Cooranbong, New South Wales
A book about an Avondale alumna’s mission experience set attendance and sales records at its launch in Cooranbong this past Saturday (May 28).
[The book honours] the many missionary wives who have faithfully gone to often-lonely and isolated places where they faced the unknown.
Dearest Folks: Letters Home From a Missionary Wife and Mother is based on the letters Margaret Watts sent home to family in Australia almost every week between 1956 and 1966. She and husband Horrie served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the then New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and on Bougainville in the then Territory of New Guinea.
More than 250 people, many who had also served as missionaries, attended the launch in Ella Hughes Chapel on Avondale College of Higher Education’s Lake Macquarie campus. Almost all wanted to take Watts home, buying 176 copies of her book.
“We’ve had a number of people come into the store this week also wanting to buy copies,” says Shay Taplin, Assistant Manager of Better Books and Food, the Adventist Book Centre in Cooranbong. “It’s going to be a very popular book.”
Dearest Folks publishes almost 100 of Watts’ surviving letters, which give a sense of immediacy to and an unselfconscious account of family life and medical crises and treatments at the Redcliffe Mission Station on Aobe and at the Inus Mission Station on Bougainville. Watts wrote the letters by hand or tapped them out on a typewriter “for those at home to share in the thrill of mission service with us and feel part of our day-to-day family life.”
The letters also address “a collective amnesia” in Adventist mission history, “a forgetfulness of the roles of mission wives and children,” says historian and co-author Dr Robyn Priestley. “Their stories are assumed to be known but are usually subsumed silently into the larger mission story without detail, and often without acknowledgment.”
Watts’ tenacity and courage “profoundly impressed” Joy Butler, who has worldwide missionary experience, including in Africa and in the Pacific islands. “She excelled [as a nurse], at times doing the work of a doctor and surgeon,” writes Butler in her review of Dearest Folks. “On top of this, she became a choir mistress, an expert seamstress, hairdresser, home-school teacher, hostess to scores of visitors and, amid it all, delivered hundreds of babies—all without monetary reimbursement for her services.” The book honours “the many missionary wives who have faithfully gone to often-lonely and isolated places where they faced the unknown.”
Signs Publishing’s interest in the story and its role as the book’s publisher may have wider benefits for the Adventist Church in the South Pacific. “Stories reflect our values, and by telling our stories of mission we keep the value of mission alive among our children, young adults and the wider church,” says director of Adventist Mission Dr Graeme Humble. “Stories inspire people to emulate the examples of former missionaries and other pioneers. Some will decide they want to take up the baton and continue the legacy of the Watts family.”
This is important, says Humble, particularly as those who work for the church in the Pacific islands increasingly come from the Pacific islands. “I wonder what effect this is having on mission in the church, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, as there are fewer expatriate missionaries sending correspondence home to diminishing networks?” Humble’s concern is not for the nationalisation of the workforce in the Pacific islands but for the health of local churches. “Focus on overseas mission service invigorates local churches and saves them from becoming introspective.”
Signs Publishing book editor Nathan Brown agrees, so the overwhelming response to Dearest Folks came as a pleasant surprise. “The enthusiasm apparent at its launch reflects well on the healthy sense of mission within the church and gives the opportunity of sharing these stories—and this vision—with a new generations of readers.”
Dearest Folks is now available from Adventist Book Centres and hopeshop.com.