Single— and wondering
By Carolyn Stuyvesant
For nearly three years, almost every day, I had prayed, “Oh, God, please don’t send me to the mission field—not to Africa or India or New Guinea or anywhere else—as long as I’m single. Yes, Lord, I’ll go if that’s what You really want, but oh I hope it isn’t what You want. Married? Yes! A thousand times, yes. But single? It’s so lonely. And then, who would look after me?” (That was before women’s lib—when women liked for husbands to love them, cherish them, and care for them.)
What would I do alone by the flickering flame of a kerosene lantern, alone evening after evening? Who would be with me in times of danger? Yes, I knew God cares for people. He comforts them, protects them, and helps them—sometimes—I had observed, but not, it seemed, always. If anyone had asked me if I believed He would look after all that for me, I would surely have said, “I know He does.” But somehow I was still apprehensive about it all.
Off to Alaska
One day I received a letter from my sister Elizabeth in Alaska. My brother-in-law, Dr. Harvey Heidinger, had added a few lines: “If you are brave enough and rich enough [I was neither], we can arrange for you to take a trip out into the interior to some villages.”
The real message of the letter indicated that about the middle of July they would be moving from Anchorage, and that shortly afterward they would doubtless be going to the Orient as missionaries for four or five years, so if I really wanted a visit I’d better come soon.
Immediately I began working on days off and putting in extra hours so that I could have a little extra money and some time off. That “brave enough” idea stuck. Where would I stay if I went to the villages? I wasn’t rich. How could I take a side trip with no money?
Then it dawned. This was my chance! As I lay in bed night after night, I decided to be brave enough to go out to the Alaskan interior. I would go as far and as independently as I could and find out what God would do with me then. Would He really care for me?
“Yes, I’ll come,” I wrote to Elizabeth and Harvey. “I’m not rich and maybe not brave, but I’d like a trip to the interior. Plan anything for me you think is OK.” I knew this trip would be in a small plane. I didn’t like little planes. I wrote out a strange sort of will in case I didn’t come back, gave my apartment an extra good cleaning, and at last flew the six-hour trip from Los Angeles to Anchorage.
"This was my chance! As I lay in bed night after night, I decided to be BRAVE enough to go out to the Alaskan interior."
On arrival Harvey said, “We have a great trip arranged for you to go out to a village. The government Native Hospital wants you to escort a baby back home to that village. The pilot is going tomorrow afternoon (Friday). You can stop at Nondalton or Newhalen. Then maybe you can go to some other villages and come back Tuesday. It’s free since you are escorting a patient.”
Where would I stay for four or five days? Nobody quite seemed to know. After a few hours’ sleep, we got up on a cloudy Friday morning to pack my few possessions. A change of clothes, a sleeping bag, a small box of food—that was all I took.
The Adventure Begins
About 3:00 in the afternoon things began to happen. Somebody handed me a 10-month-old Native baby and a paper bag with diapers and bottles. A tag on the baby’s back gave her name, Esther.1 It also said “pneumonia,” “10 months,” and “Nondalton.” But I did not have just one child. There were three others—Mary, 10-year-old John, and 9-year-old Alice—all Natives.
Over the rippled, pale-blue water of Cook Inlet we flew. Beyond were mountains, blue and bluer. Clouds, white, gray, and bluish hovered among the mountains, pushing each other far up into the blue sky. Snow clung to the mountains below the clouds. Sunlight filtered through, making blue and silver shadows on peaks and bays. On we flew, until we were over the Kenai Peninsula. Here weather-beaten spruce stand in miles upon miles of swamps. Here the moose slosh through mud and across the tundra.
The children were silent, speaking only when spoken to above the engine’s roar. I found myself thinking of God, the God who made the water, the spruce trees, and the sky. The world seemed very orderly out here. I felt guilty to try God. But I wanted to know. Did He know about me?
It was not long before Arnold, our pilot, was guiding us out across the water again. I wish you could see it the way it was that day: calm, silent, peaceful in its solitude. We turned toward the mountains once more to find the Newhalen River, which we followed for miles between snowcapped peaks. Not a house or road or car in sight.
At last we circled and splashed into the water by Nondalton. Two dozen Natives came running, and I gave away my papoose and Alice. Two hundred forty miles from a train or highway. Surely God was here. But what about farther away—what would He do with me?
Taking off again, we followed the Newhalen River once more, crossing more spruce-covered tundra to Lake Iliamna, more than 100 miles long. After a while Arnold, who carried mail as well as children, said, “Where do you plan to stay tonight?”
“Oh, I guess in a schoolhouse or out on the tundra,” I replied casually. We landed on the water by the pilot’s house about seven miles from the Newhalen village, and Arnold’s wife met us with a microbus. There were a few little trails around on which to drive.
Arnold took off again to deliver mail. Naomi, his wife, took me to their house. She said the schoolhouse was locked, and it was unsafe to sleep on the tundra. “Maybe you’d like to sleep in our guest cabin,” she offered. Though yet daylight, it was getting late, so I gladly accepted the offer.
At the supper table we ate a can of my vegetarian food. The whole family was pleased to have an alternate to dried moose meat. Lemon pie was for dessert. Strange, I thought to myself, they’re so excited about what I brought. Did God know they were tired of moose meat? Of course He did! And lemon pie—of course He knows it’s my favorite. It was all made and in the refrigerator when I arrived.
The children kept singing snatches of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” God must really be saying something to me, I reflected again and again. Potted fuchsias, of all things—one of my most favorite flowers—brightened up the living room.
As I lay in bed that night, I was thinking, How can I ever get away from people? This is just too easy. The test will never work because I’m always, always with people. Then I fell into a troubled sleep and awoke, still troubled.
Just after breakfast the three children came running in. “We’ve found a bird’s nest,” they shouted excitedly. “Come quick and see! It’s in the rushes out in the water.”
“How do you get there?” “The rubber raft. It’s just a little way,” explained 11-year-old Kathy. Kathy, her friend Jeannine, and I slipped silently into the raft and softly paddled the few feet out to a round mud nest, sculptured to rise a few inches above the water. Six-year-old Joe and 9-year-old Dick had already arrived in their raft and were trying hard to be quiet. We pulled up close enough to see two eggs the size of a chicken’s lying in the grass-lined nest. A thoughtful-looking Pacific loon watched from far away, so graceful as to seem unreal.
Paddling back to shore, we saw three arctic terns of purest white dive for fish while their forked tails seemed to slash the blue sky. A greater yellowlegs screamed off to the horizon when I unwittingly frightened it out of the marshes. The words of Jesus came to my mind: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt. 6:26).2
Birds—loons, terns, yellowlegs. Cared for by their heavenly Father. “He’s got the whole world in His hands,” the children kept singing.
Back at “home” Naomi suggested that we all fly over to an island to see a Native woman who had a 5-day-old baby. Air travel is about the only travel out there. The children were excited to be going somewhere.
We flew low over little islands and finally splashed down beside a tiny village. My sister had sent a box of baby clothes to be given away, so it was with considerable delight that I presented these to this mama and her beautiful new baby.
O God, You were there on that tiny, lonely, lovely little island with that Inuit woman whose husband was gone fishing much of the time, there with the baby and the other children. You even sent clothes for the baby!
Though rain was threatening, we splashed another takeoff and then landed by a pebbled beach and hiked up on the spongy ferns and moss. If you are awed by great things, view the blue, ice-etched mountains towering beyond; if inspired by small things, look into the heart of the pink cranberry blossoms at your feet. If you thrill at stillness, it will be very still; if you exult in noise, the disturbed yellowlegs will break the silence by squawking 108 times per minute. Yes, and the wind will howl and the waves will splash and the rain will sing on Lake Iliamna.
And if you crave a song, you’ll hear the lovely words echo along the shores, “He’s got the wind and rain in His hands . . . He’s got the whole world in His hands.” My hands. So small. Is that why I can’t understand how big my Father’s hands are?
Tundra blossoms are delightful. There are tiny white star-shaped ones that grow in the grass. Cranberries are profuse. Dwarf dogwood three inches high blooms among the deer moss. “See how the flowers of the field grow,” spoke Jesus long ago to a crowd of people who were wondering what God would do for them (Matt. 6:28). Did He really care? Did He really know that they needed clothes? they wondered. Breathlessly the people waited. Why would Jesus point to the lilies of the field—the lilies no one planted or scarcely noticed? His beautiful melodious voice continued: “They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? . . . Therefore do not worry about tomorrow” (verses 28-34).
Now, nearly 2,000 years later, I could hear His gentle voice whisper, “Carolyn, consider the flowers how they grow. Don’t be anxious.”
Too soon we were in the air heading for the lakeshore and home. As we flew across the glassy water, guilty thoughts crept in. Why was I thinking of trying God to see if He knew about me? The birds, the flowers, even the agates at the islands’ shores spoke of One who knows and cares. Hadn’t He inspired David to write long ago: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? . . . If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps. 139:7-10).
"He was there. I was there. We were together—just the TWO of us."
I didn’t want to be a doubter, but I wanted to know. Yet, out here where there were mountains piled on mountains at the tundra’s edge, where almost no one lived, I was having as delightful a time as any girl could have. I had tried to get lost but couldn’t. I had tried to have a hard time and hadn’t succeeded. What a gentle, compassionate God!
That evening I took a long walk between showers. All the blue had turned to gray. A brisk wind stirred the lake waters. A mist hid the ice-etched mountains. A damp silence crept in. A silence that made one feel shut in—a silence that made one feel far away. It grayed the houses. It dimmed the rushes that sheltered the loon’s nest. It muffled the short cry of the sea gull. Could this be that glorious Lake Iliamna of only a few hours ago? Yes, it was the same lake. There were the same birds, the same deer moss, the same mountains. This gray world He holds in His big, kind hands too, I mused.
I went to bed early that night and arose to a grayer world the next day.
The day wore on. I longed to know, to know for sure that God really would care for me—me—alone in the remotest places. Yet it seemed unkind, just not right to ask for more.
Naomi took me three and a half miles to the schoolteacher’s house for a visit in the evening. The teacher was a vivacious girl whose husband had gone fishing to the coast along with all the men and most of the women. Her little girls, Martha and Shirley, were equally as lively as their mother. “Come and stay with me,” Trish said. “Since my husband is gone, I sleep downstairs, so you may sleep upstairs. It’s so nice to have someone around. I’m glad you came.”
It was half past nine in the twilight when we returned to Trish’s house. She proved to be an exciting young mother who I’m sure was an authentic encyclopedia on the problems, trials, assets, joys, and sorrows of being a teacher in an Inuit village. We talked until midnight. One of her little blonds still bore scars of an encounter she had had with one of their huskies.
Suddenly, Trish stood up. “One minute till midnight,” she said. “Let’s go see the weather.”
The gray had lifted. In the Northeast were patches of blue sky. Fragments of crimson clouds reminded us that the sun had set shortly before and would be rising in two and a half hours. Beautiful, spacious silence; lovely, soft sky; majestic icy mountains afar off; birds twittering close by. There was a hushed excitement in this midnight twilight that drove away sleep. Why must I give up to drowsiness? I had to.
By the time I had climbed the stairs and gotten into bed, the sparrows were chirping their morning songs. Sparrows at 1:00 on the tundra! I would not sleep. I would lie awake and listen to a lone sparrow break the silence with a song—the sparrow that sat in the tall spruce tree at the window by my bed. I would think of how God had held this loveliness in His hands for centuries, of how His arm is unwearied yet. I still wanted to know about me. What about God and me? Could He—would He—let me know a little more? Then I did what I did not intend to do. I went to sleep.
As I slept, I seemed to be walking across the vast, flat tundra. With a pack on my back and all alone I walked and walked and walked. Icy mountains in the distance carved the edges of the glorious red and orange and magenta sky. On and on I walked. Not a house. Not a car. Hundreds of miles I walked. Away and farther away. Awed by the mystery, the grandeur, the silence. Not tired—just walking.
And then I heard a voice to my left and a little behind. It was a lovely, soft voice that said, “Carolyn!” I stopped quickly, and turning to the left I saw a cross perhaps 10 feet tall a few yards off the trail, and on it the dark silhouette of a Man.
Strange how I never saw Him as I passed, I thought as I moved a little closer. The orange glow of the sky lit the countryside. I paused. Alone. With Him, Jesus. In wonder I waited. Strange that He should call to me. Strange that He should call my very own name. Was I really alone with Him? I gazed in all directions. No one else was around. Only Jesus. He was there. I was there. We were together—just the two of us. He said so quietly, so tenderly, “Carolyn, I died for you. I will be with you to the ends of the earth.”
Then I awoke. It was 2:00 a.m. There was a brilliant sunrise to watch out the double glass doors. I lay there till 7:00 with quiet, awesome thoughts of Jesus who died for me—who would be with me to the ends of the earth. Me! He died for me! He would be with me to the ends of the earth—Africa, Asia, New Guinea, any place, every place with me!
Two thousand years ago Jesus told His people, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). That was written for you and for me. Why had I not believed it?
Monday we flew back to Anchorage. Some people return from vacations with Eskimo dolls and ivory.
I took two sentences with me, etched on my heart forever. “Carolyn, I died for you. I will be with you to the ends of the earth.”
Precious, precious treasures from God’s heart to mine.
This experience happened in August 1963, when I was 33 years old. Forty-nine years later I marvel how my Savior has been with this single woman and cared for her during 10 years in Africa, traveling around the globe three times. If you are a single young woman wondering about your place in God’s dreams—trust Jesus. He will never let go of you. He never let go of me.
1 The names of most individuals mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
2 All Scripture quotations have been taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Carolyn Stuyvesant spent many years in overseas missionary service and currently enjoys a very active retirement in Loma Linda, California, United States.