Johanna Veenstra

Perhaps the most striking aspect of single women in missions was the status the profession conferred to otherwise very ordinary individuals. This was also true in certain cases with men, but not to such a great extent. A man had to excel. He had to attain some kind of distinction in his missionary service to be rated a “missionary hero,” but a woman could became a “heroine” just by having the courage to strike out on her own and go to a distant land.  This was true of Johanna Veenstra, who in many ways is representative of the vast army of single women who went abroad after the turn of the century. She was repeatedly referred to as a “heroine” by her admiring biographer (Henry Beets, Director of Missions of the Christian Reformed Church).  An obscure stenographer turned celebrity in Christian Reformed circles, she was in many ways very ordinary. Her life, however, sheds light on the sacrifice as well as the expectations placed on her and her fellow “heroines” of the faith.
Veenstra was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1894, two years before her father left his carpentry trade to train for ministry.  But only months after completing his ministerial training and beginning his pastoral ministry he contracted typhoid fever and died. His death brought hardship and poverty to the widow and her six small children. She returned to Paterson where she opened a general store. Johanna attended Christian schools until she was twelve and then trained to become a secretary. At the age of fourteen, she became a stenographer in New York City, commuting every day from Paterson.

She was active in her Christian Reformed Church, but it was while attending a Baptist church that she underwent a religious experience that sparked her interest in missions. At the age of nineteen she enrolled at the Union Missionary Training Institute in New York City and then applied to the Sudan United Mission for missionary service in Africa. Mission policy, however, required candidates to be twenty-five, so in the interim she took further schooling at Calvin College, where she became the first woman member of the Student Volunteer Board. Before sailing to Africa she returned to New York for medical training and graduated from the midwifery course.
Veenstra’s assignment under the SUM involved pioneer work at Lupwe, not far from Calabar (where Mary Slessor had served some years earlier). The station at Lupwe was new and consisted only of a few unfinished and unfurnished huts with dirt floors, but she adjusted to the very primitive conditions quickly—or at least gave that impression when writing home: “When having my evening meal, here were those creatures, in swarms, sticking fast in hand, dropping in the foodand I concluded a plague was upon us. There was no ‘shutting’ them out because in these native huts we have no ceiling.” The rats, too, were bothersome, but she did not complain. God had called her. “There has never been a single regret that I left the ‘bright lights and gay life’ of New York City, and came to this dark corner of his vineyard. There has been no sacrifice, because the Lord Jesus Himself is my constant companion.”[1]
 One of her first projects was to set up a boarding school to train young men as evangelists.  It was an all-consuming project, but she found time for medical and evangelistic work. Sometimes her treks into neighboring villages lasted for several weeks at a time. There were rarely outward professions of faith. Just obtaining an attentive audience was a major sign of success.  But if on “rare occasions” she witnessed “people weep as they were hearing the story of the death of our Lord” and “gasp with wonder and clap their hands in gratitude to God for His gifts,” there were “very discouraging” times too:
I took one trek through the hills, walking from place to place for nine days.… We planned to stay over Sunday at a certain village but it proved that we were not welcome. They did not want to provide food for the carriers and the others who were with me. So they suffered a good deal of hunger. Rain hindered the people coming to meetings. I sat at a hut door, with an umbrella to keep me dry, while the people were huddled together inside the hut about a fire. On Sunday afternoon a heavy thunderstorm arose. The rain came down in torrents. The hut where I camped was a grass-walled one, and the rain cam rushing in until the whole place was flooded.… Early the next morning we started off for a long walk to another hill.… The chief was at home, but he was sick. We stopped here one night, and decided to go home. How glad we were to see our Lupwe compound.[2]
Veenstra’s usual means of transportation from village to village was a bicycle, but it was slow and very tiring peddling uphill in rough terrain, especially considering her tendency to be overweight. She secretly envied some of the male missionaries who were moving about in relative ease on their motorcycles, and so after he second furlough in 1927 she returned to Africa with a new motorcycle, Her matronly appearance no doubt made for a curious sight as she began her motorized journey inland over the bumpy trails, but no one could question her pluck. Despite her initial enthusiasm and determination, she soon discovered that “dirt-biking” was not her niche. Less than forty miles out, she unexpectedly hit sand and was thrown from the bike. Badly bruised in body and spirit, she sent for help and resigned herself to go back to peddling.
Although she willingly lived in a native hut and accepted the Africans for who they were, she entered their world with a spirit of domination. “It is necessary,” she wrote, “that the missionary continually hold an attitude of superiority. Not in the sense of ‘we are better than you.’ God forbid! But rather in the sense of claiming and using authority. The missionary must prove himself or herself to be ‘boss’ (not bossy), commanding and demanding obedience.”[3] This kind of paternalism (or maternalism in this case) was the norm, and she as much as any missionary, was a product of her generation. But such attitudes, nevertheless, contributed to the bitter animosities that led to violent revolution in that part of the world only a few decades later.
But during the 1920s and ’30s, while she was pouring her life into Africa, there seemed to be little evidence of resentment. Her medical work was particularly appreciated, and it as considered a privilege to attend her boarding school. It was thus a great sorrow to the people of Lupwe and neighboring villages when they received word of their missionary’s untimely death in 1933. She had entered a mission hospital for what was thought to be routine surgery, but she never recovered.
Back home in the news was received by her family and friends with disbelief and sorrow. But they were God-fearing Christian Reformed people who never questioned God’s sovereignty in such matters. Their “heroine” had merely been promoted to a higher position and was now enjoying far greater riches than she so willingly relinquished on earth. Ironically, a letter that arrived from her after her death, though written about an African Christian who had died, was titled appropriately for Veensta herself, “From a Mudhut to a Mansion on High.”[4]

[1] Henry Beets, Johanna of Nigeria: Life and Labors of Johanna Veenstra (Grand Rapid: Grand Rapids Printing Company, 1937), 90, 129.
[2] Johanna Veenstra, Pioneering for Christ in the Sudan (Grand Rapids: Smitter Book, 1926), 165.
[3] Veenstra, Pioneering for Christ, 210.
[4] Beets, Johanna of Nigeria, 205.