Pilgrim Place

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.

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.

Pilgrim Place was founded by the president of Pomona College in 1915 as a sort of hostel for missionaries on furlough. It soon became clear, however, that what the missionaries really needed was a place to come when they retired from the field. Many missionaries had never had a real home - or the money to buy a house - in their own country. In 1924 Pilgrim Place became what it is today.

The roots of the community are Congregational. And 70 percent of the residents here are Congregationalists, tracing their religious lineage, and in some cases their actual ancestry, directly back to the Mayflower. The rest of the resident pilgrims represent 12 other Christian denominations.

Pilgrim Place's waiting list has more than 600 names. Many wait 10 years. Mary Ingle, an Englishwoman with a spirited, melodious voice, put her name in 16 years in advance.

She had visited Pilgrim Place in the late 1930s, after her first stint abroad as a schoolteacher in Greece. Since that time, she says, ''I've always known that when my time came, this was the place.''

''Claremont was still surrounded by orange groves, and the fields were filled with lupine and California poppies. It was paradise,'' she rhapsodizes. ''It was also the warmth and friendliness of the place.''

It was that memory of Pilgrim Place that helped give Miss Ingle her anchor as she shuttled between Macedonia, Istanbul, Tehran, and Baghdad, teaching and running schools, followed by world war, civil wars, and coups.

''That has been the greatest comfort to me all my life,'' she says. ''I've never had a worry; I've always known there was a place for me.''

''Life has spark and spice here for old people,'' says Francis Ellis, explaining the ambiance of the place. ''You find an exuberance, an optimism, that you don't find in an average [retirement] home.''Dr. Ellis has lived here 23 years. He came at age 67 but is still not retired from pastoral work. He has performed close to 2,000 weddings. He still gives an occasional sermon, and he drives to a nearby hospital frequently for pastoral visits. He also mans a megaphone at the Pilgrim Festival's Mayflower ride each year.

Fellowship is what makes Pilgrim Place, he says. ''We don't sit around and look backward. We look forward.''

The pilgrims hold world events forums, he explains, and are quite excited about the nuclear freeze issue.''I'd say we went 100 percent for it,'' he speculates. ''Life has spirit here.''

Harold Hanlin, a tall man with thick white hair, is getting ready to leave for the Truk Islands in the South Pacific in January. This is where he has spent much of his working life, raising his children on $100 a month while he spread Western education and religion.

He has produced two translations of the New Testament in Trukese, a Trukese Psalms, a complete Bible in Marshallese, and a Ponapean New Testament. Now the Truk islanders want the complete Bible in their tongue. For this project, Mr. Hanlin expects to visit Truk once a year for the next six or seven years.

Meanwhile he is auditing three courses at the Claremont School of Theology - on Hebrew reading, Old Testament theology, and First Corinthians. His present translations are like other paraphrased Bible versions, he says, made from earlier English translations. He wants to get closer to the original texts. He spends a lot of time in the theology school's library.

The only reason Harold Hanlin and his wife, Mary Ruth, retired at all was to establish themselves at Pilgrim Place before Mr. Hanlin passed the community's upper age limit for new arrivals, which is 75.

The Hanlins never planned to became a missionary family. Mr. Hanlin wanted to be a minister, and he already had three children when he was appointed a Navy chaplain in the South Pacific during World War II.

''It was the Marshallese people that converted him,'' Mrs. Hanlin says. Their faith and desire for religion in the face of primitive and abject poverty stirred him.

Would the family move to the Pacific islands to do missionary work? ''No way, '' said Mrs. Hanlin. It took her three months to change her mind. They sold their home in the Midwest and stowed belongings with friends. ''We never regretted it,'' she adds. ''And there was enough adventure in it that the children adjusted well.''

The oldest Hanlin daughter returned to the islands as a missionary with her husband, where they stayed for 25 years. By the time the elder Hanlins retired in 1973, the islanders were ready to run their churches themselves.

This is true for many countries that once hosted missionaries. There is little pioneering missionary work left to do, although primitive regions like Papua New Guinea still have room for real pioneering, according to Mr. Hamlin.

Some countries have closed their borders to missionaries, most notably China after the Communist takeover in 1949. Pilgrim Place used to have three times the old China hands it has now.

In many cases, Worth George says, missionaries have simply succeeded in their work and turned their schools and churches over to indigenous leadership.

For this reason, Pilgrim Place now has a richer mix of former YMCA and YWCA directors among the missionaries and ministers.

Few of the pilgrims here have much money tucked away, although missionaries of 30 years' service or more have lifetime pensions. Basic expenses here range from $300 to $500 per month, although residents never pay more than a fourth of their income on rent. The difference is subsidized by the administration as necessary.

''The one wonderful thing about Pilgrim Place,'' remarks Mary Ingle, ''is that you know you'll never be put out because you haven't got the cash.''

In the meantime, it's not as if the pilgrims haven't been pulling their weight. Mari Sommerville, who was an English professor at a Methodist College in Lucknow, India, has been retired here for 10 years.

In the interval she has taught a Yugoslavian couple English. She is now teaching English to a Korean student. She spends half an hour a week teaching a junior high girl who has special problems. She helped establish a stamp club at a local public school. And she has worked for four social service organizations.

''I've been given so much, I'm trying to repay,'' she says, wrapped in a sari. Dr. Sommerville grew up in a Calcutta orphanage. ''That's the first thing I was given,'' she explains.

The local community here in southern California's San Gabriel Valley turned out some 650 volunteers to help out with the Pilgrim Festival this year. This, Worth George says, is because people appreciate what the pilgrims are doing.

''They're not just playing shuffleboard.''

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