Mary Tallon (from Ponsonby Baptist Church) along with her siblings, Jill Davison (Omokoroa Baptist Church), Jeff Turner (Mount Albert Baptist Church), Kathleen and Murray Dillner (Rotorua Baptist Church), visited the place where their Aunt Marnie Turner served with NZBMS (now Arotahi) during the last century.

Q. What do missional Mizos, two young women and the father of modern missions have in common?

A. They expected great things from God and attempted great things for God [1].

Introduction

Can you imagine a young Auckland nurse travelling to India during the uncertain years of World War Two, working first with the Baptist Missionary Society in Agartala during the terror of the division of India and Pakistan, then obeying God’s clear call to go to a remote jungle village? This call came through a girl with rheumatic fever who had been carefully nursed back to health, and who urged the missionary to come up to her tribal village of Vanghmun to share her faith, teaching and nursing skills. The NZBMS (now Arotahi) board at home said, “No. It’s too dangerous for a woman alone.” 

But it came to pass

That young missionary nurse was our Aunt, Marjorie Turner [2]. In February 2024, at the invitation of Vanghmun Baptist Church, five members of our family went to celebrate the 105th Anniversary Celebrations of the establishment of The Baptist Church in Vanghmun and to lay the foundation stone for a new building – the ME Turner Memorial Hall. A whirlwind journey was undertaken by siblings Mary Tallon, Jill Davison, Jeffery Turner, Kathleen Dillner and her husband Murray. We felt deeply privileged to see the work of this flourishing missional church and to lay the foundation stone for the next stage of their faith journey. As Jeff said when we left for home, “It was a wonderful experience which will remain with us all our lives!” 

Tripura

Tripura is a state in north-east India, surrounded by Bangladesh, Mizoram, Assam and, further to the east, Myanmar. Vanghmun is high in the Jampui Hills, close to the border of Mizoram and Tripura. 

Vanghmun village

The Jampui Hills are 3000 feet above sea level, rising through fold after fold of mountain range with the village situated along a ridge at 2000 feet. It is similar to Titirangi in the Waitakere Ranges in Auckland, though, at a much higher altitude. The area increasingly attracts trampers and tourists for its unspoiled natural beauty, lush vegetation, clear air, stunning views and its remoteness.

Vanghmun village from the air – Vanghmun Baptist church arrowed

Marnie’s early years in India

After 8 years during dangerous political times serving in what became Bangladesh and then, in Tripura, Marnie and Dr Nola Ivory set up a rural clinic at the foothills of the Jampui Hills where they worked tirelessly bringing medical help and Jesus’ love to isolated villages – two courageous women with servant hearts.

A village girl’s request

The girl with rheumatic fever was brought by stretcher from Vanghmun to Kanchanpur and Marnie cared for her. Lalhawthangi, known as Thangi, asked Marnie to return home with her to teach the women and the children. Even though Thangi’s father had been an early convert from Mizoram, the men had not shared their new-found faith with their women and children. Marnie saw it as her ‘Macedonian call’. So, in 1952, after receiving permission from New Zealand, Marnie arrived in remote Vanghmun where she lived for six years. The people welcomed her and built her a small bamboo hut. Marnie’s work – opening an intermediate school, teaching hygiene, running medical clinics, children’s Bible clubs, women’s programmes, preaching and teaching – is still celebrated and bearing fruit today. She travelled vast distances barefoot to jungle villages, heedless of leopards and cobras, crossing rivers teeming with leeches – arriving sometimes with bloodied feet. Villagers wittily referred to those unattractive feet when quoting “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news”. 

Vanghmun Visit 2024

Some readers may remember Rev Samuel Lalduksaka, the Principal of the Tripura Theological College, who spent time at Carey College and churches around New Zealand in early 2023. Samuel comes from Vanghmun and his dad was one of Marnie’s pupils. He took her on her last jungle trek. It was on Samuel’s visit here that the idea emerged for Marnie’s family to attend the church celebrations this year. 

Rev. Samuel Lalduksaka and his father in front of Marnie’s replica bamboo hut

In February, we were met at Agartala by Samuel and his brother-in-law John and travelled 6 hours to Vanghmun – only 186 kms away – but you can guess why it took so long? Perhaps it had something to do with negotiating hairpin bends, potholes and landslides post-monsoon, road works, traffic, cows, goats, hens, dogs and people? Maybe our roads here in New Zealand aren’t too bad after all? Murray and Kathleen recalled how Thangi and Hneliana had travelled to Kolkata from Vanghmun in 1984 to see them and how sacrificial it was to travel such a distance, on that road, 40 years ago.

Vanghmun Baptist Church

This church is built on the site where Marnie lived over 70 years ago and forms the apex of the village. The welcome we received was overwhelming. Over two days we attended three Church services, where along with local pastors, Jeff gave a sermon translated by Samuel. We listened to the young people’s joyful choir, joined in fervent congregational singing accompanied by the ubiquitous large drum and small band, and worshipped in a crowded church.  

Youth choir

Jeff Turner in Vanghmun Baptist church service

The ME Turner Memorial Hall

As part of the Celebrations, the church community plans to build a new Hall for which we laid the foundation stone. It is to be named after Marnie because of her influence in evangelism, education and hygiene still evident today. In fact, in 2017, the Indian Government named this village the cleanest in North India and the older people attribute this to Marnie’s careful teaching and example. 

After the service and laying the foundation stone, there was much feasting and traditional dancing under the banyan trees. It was fun dancing with the ladies, but we were glad we weren’t invited up to join the complicated Cheraw dance, which was colourful and spectacular. Kind young people zoomed up the narrow road on motorbikes on several occasions, balancing our dinner which no doubt was provided by generous women from the church. We enjoyed warm hospitality in homes and met many people, each wanting to have the obligatory photos with us. We were given beautiful Mizo skirts and bags, and fine scarves woven by Mami and Rosa who dressed us for the Celebration. The intricacy of the tight weaving is a work of art for which the local women are justifiably famous. Such generosity is truly humbling, and the gifts will be treasured forever. So many people were involved in caring for us, cooking, driving, weaving, helping us to feel at home. Samuel excelled in his organisation, striking a good balance between keeping us to time and letting us linger where needed. He thought ahead about our needs regarding food and rest, and filled the time later in Agartala with meaningful exchanges.

It was uplifting to see so many young people committed to following Jesus in this thriving evangelistic Church, which now has two daughter congregations in the village. Their prayer is to send two missionaries to Nepal in the near future. Even when Marnie was with them, these village families supported evangelists by faithfully putting aside a cup of rice whenever they cooked, then selling it when they had enough saved. And God has blessed their generosity.

Pi Zoduhi

The people still use Marnie’s special name meaning “Lover of the Mizo people.” Her joyful faith and uncomplicated ability to share her love for Jesus with the men of the village, showing them a new way to live as families, has made a real difference in the Jampui Hills. They spoke of her bravery and sacrificial love which meant that they were no longer feared as head-hunters, but relied on the incomparable hope Jesus promises to those who trust and obey.

Many elderly people were keen to share personal stories and memories of Marnie. Some joyfully recalled the visit made by Elizabeth Jones, Marnie, her cousin Win Penman, and Jim Skett in 1994 for the 75th Celebrations. We had a wonderful session with those who remembered Marnie when they were children. They spoke of the prizes she gave when they had learned the scriptures and many other lovely examples of her thoughtfulness to individuals in need or in pain. And they still remember scripture and songs she taught 70 years ago! How important is it, then, to encourage our children to memorise scripture? 

Elderly villagers who recalled Marnie from their childhood

The Old Testament had only just been translated into Mizo while she was there, and for 20 years after her return to Auckland in 1958, she sent weekly translations of Bible studies in Mizo to 25 villages. These translations led the recipients to say, once again in their humorous way, “Pi Zoduhi, you were even more use to us when you left.”

Bamboo House

A replica bamboo house was built for the Celebration showing the open fire with Marnie’s old kettle and cooking utensils and even a life-size cardboard figure of our Aunty standing in her bedroom. What a fright we got when we saw her standing there! Seeing the replica with some of her possessions placed there by those who had received them as gifts nearly 70 years ago was truly amazing. Old and young filed through the hut talking excitedly about the past. It was an important feature of the Celebration for everyone, so we couldn’t resist standing beside our Aunt in our outfits which caused much laughter and more photos.

2D replica of Marnie in bamboo hut

Cooking utensils in Marnie’s bamboo hut

Kathleen, Mary and Jill and outside Vanghmun church in traditional Jampui attire

Thangi

Thangi was there to meet us outside her home, her eyes still shining, and singing “I have decided to follow Jesus”. She had come to Auckland with Marnie in 1958 to consult a heart surgeon and lived next door to our family for a year. We were at primary school and younger but have strong memories of her sweetness to each of us. When she returned home, she and Pastor Hneliana married and worked all their lives to share the love of Jesus with the hill villages. Thangi is now 93 and it was very moving to visit her home, embrace her after all these years and enjoy a beautiful lunch prepared by her family who had travelled five hours from Mizoram. We are so grateful for this separate visit to Thangi and family. It was a moment we shall never forget, hearing her singing, so strong and clear and her light still bright for Jesus. Spending time with her and seeing her face of joy and the love of her family are precious memories. 

Thangi

Kathleen meets Thangi

With Thangi’s extended family

Jill farewells Thangi

Income for the village

The mandarin orange crops, which supported the village financially when Marnie was there, have recently succumbed to citrus canker, so the new centre may allow the village to earn an income. The facility will have a large kitchen with dining area above with a hall on the top level. Visitors, including Indian tourists, increasingly visit this beautiful part of India. It is, as we discovered, an unforgettable experience to watch the sun rise and set in Vanghmun. Marnie loved living here on top of the world, and what excellent custodians the villagers are of this special place. It was difficult to say goodbye to our generous new friends, who as they waved us off were like ‘a cloud of witnesses’, but we hope to keep in regular touch with our Aunt’s Vanghmun ‘family’ and to help with the work where we can. 

Under the banyan tree (Vanghmun Baptist Church in background)

Agartala

After another six-hour journey back to Agartala, immensely grateful to Samuel and John for two safe and efficient trips, we went to the Baptist mission compound at Kiwi House. We spent two busy days visiting the Tripura Baptist Christian Union and the Theological College and meeting faculty staff and students over chai. Then a large number of students from the Girls’ Hostel sang to us. We three sisters made a recording of children’s songs for Alish, spoke with two lovely young women from Nagaland, Meseweu and Shedulu, who were responsible for all the Old and New Testament lectures at the Theological College. Later we had a delicious dinner with Samuel, Ruati and their two children. Life is very busy for Samuel and family as they relocate house in Agartala and he travels to Kolkata to study for his PhD over the next three years. Ruati is lecturing in Sociology and is very capable, but the family will need our prayers.

Kolkata

Our final day in India was spent in Kolkata. Jeff’s business contact, Arjun, and his lovely wife Darshee, volunteered to look after us for the day and were such a blessing. The highlight of bustling, colourful Kolkata was visiting the serene campus of Serampore College, founded and built over a period of four years by William Carey. Our hosts were not believers but were impressed by the history shared by Peter and Leonora who showed us round and shared delicious chai and biscuits. We were told about women in Kolkata blocking designs on silk saris, which they then sell to support themselves. 

A self-educated cobbler from London in the 1700s, William Carey, became known as ‘the father of modern missions’ and received an Hon. D. D. for his encyclopaedic mastery of languages, translating the Bible into 30 to 40 Indian dialects! We encourage you to read more about the amazing life of this humble man who wrote, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”

You may feel you don’t have much to offer but, like Carey, can simply give Him what you have. Marnie and Thangi gave what they had, were willing to trust and follow where He led, and these two obedient young women were used by Jesus to impact the Tripura area for the gospel. What an honour to see Vanghmun Church’s vision to expand and grow. That missional Church is now reaching out into Nepal, reflecting the vibrancy of their faith and a commitment to share Jesus’ love. The outcome is ongoing, life-changing and beautiful. 

Marnie wrote in her diary in 1950, “You who have read this my diary…what is your reaction? Perhaps you feel that little has been accomplished? Perhaps that little may grow and grow if YOU give more of yourself in prayer and self-denial?” She concludes her diary with Charles Kingsley’s words, still applicable today:

“Who would sit down and sigh for a lost age of gold

While the Lord of all ages is here?

True hearts then will leap at the trumpet of God

And those who can suffer can dare.

Each old age of gold was an iron age too

And the meekest of saints may find stern work to do

In the day of the Lord at hand, at hand,

In the day of the Lord at hand.” [3]



Endnotes:

[1] William Carey, sermon to the Baptist Association, Nottingham, England, 30 May 1792: “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”

[2] Biography of Marjorie Turner published on Baptist NZ, 30 January 2023: Woman of the month: Marnie Turner (Dovey) 1918-2013.

[3] The Day of the Lord is at Hand, Charles Kingsley, Tune: Remember the Poor.


Photos: Supplied by Mary Tallon

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