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Pilgrim Place

By Marshall IngwersonStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 1982

Claremont, Calif.

It is 1928, deep in the jungle of the Belgian Congo (now Zaire), four to seven days upriver from Kinshasa by steamer. A young American couple from Seattle is six weeks' voyage from home. Here, running water is rainwater, and certain grocery staples must be ordered for a year at a time.

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Enfolded in the vast rain forest, sometimes they put on their Western winter clothes just to remember how they feel. Harry and Ethel Brown were American Baptist missionaries fresh from their French lessons. They fully expected to spend the rest of their working careers here.

Upon arrival, Dr. Brown was immediately given sole charge of 85 jungle outposts. They had little time to yearn for restaurants and front lawns. ''It took some getting used to,'' Mrs. Brown admits. But in 39 years in Zaire, the Browns brought up their own family and educated many of the current leaders of that country.

Says Dr. Brown: ''We were very satisfied, and we still are.''

Now the Browns live in a shady stucco bungalow on a palm-lined street in Pilgrim Place, a community in southern California for retired Christian workers, especially former overseas missionaries.

The 320 pilgrims here are a hardy lot. Their buoyant good cheer and optimism suffuse the place. It shows in their daily lives; everyone here who is able carries on further the serious work of his lifetime. Dr. Brown, for instance, had just returned from teaching advanced French at Claremont High School the morning of our visit. Other pilgrims tutor special-needs students and the foreign-born, pay regular calls to local hospitals, or staff volunteer social agencies.

''These people are outgoing,'' notes G. Worth George, executive director of the community. ''They have been outgoing all their lives. They've been alert and aware of needs. So the community has really benefited from the influx of these people. . . . They do what they've always done here.''

''If one can help, one does,'' capsulizes Mari Sommerville, a native of northern India. She laughingly recalls Tennyson: ''It's better to wear out than rust out.''

The main claim to local fame for Pilgrim Place is the 34-year-old Pilgrim Festival. Thousands swarm Pilgrim Place over a November weekend to buy handmade crafts, food, exotic stamps and coins, used books. Children ride a truck turned into the Mayflower. These pilgrims act out the drama of the earlier Pilgrims leaving England and settling in Massachusetts, announcing their lines augustly.

The pilgrims, dressed as Pilgrims, beam broadly and rush about, managing the affair. It is all part of how they support Pilgrim Place. Last year they netted a $74,000 profit. This subsidizes expenses of some of the residents here.

This assistance is needed. These are people of great energy who spent their lives teaching in schools - and, where there were none, founding schools - administering projects, recasting lives and communities and whole societies. These are educated people. Over 20 of them have written books. Advanced theological degrees are the norm. And languages are spoken here that aren't taught anywhere in the Western world, including various African tribal dialects and South Pacific island tongues.

Some residents here never had a home of their own until they retired to Pilgrim Place. Although there are ministers from metropolitan American pastorates who have lived well by contemporary Western standards, professional Christian service is not lucrative. That's not why it's done. Missionary boards commonly pay stipends geared to the basic cost of living in the field.