Sermon October 25, 2020

Hanging On
Romans 5:1-5
October 25, 2020     

The reason the numbers are spiking everywhere is due to two new words in our vocabulary: Covid Fatigue.    We’ve been, more or less, shut in and shut out of our normal routine since early March.  Save a weekly trip to Albertson’s, a doctor’s visit, or a small gathering with our family, most of us have stayed close to home.  And it’s hard, isn’t it?  Really hard.  We want to get out and get going!

I want to tell you the story of Mary Previte.  She was born of missionary parents in Shandong, China in 1932.  She had just turned nine when the Japanese stormed her boarding school.  She became, along with every other westerner there, a Prisoner of War.

For a year the Japanese allowed Mary and her school mates to live peacefully on the campus of their boarding school. But then they decided it would become a naval base.  The Japanese herded up students and teachers and moved them to a nearby concentration camp.  The camp was crowded, the people hungry, bed bugs and lice crawling about everywhere.  

Three of her teachers decided to do something to battle concentration camp fatigue.  They created boy and girl scout troops.  The children had to work to earn merit badges.  

The teachers decided to operate these youth units as if they were the same as in peace time.  Concentration camp or not, every student was expected to be orderly, cheerful, and polite.

“We were to have manners as if we were princesses in Buckingham Place,” Previte said.  “You could be on a wooden bench, eating out of a soap dish or an empty tuna can, and you might be eating boiled animal brains or what the Chinese would feed their animals and the teachers would come up behind you and say, ‘Mary, do not talk with your mouth full’.”

It got worse.  The teachers and children were shipped to an even larger concentration camp, where there were 1200 other POW’s, mainly from Europe and Britain.  The prisoners ate weeds growing in the camp to ward off starvation.   Death and disease were rampant.  

Mary’s days were marked by arduous work: mopping floors, cooking,  swabbing latrine, pumping water, and carrying burning trash.

Even as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia fell to the Japanese and the Philippines were  invaded the teachers kept their students from succumbing to dread.  “I did not see my parents for five years, so the teachers became our substitute parents.  They never let the students forget that God was watching over them, and that the teachers would take care of them.”

As the years dragged  by, the teachers kept on teaching, kept on working with the girls to earn their merit badges, kept on having fun contests such as having the girls grow out their fingernails, the best way to catch bed bugs.  

The war ended in August 1945.    Mary Previte was reunited with her parents and returned to the states.

In 1985, 40 years after her camp was liberated, Mary Previte tracked down some of her teachers to thank them.  She asked Ailsa Carr what it was like to bear the heavy burden in the face of the brutal Japanese occupation.

Mary’s former teacher told her that she knew the Japanese were digging mass graves just outside the compound walls.  Carr added, “I would pray to God every night that He would let me be one of the first when they lined us by the death trench and began shooting.”

Mary Previte could only say, “Miss Carr, I had no idea.”

Today Mary Previte  served as a representative of the sixth legislative district in N.J. from 1998 to 2006.   She passed away last year.  

It has been almost 80 years since those teachers shielded her from hopelessness.  The teachers’ gifts to Mary Previte and her classmates was their ability to find joy in a desperate situation.  All the teachers were Christians, and as such, they never failed to remind the girls that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in the time of trouble.”  (Psalm 46:1)

In 1 Peter 5:7 followers of Christ are instructed with these words: “Cast all your cares upon God, for He cares for you.”   

So, the next time you are having a bad day, think of Mary Previte, think of the rat-infested barracks where she slept for four years.  Think of scouring the field for weeds to eat.  Think of those who didn’t make it out of the concentration camps in Asia and Europe during WWII.   

In so doing it won’t be a magical cure for Covid Fatigue.  But it will give you a little perspective.

Dr. Terry Swicegood