Old One sat on the ground. In the fire’s light she saw the face of a young man who stood speaking to her people.

After many years of planting cassava in plots wrested from South America’s rain forest, Old One’s eyes had grown dim. Her back had stooped. She could no longer walk but with a cane. Worst of all she could barely hear.

The young man spoke distinctly and with vigour, a paper in his hand. His eyes moved about the circle of Waharuda faces. Women and children sat. Men clutching tall bows stood, glancing from time to time into the rain forest that surrounded them in the dark. 

Old One tapped the ground with her cane. She leaned foreward. “Tell him to come and sit beside me,” she said.

Instinctively the Waharudas made room for the visitor and his interpreter. “I come to tell you about Kururuman who made all things,” the young man said.

Now Old One could hear. She knew about Kururuman.

“Kururuman has a son,” the young man continued. “A long time ago he came to live on earth. But people, listening to Javahu the evil spirit, were bad to him. They killed him and hung him up on a tree like one does with an offering. They stabbed him and he bled to death. Kururuman saw what happened. He said, ‘My Son was good. He was the best offering people have given me. From now on, everyone who remembers my son and does what he said will be safe. Everyone who lets himself be washed in my son’s name is washed in his blood. I will no longer hold against them what they did wrong. After they die I will take them to live with me.”

Old One thought on what the young man said. “Tell me that story again,” she told him.

The young man—Johann Gräbenstein who had lived on a farm in southern Germany before joining the Moravian Brothers—looked surprised. But he told the story again. It was the only thing he could say in Waharuda.

“Now tell it once more,” Old One said when he finished.

By the time Johann got done with the story for the third time she looked troubled. “I have done what was wrong,” she said. “Who will wash me in the name of Kururuman’s son?”

Johann did not know what to say. After thirteen years of incredibly difficult work in South America’s Guiana region, not one Amerindian had repented of his sins. Not one had requested baptism. Did this woman know what she was doing? He told her he had to go home and ask his brothers.

“Let me go with you then,” Old One said.

“It is too far away,” Johann answered. “It takes three days to walk that distance and you can hardly walk at all.”

Old One looked sad. Johann sensed she was not ready to let him go. But with his interpreter, a boy named Jaantje, he left the Waharuda village the following morning. “I will speak to Kururuman and my brothers about you,” he told her. “Perhaps your desire may be granted.”

Several weeks later at the pioneer Christian community on the Wironje Creek the brothers worked on the land. With cutlasses and digging sticks they cleared the brush to plant cassava. Little cacao and citrus trees stood among log homes around a square. It was the second last day of March, 1748.

Suddenly they heard voices.

Johann Gräbenstein looked up. A huddle of Waharudas stood on the edge of the clearing. He brushed his eyes. What! Supported by her daughter on one side and her great-grandson on the other, Old One—looking even smaller and more wrinkled than he remembered—stood before him. “I want to be washed in the blood of Kururuman’s son,” she said, pointing to herself. “Wash me from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet before I die.”

Johann and the brothers with him were almost too astounded to speak. “How did she get here? How did her companions know the way?” Many questions flew about as they hurried to prepare food and lodging for their tired guests. One question among them stood foremost in their minds. Was the old woman ready for baptism? How could she understand what it meant to join a Christian community? To “walk in newness of life” and “put on Christ”? Why, she had never as much as worn clothes!

In their perplexity the brothers consulted their “Chief Elder” (Christ) by casting lots. The lot said: “Yes, Old One shall be baptised.”

With great joy, the brothers and sisters in the wilderness prepared for a baptismal celebration the following day. After the event they recorded it in their diary:

We felt the Old One’s desire to be baptised was from the heart, and our Saviour allowed us to baptise her on the 31’st of March. She was the first of her people. Our sisters put a long white dress on her and led her into the Saal (meeting house). Brother Georg Kaske spoke to the congregation. Then our sisters knelt with her and Brother Kaske poured water over her head, three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, while naming her Hanna. One could not keep back the tears. Our sisters laid hands on her to bless her. Then they led her, light and joyful, out of the Saal.[1]

Old One, with her Christian name of Hanna, never left Pilgerhut (the Christian community on Wironje Creek) again. With great eagerness she told other Waharuda and Akawey people how Wakukü (the Saviour) had freed her from evil spirits. When she turned sick her eyes shone with anticipation, hoping she would soon go to see him. But old Hanna could not die yet. God had work for her to do.

No longer able to walk much, Hanna sat on a hammock under a thatched roof on poles. While the brothers and sisters scurried about working with their planted plots, fruit trees, and animals, Hanna prayed. Her prayers and testimony worked.

After Hanna, her daughter and husband asked for baptism and became Lydia and Philip. Their son-in-law became Joseph, and Hanna’s great-grandson became Nathanael. Another couple became Simeon and Magdalena, and an old woman Dorothea. Thomas and Esther joined. So did Jakob and Sara, a fifteen-year-old who received the name Elisabeth, and many others. Even the bogayer (witch doctor) and his wife got baptised as Jeptha and Deborah. Around the first houses at Pilgerhut more and more neatly spaced cabins went up among palm trees and flowers as brown-skinned people learned how to build, sew, read, and sing together.

“My heart is warm,” said old Hanna, when her first Resurrection Day came and a large number appeared for the love-feast. All the converted wore clothes. The women wore white linen dresses and head coverings. The men wore white trousers and shirts. A boy received the name “Christian” through baptism that day, and after washing one another’s feet they broke bread and drank wine together. The brothers kissed one another as a sign of peace, and the sisters did the same.

Old Hanna wished so much for her family to become part of this peaceful and orderly community that she prayed day and night. One by one, they came. Her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren came out of the rain forest, casting off their weapons and fetishes until every one of her grown descendants was converted and baptised. Of these, some travelled far to the west to tell others about the Saviour. Some went north to the Orinoco River, some south into the headwaters of the Amazon, and some east to help establish new congregations in the rain forest of Suriname.

Twelve years passed as Hanna grew increasingly blind and helpless. She suffered much from disease but did not waver once in her commitment to Christ and his community. After a serious epidemic in the rainy season of 1760 she longed to participate in one more communion service. The Saviour granted her that desire on July 30. “Now I am ready to go and see him!” she exclaimed, and died in peace the following day. The age of her descendants shows her to have been over ninety years old.

Hanna, the Old One of the Waharudas, did not know much about what happened in other times and at other places on the earth. She never learned to speak anything other than her Arawak Indian dialect. But she knew the Saviour’s voice when she heard it in her heart and listened to it. She became part of his body.

Main source: Staehelin, Fritz, Die Mission der Brüdergemeinde in Suriname und Berbice im achtzehnten Jahrhundert, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim, 1997

[1] Diarium von Pilgerhut, 31. März 1748

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