I had been summoned by a missionary woman I’d never met.
As my bus rolled into the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, the tiered rice paddies of Central Java sloped progressively into smaller steps. The stooped backs of men and women as they toiled in the waterlogged fields eventually disappeared.
When I showed the envelope to the driver asking for directions to the address, he shouted out something in rapid-fire Indonesian. The envelope somehow got passed around to every passenger on the bus. To my amusement, no one ever answered me. Instead, they just craned their necks to see who the envelope belonged to. I retrieved my envelope as I stepped off the bus. The driver let me off in a cloud of dust on a dirt road. As the bus rolled away, I checked the scrawled return address.
Just then, a woman pulled up in an open, red jeep. She unfolded her tall frame and held out a lanky, wrinkled arm. “See you made it fine. Catherine Benzel.”
“Ms. Benzel, how did you get my address to invite me here?”
She winked. “Call me Catherine. The world is a very small place. Our meeting today is divinely appointed by Him.” She aimed a large-knuckled finger at the sky. Later I found out that a chance acquaintance who knew us both passed on my name and address to her. “Hop in.” She motioned to the passenger’s side. As she tossed in my backpack, she said, “House is right up the road a’piece.”
We drove up to large Dutch dwelling across from the university where Catherine worked. Mango trees interspersed with bird-of-paradise flowers lined the drive. A black metal gate crossed the pavement, and a gate boy opened it for Catherine to drive through.
Catherine began preparing a small Indonesian meal in the kitchen as we got better acquainted. Angular and big-boned, she towered over me as we stood side-by-side at the sink. She peeled and washed papaya while I squeezed several miniature limes in a nifty silver press.
As she talked, I watched emotions play across her face, a raised eyebrow accompanied by self-deprecatory humor. While retelling a droll tale, her blue eyes danced and she never lost that wide-toothed grin. Although in her early seventies, Catherine exuded vibrancy.
Born in Alabama in 1915, Catherine grew up shouldering responsibility. Her father sent her to business school so that she could support the family, which she did until her father’s death at age 86 and her mother’s at age 94. “I never left even to marry,” she declared.
My eye caught a gecko high on the wall. All Indonesia’s open-aired kitchens, even scrubbed down, lent themselves to these creatures. I rather liked these non-threatening guests.
In 1976, Catherine’s nephew, a linguist, moved to a remote area in Irian Jaya, now often referred to as West Papua. “I wanted to ask him if I could go to keep house and cook for him but I feared that it was just my own selfish desire to see this mysterious and exotic land and not the Lord’s will, so I kept silent,” Catherine explained. A letter came shortly thereafter from her nephew asking Catherine that very question. Catherine believed this confirmed the desire came from God and not herself.
“I do have the spirit of adventure because I didn’t become frightened or shocked at the very different life I found myself in. My goodness! Most of my new friends didn’t wear any clothes. They just smeared a kind of petroleum jelly over their bodies to keep warm in the cold.” She picked up a mango to peel. Catherine held it to her cheek. She brought it to her nose and inhaled it. “Love the aroma of fresh mango!”
Catherine picked up the threads of her story again. During her first year she studied Bahasa Indonesia, but she found that she had little use for the national language among the Dani people so she studied what the locals spoke instead.
Although her nephew returned to the United States two years later to continue his studies, Catherine stayed on another four years. “I was thoroughly enjoying my time there and felt I was making a difference.”
I watched Catherine crush some garlic with the flat-blade of a silver, hand-crafted knife. “In what way?”
“I wanted to serve the Lord by working with the locals. I taught the women vocational skills and shared the story of Jesus with everyone I knew.”
Catherine pulled the bamboo shade down over her window to block out the intense glare of the sun. She grabbed a handful of peanuts to shell. “Take some and it’ll go faster.” She gestured to a mound of them in a bowl on the marble counter with her right hand. Peanut sauce! I had never seen it made from scratch.
She told me most women wore grass skirts and the men, a koteka, or gourd, to cover their genitals. In time she learned the unusual and difficult-to-pronounce names of these men. “My trick,” she whispered, “was associating the man with the style of shirt he wore because each owned only one shirt.”
My eyes widened at her confession, which prompted me to ask about other the different customs she had encountered.
Catherine chewed on her bottom lip and took out a pestle to grind the peanuts. She explained when the Papuan women were converted to Christianity, they stopped cutting off their fingers, which was the custom to express their mourning in the loss of a loved one.
“How were you able to make the friendships in that era, especially since you were a buleh among them? Literally meaning ‘albino,’ this term was commonly used to indicate ‘foreigner.’ Sometimes the term was innocuous and sometimes it seemed to be an insult. But it always meant an outsider.
“Well, my dear…” Catherine explained how she shared whatever she had with them, and in time, they learned to love and respect her. “The women used to help me build a fire in the wood stove every morning. They would stand in front of it, naked, holding their arms criss-crossed against their chests to keep warm. I was wearing my dressing gown, and I felt cold. I hated to think of their chill. That’s the way it was back then.”
“Did you ever encounter any dangers?” I asked.
“Oh my! We had plenty of dangerous situations. But these involved the creatures in our surroundings, not the Dani people.”
I reached for the hard, curved back of a rattan chair and sat down, leaning forward. I sensed this would be an entertaining tale. Catherine padded in her bare feet over the white-tiled floor to the dining room which held an olive green refrigerator, and extracted some small chili pepper to add to the peanut sauce. I grinned. “Your fridge is in the dining room, too.”
“That’s right. How lucky I am to have a fridge!” Catherine clapped her hands in delight. “I didn’t before.”
Catherine launched into her next story. “Let me tell you what happened to me late—or rather very early—one morning in our hut.” She giggled like a school girl and I could tell this had become a favorite tale of hers.
On a 3 a.m. trip to the bathroom, she looked down in the dim light and froze. Catherine thought she saw a snake. She tried to convince herself it wasn’t one. “But darned if it didn’t turn out to be one! I know, ‘cause it slithered off.” She snickered at the look on my face. She didn’t want to wake up her housemate who had been ill. So Catherine crept back into her bed but she never slept again. At 6 a.m., her companion rushed into her room to tell her about the enormous snake she’d seen. They searched all over the house but couldn’t find the snake anywhere.
The following night, Catherine woke up again and made her way to the bathroom. She was very careful to check
the toilet seat before sitting down. In the morning, her friend asked if she had seen the snake. “No! I looked everywhere. I know it’s around here somewhere.”
“You’re dead right,” my friend agreed.
“She took me by the arm and trotted me off to the bathroom. There, curled around a small wooden ledge near the ceiling was that serpent. Can you imagine? It was a Boa Constrictor or some such snake!” The laughter bubbled out of her as she lifted her hands to her neck as if to protect it. “I don’t know how I stood that snake.”
“Yeeoof!” I loved it. “How did you come to live in Yogyakarta?”
“I left my exciting life back in 1982,” she replied taking some gingerroot and handing it to me. “You chop this up, and I’ll get the coconut milk.”
Catherine had returned to the States when the opportunity to come back to Indonesia—this time Yogyakarta, or Yogya, as it’s more commonly called—came about. She had attended a Christian conference and became so engrossed in the speaker’s words that she started to use shorthand so she wouldn’t miss anything. She was seated directly in front of the speaker, who ran a Bible college there.
“He certainly must have noticed my earnest attention because later he sought me out. As we traded experiences, he asked me, ‘Would you consider working in Indonesia again?’ I said, nice as you please, ‘Well, I might consider it.’”
Catherine poured canned coconut milk into a pot, took my lime juice and added a mixture of the crushed peanuts, hot chills, crushed garlic and dark sugar. Caught up in the memory, she clutched the potholder to her heart for a moment.
“As a secretary, I needed no language training so once the missionary board approved me, God made everything else fell right into place.” Catherine dabbed at her eyes as tears welled up, “Jus’ an ol’ lady’s sentiments.”
Catherine busied herself with the white cloth napkins and picked up the salt and pepper shakers while I carried the salad to a square rattan table covered with white-embroidered linen. When I commented on it, she said, “It’s Dutch. As you know, the Dutch played a big part in Indonesia’s history.” I nodded.
Catherine smiled. “The Lord has a plan for me and I’ll be here until I’m no longer useful.”
Cool water sloshed over the cloth as she slapped the pitcher down on the table. I poured us both drinks in the plain glasses she had set out.
“Let’s pray for this meal, shall we?” She took my hand in hers as we bowed our heads together. “Thank you for this food you’ve provided us with. We’re especially thankful, Lord, for Your divinely scheduled appointments.” She squeezed my hand and spoke a firm “Amen.”
I never saw Catherine Benzel again. But that visit left an impact on me. I imagine she went on to serve as secretary of that university until God changed His plans for her. If our visit was any indication of her daily life, she did much more than type letters, answer the phone and send correspondence out. With her toothy grin, she must have welcomed all kinds of guests into her nurturing fold and loved them into living deeper adventures for the Lord.
I’m sure my meeting with Catherine was divinely appointed. I have had many others since then in my twenty-five years of living and traveling abroad. But I will never forget the afternoon we shared together eating thick slices of mango and gado-gado salad with peanut sauce.
With both me and a gecko on the wall for an audience, Catherine’s stories made me long for deeper adventure, both spiritual and physical. I knew without a doubt God would use me and give me stories of my own to pass on.