Mary Geneva Sayre earned the title of “the Candle of the Lord” in one of the books written about her by Carylyn V. Winslow. She was a strong and dedicated spiritual servant of the Lord for half a century in China.
Mary Geneva Sayre was born in Oregon, America in a typical family setting. Her father was an educator and her mother was the embodiment of a homemaker.
She left her house and job in America, despite the objections of her parents, who wanted her to become a housewife and care for the children she would have with a pastor husband who devoted himself to missionary work. Geneva said “No” to that. She felt deeply in her heart a leading from God to go to China as a missionary, while her parents and the men who wanted her in marriage did not see that. Eventually, she broke an engagement with a man named Mark for this reason.
In 1921, Geneva boarded a ship for China. During the voyage, she demonstrated qualities of strength and persistence, as well as leadership, that would later enable her to endure the immense difficulties she would encounter in China. She and Kate Leininger, a new friend whom she had met on the ship, calmly took the lead in the typhoon to calm down the people and give commands to set things in order. It is worth noting that Geneva was the first-comer in the boat.
They then landed at the harbor of Shanghai to continue their journey on land. In 1921, the transportation was not anything quite like today. Geneva and other missionaries had to travel to Kaifeng and Kihsien by ancient cars that bounced non-stop on the rough roads, or even on wheelbarrows that were pushed by Chinese barrow-man.
In Kaifeng, Geneva was greeted with lines of Chinese Christians singing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” in Chinese as she was coming into the house. They introduced her to the use of chopsticks and treated her to all kinds of food, including mung beans and sweet-sour-fish. At that moment, Geneva fell in love with the kindness of the people and the mercy of the Lord for her and was assured that she had made the right decision. Throughout this journey, Geneva saw and experienced terrible things that she could not have believed, yet she always gave thanks and glory to God because she knew surely that she was standing confidently in the center of the will of God, who had led her to China.
From Kaifeng, Geneva and Kate traveled by wheelbarrow thirty-five miles to the small town of Kihsien. The trip was stuffy, hot, and uncomfortable. Out of sympathy for the poor man who pushed them, she would occasionally walk alongside the wheelbarrow. Their journey started early in the morning, and they did not arrive to Kihsien until nineo’clock at night. There, they met Dr. Grinnell, who had to persuade the gatekeepers to let Geneva and Kate in. Geneva and Kate were rewarded with a feast prepared by the Schlossers. The next morning, Geneva was introduced to the Schlosser children and Chinese Christians. She was shown the room where she would be teaching and the hospital run by Dr. Grinnell. To Geneva’s surprise, the hospital was rather bare and appeared to be used for an orphanage. Indeed, the hospital had been turned into an orphanage because of the famine. A few evenings later, when Geneva was taking a stroll, she discovered an abandoned baby and ran to Miss Murray with the baby, asking the meaning of it. Miss Murray explained that destitute mothers will abandon their infants when they have run out of food and money in hopes that someone else will give them a home. In the following days, two boys and several girls were taken in by the orphanage. Geneva spent her days teaching missionary children, and diligently studying the Chinese language, as well as preaching and counseling.with a teacher or nurse as her interpreter. Geneva felt an immense amount of joy to see young Chinese Christians receivethe Gospel with such passion and excitement.
The peaceful times did not last because of the famine. In the autumn of 1921, an army of bandits was going from town to town stealing food and killing anyone who got in their way. Word spread to the people of Kihsien, and they became afraid. Geneva instructed two missionary friends to move the orphans and everything from the hospital into the city because the children were her priority. When the bandits arrived at the city gate, Mr. Schlosser negotiated with them. If they laid down their weapons and promised not to hurt the townspeople, they would receive food and money. The bandits accepted the kind gesture from the people of Kihsien and left the town.
Geneva encountered a Chinese Christian named Chang. She was an eager young woman who wanted to be a nurse. Chang had plans to study nursing at a hospital in Wucheng. Geneva and Chang became close friends as they confided with each other and worked together. Eventually, Chang departed for two years for nursing school. Unfortunately, Dr. Grinnell overworked himself and he died from a sudden heart attack.
In 1926, civil war caused national unrest, forcing Geneva to move the school back into the city. Eventually, she closed down the school, sent the children home, and fled to Beijing.
In 1927, Geneva returned home to rest and realign herself with the Lord. She was happy to be home and to see her friends and family, but China had become her new home and she ached to be there. When she returned to China in August of 1929, it felt like a homecoming. She went first to Chengchow first and then returned to Kihsien. She resumed her busy life as a teacher, business manager, pharmacist, and nursing instructor.
In Geneva’s absence, the Japanese had occupied many cities in China and terrorized the citizens. Kihsien faced a predicament where the hospital had no doctor and desperately needed one. With careful consideration, Nurse Chang acted as the doctor while Geneva was the anesthetist. Their first patient needed his arm amputated because his arm was rotting away with maggots. There was little hope of him surviving, but by the miraculous work of the Lord he came through safely. As the months passed with no doctor, their supplies dwindled, and an epidemic began to spread. There was a malaria outbreak and they needed quinine, so Geneva traveled to Shanghai for a new supply. Geneva maintained hope despite the bleak situation because Dr. Green would return to the hospital. Upon Geneva’s return from Shanghai, Kate broke the news that Dr. Green’s passport had been canceled. Nurse Chang and Geneva would continue to act as doctor and assistant for the time being.
Once Geneva returned to China, she found that Japan had occupied the country. In December of 1938, Geneva was asked to help run a hospital along with two other missionaries where they would serve those injured from fighting the Japanese. The very first patient was a man dying from a rotting gunshot wound. They successfully saved his life, and then continued to save many more.
In 1941, war broke out between the U.S. and Japan. Geneva and Kate were approached by Japanese soldiers who imprisoned them in a church because of the war. As the months grew colder and winter approached, Geneva snuck into the church’s attic while soldiers were napping. To her surprise, she came across a Chinese soldier rummaging through the boxes. Geneva, taking advantage of catching the soldier red handed, then demanded a heater and pipe she spotted. The man, understanding the deep trouble he could face if the Japanese soldier discovered his actions, decided to help Geneva take the heater outside of the attic. As she returned to her prison room, she confidently walked back in with the heater. The guard on duty woke up to see her coming in holding a heater in her hands. Because she strode with confidence, he did not question her, and furthermore, even helped her set up the heater without second thoughts about the matter. As a result of Geneva’s audacious action, Kate and Geneva were able to have warmth through the entirety of the cold winter. When spring came around, Geneva and Kate were freed and allowed leave the church.
Despite strong urges for them to return to the United States, the two women stayed with their local friend, Miss Leininger, through the winter of 1942 and into the spring of 1943. Their freedom, however, did not last long. Upon the arrival of March, Japanese guards came, demanding Geneva and Kate to pack their belongings to return to the States. When the time came to leave, they suddenly discovered they were, in fact, being sent to a labor camp. The journey there was arduous—inhumane living conditions due to cramped, hot, and smelly railway cars constituted a difficult and unpleasant passage. After they arrived at Weihsein, they discovered 1800 people had been relocated to this city within a short amount of time. The abrupt arrival of nearly 2,000 people caused Weihsein to fall into utter chaos. Due to the need for order, Geneva, along with other inmates, helped establish a system within the camp. They formed committees where people were assigned tasks and delegated responsibilities, changing the camp’s deplorable state to one of working order as the community worked together. These committees created a working system for food, water, waste, compost, a children’s playground, a hospital, kitchens, a carpentry shop, and even a library and bakery. Even more, Geneva helped organize volleyball as an activity for people to play when they grew bored.
After some time at the camp, the Japanese soldiers decided to select people they would send back to the States. Geneva and Kate fervently desired to remain alongside their Chinese brothers and sisters, so they requested to remain at the labor camp. They would have rather died in the camps than leave their Chinese Christian friends alone in the midst of persecution and suffering. To their grievance and dismay, in December of 1943, they were chosen and ordered by the Japanese soldiers to return home. Their entire journey back to the U.S. was full of sadness and inner turmoil as they were forced out of the land, away from the people they had hoped to serve and live with forever.
Geneva returned to China in 1946 and immediately saw the effects the war had on the cities where she once worked. The cities were in ruin and many homes were destroyed. Around the year 1950, after spending time working in the cities of Kihsien and Kaifeng, she traveled to Honan where the communists were already making a major impact on people’s lives. At this point, she was one of four or five American missionaries left, and the communists had taken away the rights of the people. Geneva knew tribulation was near, and although times were becoming difficult, she was still able to influence the Chinese church to make a stand of faith despite the persecution they might receive. As Geneva had anticipated, the communists began to mistreat Geneva and other Christians from the West, claiming that the missionaries were spies. Geneva was interrogated by soldiers who asked in different ways whether she liked communism or not. Instead of lying, she bravely said, “No.” The communists, through propaganda, tried to convince the Chinese people that missionaries were not there to help. Communists were planted amongst the Chinese church to help push for the killing of church members, hoping the blame would be put on Geneva. During this time, Geneva saw many of her friends taken away by the communists and returned with wounded bodies and brainwashed, defeated minds. Geneva eventually became the last Westerner left in Honan. The communists forced her to do monotonous work in hopes that she would give up and leave China, but through her faith in Christ Geneva persevered and stayed. One day the communists tricked Geneva and sent her to prison. In prison, Geneva lived in a 7x9 cell with four others and every day saw dead bodies being thrown into the ground. Geneva had accepted an imminent death because for her to live was Christ, and to die was gain. Malnourished, she worshiped God. Despite attempted brainwashing, she worshiped God. Through all trials, she worshipped God. Her faith in Christ could not be overcome. Geneva displayed the love of Christ daily to everyone she interacted with, so when the communists asked the prisoners for complaints so that they could kill her, there were none. Geneva prayed for deliverance and shortly after, she was released. Although she was grateful, she grieved for her imprisoned brothers and sisters she was forced to leave behind.
Following Geneva’s release from prison, some around her encouraged her to retire from her missionary service and return to the U.S., where she could enjoy a restful retirement. To some this was a reasonable proposition because her time in China had caused her to endure a variety of hardships. She experienced famine, natural disasters, communist persecution, and prison. Despite these trials, she had confidence in God’s will for her life. She was not swayed by the suggestions of those around her since felt the most peace when she was in the center of God’s will, despite any pain that would come along with it.
It was around this time that she became deeply interested in Taiwan. After prayerful consideration, she sensed God’s Lord leading her to continue living out the mission God had placed on her heart since her youth. She began visiting the beautiful island of Taiwan to understand the people and their spiritual situation. After moving there, she started her work in Kaohsiung, in the south. From there, she traveled all around the island, sharing the love of Jesus and leading others toward him. Despite her age and the considerable work she had already accomplished in mainland China, her time in Taiwan became one of the most spiritually productive periods in her entire life as a missionary.
Collaborating with others, she began a Free Methodist Church in 1954 and led thousands of people to Christ. She also successfully brought the gospel to a variety of groups throughout the island, including many tribal people and other native populations who had previously had no contact with missionaries.
Following this period of extraordinary spiritual growth, she returned to the United States for a brief furlough before her last period of service in Taiwan. In 1966, she finally ended her career as a missionary and returned to California, where she retired. Sadly, Geneva and her close friend were involved in a serious car accident. Her friend was killed, and Geneva suffered multiple fractures. Despite this tragedy and the physical consequences for her, she slowly recovered and was grateful that God spared her life. In the following years, she returned many times to Taiwan to visit and engage with the spiritual community that she played an integral role in molding.
After her final visit to Taiwan, Geneva resided in Washington state, where she remained active in a local church. This was where she spent the rest of her life, until God finally called her home after a life filled with faithful service to Him.
Williamson, Glen. Geneva: The fascinating story of Geneva Sayre, missionary to the Chinese. Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life Press, 1974.