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Lifting up Tanzania

Missions started in 1980s through a strong friendship


The quonset on the Gehrke farm in Grant County might look like other buildings that house tractors and farm equipment, but for a decade, it had a role in overseas missions.

Bud Gehrke and his late wife, Alice, spearheaded an effort in the 1980s to bring medical supplies, food, clothing, and more to the African Inland Mission in Tanzania.

Items for the mission were donated by more than 20 area churches, and were housed in the quonset until all the items were shipped to Africa. Over a 10-year period, there were 10 large sea-land containers - each measuring 8 feet tall by 8 feet wide, and 20 feet long - loaded at the farm and shipped overseas.

The effort answered the needs Tanzania, and was born out of a friendship between Alice and Doris Schaefer. The two met in nursing school in Minneapolis and were lifelong friends. Once they graduated, the two women took different paths, but their friendship remained strong, and many great things resulted from that friendship.

Bud and his late wife, Alice, were a big part of a decade-long mission to provide relief to the struggling country of Tanzania in the 1980s. The missions were spearheaded by Alice, along with her long-time friend, Doris Schaefer. Contributed photo

After school, Alice returned to Grant County where she married Bud. The two grew up only three miles from another and attended the same church -- Lawrence Presbyterian of rural Wendell. The two had been baptized, confirmed, and married (in 1949) in that church, Bud said.

After they married, the couple settled on Bud’s family farm. He was the third generation to operate the farm, which is now home to the couple’s son, Curt.

Alice was a nurse at Lake Region Hospital in Fergus Falls for 20 years.

“She did it all with four kids, too - Robert, Fay, Dan, and Curt,” Bud said.

Her friend, Doris, however, took a different path. She went into missions.

Every five years, as Doris returned to the U.S. on furlough, she visited the Gehrkes on her way to see family in South Dakota.

“Their friendship was like two sisters,” Bud said. “They would talk about missions and what was going on in Africa.”

The mission was in a small village and included, what Bud called, “a makeshift hospital.” At the medical facility, beds often had two people in them needing care, and there were only two hypodermic needles for the entire hospital.

“Those two girls talked it over and Alice said, ‘I think we can get some medicines and surgical supplies and send it over,’” Bud said.

The couple’s daughter, Fay Ulrich, describes a family meal when Doris visited. The discussion focused on the mission and how to get needed supplies to the people.

“One person would suggest one thing and another would add something else,” she said. “It was like one idea spurred on the other.”

They started gathering medical supplies, picking up syringes, medicines, bandages, and surgical equipment. It was all brought to the farm and stored in the quonset.

Once word got out about the needs, others donated items. There were bicycles, a motorcycle, and home goods brought to the quonset. One year they even shipped a tractor and farm equipment.

It’s one thing to gather all the items, but another thing to actually ship it. That’s where they relied on Doris. Shipping all the goods in boxes wasn’t a good method, she told them. The boxes could get damaged en route or they could be stolen. Instead, she suggested using sea land containers.

They would also need to keep a log of every item in the container.

Besides the container of supplies that first year, they also shipped a second container of wheat thanks to a donation of the grain from area farmers. The containers were trucked to Moorhead, where it went by rail to a ship bound for Tanzania.

Bud and Alice were told it would take about a week before it would arrive in Africa, so they made arrangements to travel there themselves. They wanted to make sure the shipment arrived with everything that had been collected at their farm.

The two prepared all the shipment’s documents and gave it to Doris. Then they boarded a plane to start their own journey. It was Bud’s first time traveling by plane and he was excited. Their journey took them first to Chicago, then Germany, and finally to Africa. They continued with a 90-minute drive by Jeep to the mission.

They’d planned to stay for four weeks. The two stayed in a nurse’s cottage at the mission and they helped where needed. Everyday they went to the port, but no shipment arrived. Soon their four weeks were up and they were supposed to head for home. They talked to the mission hospital’s doctor who got their stay extended, but the shipment still was not there.

While there, they helped wherever they could. Bud used his carpentry skills to get doors to latch. And he helped them get hot water.

Tanzania, they learned, doesn’t have much for a water supply. A tower pumped water that would flow to the compound, but it was all cold water. Bud decided to fix that using his handyman ingenuity.

“I decided I was going to make a water heater,” he said. “So I took a 55-gallon barrel and took it to the top of the house and painted it black. Then I plumbed in the pipe and at the top they had a hot water spot to come into the house. It was warm enough that it worked.”

While they handled many projects, they still needed to come home, but the shipment hadn’t arrived. They learned Doris had given the shipment information to another nurse who would be going to the mission sooner. The other nurse, however, had misplaced the documents in Chicago. The shipment was in Africa, but, without the papers, they couldn’t get the items.

The documents eventually arrived and the goods made their way to the mission. Ironically, the containers arrived the day after the Gehrkes left for the airport and their return flight to Minnesota. Most importantly, the mission got the needed items.

“We didn’t get the opportunity to unpack them,” Bud said. “They were in good condition so we felt for sure that we could ship stuff safely.”

Despite the glitches, the experience didn’t dissuade them. Armed with the experience and new knowledge of the process, they continued to gather items for Africa.

Alice’s sister helped, too. She owned a station wagon and drove with Alice to get medical supplies. They returned to the farm with her sister’s vehicle filled with medical items.

Picture of a container from Gehrke’s mission project being unloaded in Tanzania. Contributed photo

They were always looking for items for the families served through the Tanzania mission. Bud wanted to get toys for the kids who he saw playing with sticks and rocks. The Gehrkes went to area schools to get balls and bats and placed those in one of the shipments.

When Alice found fabric for Cabbage Patch dolls at one business, she explained the project to the store’s owner who gave her a discount on those supplies. Several worked on the project sewing the dolls and clothing. The dolls were kept at the mission hospital, and given to youngsters when they returned from their medical visit.

She also got a deal on a number of watches she knew would be an asset to the mission hospital’s nurses. The watches had second hands which would be used when taking a patient’s pulse. The problem was getting the watches through customs. Watches were deemed a luxury, Fay said.

Alice prayed about the watches and what word she could use to describe them in the log, she said. Alice woke up in the middle of the night and quickly wrote down a word that was present in her mind. “Pulse monitor” became the phrase to describe the watches. The shipment had no problem reaching its destination.

After a decade of shipments, they stopped the effort. Shipping was becoming costly, Bud said. And people were moving to other projects.

The Gehrkes made one trip to Africa, while Bud made an additional four trips to Haiti, helping Don Robertson of Ashby, drill wells. The two had met through their work with The Gideons.

Robertson had a well drilling business and, a couple of times a year, would go to Haiti to drill wells. Finding fresh water was a challenge, Bud said. The island country is, of course, surrounded by the ocean and often, when they would drill a well, the villagers would taste it to see if it was salty.

On one drilling operation, Robertson hit water and let it run for quite a while, Bud said. It was to no avail. The vein was salt water. They did have many successful drilling operations, and fresh water was brought to many people.

Alice died three years ago, and Bud moved to Elbow Lake. Their farm remains in the family and is now home to their son, Curt, who is the fourth generation to live at the farm site.

“Being a part of these mission and ministry opportunities was a big part of my life,” Bud wrote in a booklet describing his life. “I loved being able to reach people with the Gospel in many different ways, but especially when I was able to go and help out by working with my hands.”

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