No. 2, Winter 1998
Magdalena Hergert Becker (1878–1938)
Through the dark night two figures scurried toward the house. The man carried a lantern slightly ahead of the woman, who clutched a small bundle, a seriously ill Native American child. After three days of patient and loving care, the child died in the arms of the reservation’s “mother,” Magdalena Becker.
Preparations began immediately for the child’s funeral. Magdalena’s husband, Abraham Jacob (A. J.) Becker, went to his shop to build a tiny wooden casket. Magdalena prepared the body for burial. Together they padded the coffin, lining it with soft white cloth. Magdalena worked late into the night, beautifying the little box with a border of fringe. While she worked, she heard the traditional Native American mourning – a haunting wail that expressed the depth of their sorrow. Magdalena tried to comfort them with assurances of God’s love. Some believed in Jesus, but many found it hard to give up their traditional fears of death.
The family of the child sat weeping while the Beckers told them of eternal life, and wept again as they viewed the body. Finally the time for tears was past. As was their custom, members of the immediate family dried each other’s tears. Each became instantly silent, and the mourners moved to the cemetery. When the coffin was lowered into the grave, several of the women took off their beautiful shawls, draping them over the box. This custom was a token of love and respect for the dead.
The reservation women were willing to give sacrificially to honor the dead, but Magdalena Becker gave sacrificially to help the living. Magdalena and A. J. had come to the Post Oak Mission in 1902. This first Mennonite Brethren “foreign mission field,” though located in Oklahoma, was begun in 1896 when Henry and Elizabeth Kohfeld moved to the Post Oak station. During her 37 years at Post Oak Magdalena participated in more than six hundred funerals. She taught first aid, hygiene, sewing and cooking to the Native American women. For 28 years she also served as a Field Matron for the Indian Service of the United States government, clarifying land ownership, keeping records of government allotments, negotiating rental contracts and distributing government checks. As a government agent she was permitted to promote Christian practices because the government thought it would contribute to Americanizing the Native peoples.
But Magdalena never lost sight of her first calling – to share the message of salvation. Discouragement came often. From the establishment of the mission in 1894 until 1907, not a single Native American had chosen to openly identify as being a Christian.
Each year the Comanches from the reservation territory camped at Pesenadama, or “Rotten Village,” for a month-long government payday. The Beckers packed supplies and followed, setting up a tent for gospel meetings. Unfortunately, interest was low, and there was no response to the call of Christ.
Magdalena missed the three small sons she had left at Post Oak; she was physically and emotionally exhausted. One day she quit trying to restrain herself and went into the woods near the camp to cry.
“Why are you crying?” asked Wi-e-puh, a curious woman who had quietly followed her. Surprised by the question, Magdalena spoke from her heart. “I would not care about how we suffer, but your Indian people are tramping my God with their feet, they do not want to be saved.”
The Psalmist says that “he who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” (Psalm 126:6) Magdalena undoubtedly knew the verse, but she probably did not expect the dramatic fulfillment of God’s promise that night.
It had been a simple tent meeting, with A. J. Becker sharing the story of Christ so clearly that a child could understand. Magdalena sat near the front silently praying for evidence of God’s power. When the audience was invited to come forward for prayer, she was overcome by the large group that knelt near the altar. One or two persons accepted Christ and were baptized each day from that evening until the end of camp. God’s promise had been fulfilled. A Comanche Mennonite Brethren Church had been born!
In 1938 when Magdalena Becker became ill a group of Comanches maintained a constant vigil on the hospital grounds. Following her death, local newspapers reported that over 1200 persons attended services in her honor. The inscription on Magdalena Becker’s gravestone is a beautiful and accurate description of her life:
Who at all times and every place
gave her strength to the weak,
her sympathy to the suffering,
her substance to the poor,
and her heart to God.