Memories of a missionary Divine intervention, secretarial skills cut path to India

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 17, 2011

Colleen Gilmore is convinced that “God opened every door” in her life, that, “I could not have planned it.”

She spent a great deal of her 87 years on the mission field in India — but much of that time was with a shorthand pad and a typewriter, for many of those doors opened to her had “secretary” written on them. She had no idea how important the courses of shorthand and typing would be in her life’s calling.

She felt that call when she was about 12, growing up in Hattiesburg where she attended Broad Street United Methodist Church. One Sunday the pastor, the Rev. Tom Prewitt, offered an opportunity for anyone who felt called to the mission field or the full-time ministry to come forward. Colleen said, “I felt called, but I had no idea where God wanted me to go or what kind of work,” so she just kept going to school. After high school, she went to Mississippi Southern and worked in the registrar’s office.

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Her interest in missions was probably stirred by a visit from a relative when Colleen was 8 years old. The visitor was a lady who worked with the Navajo Indians, and she taught Colleen to sing “Jesus Loves Me” in Navajo.

Then, one summer in Bible studies, she learned about theologian and medial missionary Dr. Albert Schweitzer and his work in Africa.

It was in her young adult years that her secretarial work began. She worked two hours a day during the week and four hours on Saturday in the registrar’s office for 20 cents an hour, but that paid her tuition.

She had planned to go to the seminary, but the pastor of her church, the Rev. Andrew Gallman, was also head of the Youth for Christ organization in Hattiesburg, and he needed a secretary. Would she? So it was another year before she made it to Asbury in Kentucky.

And guess what door opened for her there? That’s right — the registrar needed a secretary. Soon there was a vacancy for the top job, and Colleen became the registrar at Asbury.

The next year, the Board of Missions sent 50 young people to Japan and asked for 50 more to go to India, and Colleen was among those who sailed from New York in 1949, landing first at Bombay and then going on to Delhi. There was a message waiting in Bombay: the bishop needed a secretary!

Colleen was told to take the first train to Delhi, that the bishop had a lot of correspondence to catch up on and he would have to leave town in a week. She was a bit nervous, Colleen said, because she hadn’t used her shorthand in a long time, but a Presbyterian nurse on the trip with them helped her practice every day in her cabin. Once at Delhi, she found she could type the letters at home on her portable typewriter, and the bishop’s wife would sign and mail them.

“I remember the first day when the bishop had finished dictation,“ Colleen said. “I sat at a little table with my notes before me and I said, ‘Dear Lord, if you’ll help me do this, I think I’ll be able to do anything you ever ask me.”

The situation was perfect. She lived in a bungalow with a senior missionary who was head of a girls’ boarding school, which was just across the street from the bishop’s office. The school had a cook, someone to wait tables, to do the laundry, to run errands, to take care of the garden and grounds. There was also a guest house and a steady flow of visitors.

Colleen had agreed to stay three years, but she decided to stay longer. She had to go to language school for two years. After five years she was required to take a furlough, a routine she repeated three times. After her first trip home — where she went to the University of Arkansas for three months for a crash course in agricultural work, spoke with student groups in various schools and attended a three-month course at a Methodist college in Nashville — “I think I was ready to go back to India.”

Working for the bishop had been wonderful, “a real education,” for she had corresponded through his office with many national and even world leaders, but she said she wanted to work more with the people, with the pastors and their wives and children who were not in school. Though she had asked for that, she said, “that was not my calling.”

For two years she did the administrative work at two village clinics, which included keeping the medicines ordered and the volunteers lined up. Each week the doctor had a short workshop and prayer, then after a talk about health “we got busy passing out the pills.”

Colleen came home for two years to earn her master’s degree at a New York school, “where we played volleyball on the roof, which was enclosed in chicken wire” for protection. Then it was back to India, this time to a city where she was asked to help organize a school for secretarial courses where she taught shorthand, typing and English.

All her experiences weren’t in the classroom. She remembers the monkeys, so large and heavy that, when they jumped from a tree onto the tile roofs, they broke the tiles. They also ate everything in the garden and were constant pests. Colleen thought she could solve that problem: she hired one of the boys at the school to shoot them for $1 each and bury them in the yard. The neighbors, however, were Hindus, and monkeys were special to them — so that plan didn’t work.

Another time she tried to kill a snake with two brick bats, but missed — “but I scared him worse than he scared me.”

Colleen liked to walk, and she recalls that on the day Queen Elizabeth was crowned she and two friends started up a very steep mountain trail, so steep they couldn’t come back down. They had nothing to eat, nothing to drink until they found a mountain stream — and made sure they drank upstream from where the horse was standing. It was six hours before they found their way down where some of their Indian friends were looking for “three ladies in the jungle.”

Years later, on another hike, they got off the trail onto a path that narrowed so on the mountainside they could not turn around or go forward. Three forestry students looked down from the Jeep road, saw them, formed a human chain and pulled them to safety.

“They were angels,” Colleen said. “It was no accident they showed up. I’m telling you, God sent those men.”

When she was 62, Colleen came home to help take care of her aged mother, but she’s been back to India twice, once in 2006 and again in 2008. Part of the time she was in Madras where Christ’s disciple Thomas, “Doubting Thomas” as he is remembered, ministered starting in AD 52. He laid the groundwork in India and died in Madras.

Colleen recalls one adventure at home — she went tubing on Lake Bruin in 2003 before she had a hip replacement!

She moved to Vicksburg in 1995 so her brother who lives here could have help with their mother, who was 95. Colleen lives at Heritage House, an assisted living home. She has things to do there, she said, because “everybody is either a missionary or a mission field. There’s always something to do to help. You’re either helping with the problem or you’re part of the problem.”

She hopefully teaches by example, she said, and “Heritage House lets me know if I step over the line.”

She uses a walker some but spends more time getting about in a wheelchair “because I have a few joints that need replacing.” She uses the Internet, e-mail and has a cell phone and is an active member of Hawkins United Methodist Church.

She’s “not secretary at Heritage house — yet,” she laughed.

She explained her fascination with India, with her love of that nation and living among its people: “India is like malaria. If it ever gets in your system, you never get rid of it.”

None of this would have happened, however, had it not been for secretarial work — “which has opened every door for me.”

When God gets ready for a secretary, He knows where to find one.

Gordon Cotton is an author and histor ian who lives in Vicksburg.