA was its emphasis on areas then called “the Third World.” Not only did I go to the American University of Beirut in Lebanon in 1956, but I also remained and graduated (1958). My parents returned to Asia as fraternal workers with the Church of Christ in Phetburi, Thailand, my father as pastor, my mother as teacher. I was closer to “home,” especially since Beirut appeared to be the stopover for many who were en route to or from Thailand bearing my parents’ gifts and messages.

For the first time since World War II, I was encountering as an adult some theological issues that would strengthen my faith. Lebanon became a base for many travels and adventures. One incident was a weekend trip to Jerusalem with fellow AUB students. After visiting the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb the same day, our evening discussion quickly raised the question: How could Christ have two tombs? If we believe in his resurrection, what difference does it make how many tombs local tourist agencies offer to global visitors? In Nazareth, there are at least three Churches of the Annunciation! Actually, the difference is real for those then and today who support their families on one of the major sources of income: tourism. In some cases, these families are Palestinians who lost homes and livelihood in 1948.

Another issue of faith and reason that coalesced in my last two college years was the confusion I first felt about modern Israel, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (I later developed these thoughts in a college course I teach: “Ethno Religious Political Nationalisms in the Middle East.”)

The confusion of first-century Christians became more real to me. Since many Jews believed that the Messiah would bring freedom from Roman occupation, they asked Paul where this new Israel was if Christ was really the Messiah. He replied that followers of Christ formed a “spiritual Israel” that was based not on political boundaries but on faith. The followers of Christ did not displace Judaism but joined in one branch of the spiritual family of Abraham, which now included women, slaves, non-Jews—all who accepted that the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ had personal and communal significance. Historic Judaism, as I learned, was not to be confused with Israel or modern political Zionism, nor with most Christian Zionists. On many weekends in Beirut I visited various Arab Christian churches, many of which had roots in the first century. I also visited an Orthodox Jewish synagogue whose members did not go to Israel after 1948, because for this Jewish community in Beirut, their Messiah had not yet come.

Travels during academic breaks were educational. In the summer of 1957 I joined another work camp sponsored by the World Council of Churches, this one in Cameroon constructing a Protestant youth center. Afterward, I hitchhiked with a Dutch participant to Gabon, passing through Lambaréné, site of Dr. Schweitzer’s famous hospital. (He was then in Europe performing organ concerts to raise funds for his hospital.) In Libreville, the capital, I was intrigued by the role U.S. missionaries had played since 1842. I visited a cemetery near the old church where African Christians, missionaries, sea captains, merchants, explorers, and others about whom I would later learn more were buried. In three years, Gabon would become independent from France. I returned to Lebanon by way of Ghana and Algeria, even as the latter was still at war for its independence from France.

During the Christmas break of 1957–58, I made a long pilgrimage by land to visit my uncle and aunt who were missionaries in Iran. Buses took me to Damascus, Baghdad, and Teheran, but I could spend only one night with my relatives if I was to return in time for classes. The train passed through Mosul and southern Turkey. Buses and trains were the best way to be close to the people despite the language barriers.

My experiences in Lebanon—academic, friendship-building, and clarification of theology—were sandwiched between several political events that emphasized the reality of the Cold War. Weeks after I arrived there in 1956, the USSR invaded Hungary. Several Hungarian sailors jumped ship in Beirut. Soon after, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Eisenhower ordered their withdrawal on the basis that invading other nations was against international law. In 1958 our graduation at AUB was delayed when Eisenhower sent U.S. marines into Lebanon following the July 14 coup in Iraq. The marines were told they might face Soviet troops. One navy chaplain told us a few days later that he had not had so many baptisms since the day before the battle of Iwo Jima, in February 1945. The marines met no resistance.

Seminary and More Travels

My junior and senior years in Lebanon were definitive in my decision to study at Princeton Theological Seminary. Before leaving the Middle East, I helped build homes near West Jerusalem for Jews from Iraq. Sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, volunteers included Israeli Jews and Arabs and several other nationalities—including Germans. On a trip to Eilat, the southernmost port of Israel, the water was bitter, but Coca-Cola, the next option, was costly. Only later did I realize that this was the area where the biblical narrative has the Israelites complaining about the bitter water.

My most profound epiphany at Princeton was the discovery that King James’s wise scholars intimately knew their Hebrew and Greek. The Great Commission in the original Greek calls on Jesus’ followers to “Go into all the world and disciple. . . .” Most modern translations make the verb “disciple” into a noun object: “Go and make disciples.” Previous to seminary, I would have seen little distinction here, but I came to interpret the past and live in the present assured that being a disciple was a result of God’s love for us that required no other results. Those who live discipleship, nurture faith, and seek peace with justice should gather others into a community of faith.

Over Christmas (1958–59) I was a delegate to the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) quadrennial in Athens, Ohio. Martin Luther King Jr. was a keynote speaker; so were D. T. Niles and Lesslie Newbigin. I did not take notes, but the theme I remembered was that the new frontiers of mission were not geographic, but ideological—racism, rapid social change, urbanization, new nationalisms, and so forth. When I pursued a seminary year abroad at University College, in Legon, Ghana, I built on these ideas. There I learned that being a disciple included an understanding of the impact of Western colonialism on neighboring African nations, many of which became independent during the academic year that I was there (1960–61).

On the way to Ghana in 1960, I participated in Operation Crossroads Africa (OCA) in Senegal, building a school with Africans and multicultural volunteers from the United States. James Robinson, a pastor in Harlem, New York City, was the founder of OCA. Some students from the United States had never before worked as part of a multiracial group. In returning from Ghana, I flew to Brazil and happened upon a conference of fraternal workers/missionaries representing the Central Brazil Mission. Of many issues confronted, the key ones dealt with the growing Brazilian nationalism, urbanization, and secularism: how should the church respond? While going by train to Bolivia, I discovered that the approaches of the New Tribes Mission differed widely from those of Presbyterians in more urbanized Brazil.

My last travel by train on that trip was to Chile. Hitchhiking up the Pan-American Highway, I had a totally serendipitous experience in Peru: I arrived at the Wycliffe guesthouse as the World Council of Churches and the International Missionary Council were ending their last meeting, in Lima, as separate entities. The merger of the two demonstrated in fact and word what was a common theme at the time: the church is mission. After the conference, I could not resist an offer to be the fourth passenger in a seaplane. We paid a brief visit to the Piro, who live over the Andes along the headwaters of the Amazon. I was awed by my co-passengers: Esther Matteson, who was bringing the first edition of the Piro Scriptures to Juan Sebastian, the Piro catechist and co-translator; Bishop Lesslie Newbigin of the Church of South India; and Sir Kenneth Grubb of the Church Missionary Society. I continued up the Pan-American Highway and finally arrived by bus, exhausted, in Texas.

My last year at Princeton Seminary inspired me to consider how I would disciple. Pouring concrete for a summer offered much time to ponder. The Presbyterian Church, building on the “nongeographic frontiers” of mission outlined at the Athens, Ohio, quadrennial, initiated a Frontier Internship in Mission. I was ordained into ministry in 1962 as a Frontier Intern, working with the Paris Mission Society while learning French, and was part of a mobile team working with youth in Gabon/Cameroon/Congo (Brazzaville) on frontiers the SVM quadrennial had earlier identified: “new nationalisms, racism, and rapid social change.” The day I arrived in Libreville, Gabon, in the summer of 1963, there was a coup in neighboring Congo (Brazzaville).

La Mission Protestante had become the Gabon Evangelical (Protestant) Church even before Gabon became independent from France in August 1960. As the last French missionaries were retiring, I was the first expatriate to work under the new Gabonese church leadership. The U.S. Embassy had problems classifying me—Peace Corps? businessman? missionary?—but they appreciated my presence. James Robinson had asked me to lead an Operation Crossroads Africa group in Gabon designed for multicultural laypeople, mostly from Harlem and New Jersey. We built a footbridge linking Dr. Schweitzer’s Lambaréné hospital to the Protestant school and church that were founded by U.S. and French missions in the 1880s. Schweitzer, who had come to Gabon in 1913, spoke at the dedication of our new bridge. I was in Libreville for the only coup to date in Gabon, February, 1964. The French military reversed it, reinstalling President Léon M’ba.

Returning to the United States, I realized that my pilgrimage abroad was sound orientation to a United States that was itself undergoing rapid social and political change. I soon learned that the most pressing issues in the United States were the war in Vietnam and human rights (including feminism, civil rights, and South Africa). The church’s mission in these and related issues was a challenge. Many people were for interfaith understanding and cooperation that involved multifaith gatherings under one roof. I developed an understanding of the term “ecumenical” as people of faith who live and act with the understanding that the church and the world are “under one roof.” After all, God did not so love “the church” in John’s gospel, but “the world.”

UCM Mission and the War in Vietnam

At age twenty-nine my first salaried job was to direct field staff for what would become the University Christian Movement (UCM), as it emerged from the cooperation between the Student Volunteer Movement and the National Student Christian Federation. The offices were attached to the National Council of Churches through their Department of Higher Education. I was still young and single and enjoyed traveling. Much of my mission was to visit campus ministries across the nation and discuss how Christians should respond to the issues of the day and relate to fellow students of all faiths and of no faith.

Women students were becoming more involved in the leadership of UCM and in campus organizations, as were African Americans and other minorities. I was active helping residents register to vote in Georgia, Mississippi, and Chicago. In earlier international experiences, friends always came to me when they were confused about the United States. During the school integration issues in Little Rock, my friends assumed I was from Little Rock. When civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi, I was from Mississippi, and when President Kennedy was assassinated, I was from Dallas. Now working on these issues in the United States, I was often called an outside agitator.

My greatest cause of agitation was our war in Vietnam and what the role of Christians should be. I was not for burning draft cards or sitting down to block traffic. I had many historical and theological reasons for joining the peace movement, but one of my principles was creative and effective nonviolent action. I cannot even guess how many discussions on how many campuses and in how many committee meetings took place in the mid-to-late 1960s in which we discussed war, racism, feminism, and the mission of the church. I did (with much thought and prayer) include my draft card among those that William Sloane Coffin (then chaplain at Yale) took to the Department of Justice. Vice President Agnew had declared on national TV that men who refused service in Vietnam were cowards and unpatriotic. The Presbyterian General Assembly had urged members to act on their conscience.

Over nine hundred men, mostly clergy, sent their draft cards via Chaplain Coffin to affirm that, with draft immunity as clergy, we were opposed to a war that was illegal, immoral, and very unwise. General Hershey, who headed the national draft, immediately reclassified us as 1-A. The lawsuit that followed (Bucher vs. Selective Service System) was not about the war, but about whether the draft could be used for punishing free speech. The government lost the case, but the war went on until 1973. One cartoon seared in my memory shows a big sign in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) captioned, “Will the last U.S. soldier out of Vietnam please turn out ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’?”

Doctoral Studies and College Pilgrimages

At that time, I believed that my actions precluded employment in the church, and I turned to my interest in Africa as a possibility for teaching. The University of Wisconsin–Madison accepted me on a track for comparative world history, with Africa and the Middle East as research areas. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the history of the coastal Mpongwe of Gabon, using archives from Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries and commercial agents, mostly from France and Britain. My previous experience as a Frontier Intern in Gabon (1962–65) proved helpful, and a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to return in 1973 provided richer research possibilities, including oral traditions from Mpongwe elders. Three-year-old son Clif by my first wife, Emily Clifford, opened many doors to identify with the Gabonese neighborhood where we lived.

While in the United States, I had joined yet one more of the many creative and relevant programs devised by Margaret Flory, once a missionary to Asia. Designated as Bi-National Servants, we rooted ourselves in the life of the world Christian community. Having served in another part of the world, we remained in close touch with that second home and continued a dialogue on the meaning of mission today. While my second area was Gabon, I also was involved in the global attempt to end apartheid in South Africa.

Upon finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, I was called as part-time pastor of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Cottage Grove, a suburb of Madison. My other job was consulting with K-12 teachers on African curriculum—mostly social studies at the high school level. One volunteer activity was organizing communicant classes in area churches to visit the mosque at the university and to listen to Muslim students discuss Islam.

In the late 1970s the PCUSA asked me to be on the committee to draft a peacemaking statement for the 192nd General Assembly (1980). “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling” was received at the same General Assembly that reunited two branches of the church that had split during the Civil War. My later regret was that the document did not say more about peacemaking as a step toward slowing down an ecological apocalypse: there will be no peace on earth until there is peace with earth.

Suddenly, serendipitously, and providentially, a phone call came from Presbyterian-affiliated Austin College in Sherman, Texas. They had secured my data from a digital base; by 1985 I was chaplain and associate professor in the humanities. After 2004 I became chaplain emeritus, but I continue to teach courses related to Africa and the Middle East. My wife, Cat Garlit, and I led Austin College sponsored “pilgrimages” off-campus and into the world to listen to the voices of others. Most of these spring breaks involved pilgrimages to Central American countries, but off-campus January term classes that were for credit included travel to India, the Middle East twice, and West Africa thrice: “Timbuktu and Beyond”; “South Africa and Namibia after Apartheid” was in 1996; and in 2000, “Cuba and Haiti: Island Neighbors: Unique Opposing Paradigms for the New Millennium.” My mission was to provide for college students the kind of experiences that had shaped my life when I was their age.

One spring break pilgrimage to El Salvador was well after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero by members of the military. More recently, seven Jesuit priests had been killed, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, and thousands of Salvadorans had died in massacres. Our Austin College group entered the Chapel of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador and were shocked as they turned to exit. Across the interior back walls were fourteen large paintings, each portraying tortured and captive Salvadorans. The students saw this as grotesque for a church, as outrageous, blatant brandishing of suffering in a church! In fact, artist Roberto Huezo intended for the viewer to see the crucified Jesus in the tortured Salvadorans in these paintings.

Of all my January terms, the 1998 one to the Middle East was special. In an August 1997 civil ceremony I had married Cat Garlit (a third-generation missionary kid, who had grown up in Peru and Ecuador); she was a key co-leader in taking many students to Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and later to West Africa, Cuba, and Haiti. We took a break at Mount Sinai to have a religious wedding ceremony by the well at the mountain’s base, where scriptural narrative notes that Moses first met Zipporah, his wife-to-be. St. Catherine’s Monastery is built over that well. We made our public vows on top of Mount Sinai at sunrise. Attendance at the wedding was not required, but all the students were there. Thomas Nuckols, professor of religion emeritus, officiated. Archimandrite Justin (a Texan), who guided our group and approved the nuptial use of the location, is the monastery librarian who directs the project of digitally copying their ancient religious texts.

My last pilgrimage to Hainan, in 1997, was three generational: my widower father at age ninety, two sisters: Anna Louise and Priscilla Jo, and my son, Clifford. The church welcomed us with much compassion, the choir sang parts of Handel’s Messiah, and we were surrounded by love and hope.

Pilgrimages in mission have no end.


Henry Hale Bucher Jr.

Henry Hale Bucher Jr. is chaplain emeritus and associate professor emeritus at Austin College, Sherman, Texas, where he continues to teach courses on Africa and the Middle East. His publications specialize in African history, most recently Two Women: Anyentyuwe and Ekâkise (Lulu, 2014). —

To cite this article:

[Chicago] Bucher, Henry Hale, Jr. “My Pilgrimage in Mission.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39, no. 3 (2015): 142–45.

[MLA] Bucher, Henry Hale, Jr. “My Pilgrimage in Mission.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39.3 (2015): 142–45. Web. .

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