May 19, 1926 – February 26, 2016
Helen and Allen Nelson began pastoral ministry in 1950, serving in four pastorates in the Pacific Northwest Conference over the next 22 years. In the summer of 1970, Allen and Helen served a four month missions stint in Rwanda. While Allen, an accomplished builder, supervised construction projects throughout Central Africa, Helen worked in Kibogora Hospital, did secretarial work, and served as mission hostess, among other duties. They considered those months a “life-changing experience.” Challenged by the great need for skilled workmen and resources, the Nelsons felt their gifts could be used in Africa, so they applied for a longer appointment.
First serving in Rwanda, 1972 to 1974, the Nelsons oversaw the completion of a secondary school. The Nelsons moved to the Nundu, Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire) in 1974, where Helen served as missions treasurer, as well as station and hospital building project bookkeeper-treasurer. At times Helen worked in several currencies including American dollars, Kenyan shillings, Burundi francs, and Rwanda francs.
In her role as mission hostess, Helen described it a joy to offer hospitality; “Zaire is not a very easy place to work and we need to make an effort to revive our spirits occasionally.” Volunteer workers assisting anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year and a half benefitted from Helen’s care as “dorm mother.”
Helen also served as the director of the conference women’s work. Meeting in 13 locations, approximately 1,000 to 1,200 women participated in women’s study groups. The program consisted of Bible study, scripture memorization, literacy, community health, cooking and other classes, including the most popular – sewing. Women were eager to learn. Many never had the opportunity to attend school beyond the first few grades; some not at all. Many women from the community were brought into the church through these classes.
While preparing for a 1981 furlough, Allen and Helen wrote in a newsletter: “… life is not always full of sparkle and glamour and especially so on the mission field. Most of life out here is just plain old hard work. Come to think of it, seems like I remember it was like that way back in the States, too!”
When they first arrived in Zaire, they lived in a tent. When they left the mission field in 1985, four major hospital buildings, several missionary residences, a guest house, a 45 kilometer road, and much more had been completed.
The Nelsons completed deputation ministry in 1986 and returned to pastoral ministry in the U.S. serving in the Columbia River Conference until retirement in 1990.
Helen’s Colleagues Write
Lillian Harrif Oliveira served alongside Helen in Zaire and writes, “Helen was a wonderful, comforting listener. She was my best friend for more than 35 years. Helen was one of the most godly women I have ever known.”
Former missionaries to Africa, Tom and Kathy Hadduck recall, “We lived at Nundu during part of the time Al and Helen lived there. Helen was a lovely lady whose hospitality was one of her many talents! We had such wonderful times around her table and in her living room. We are grateful for the sacrifice she made to live and work with her husband, Al, at Nundu.”
“I remember Helen for her uncomplaining adaptability,” writes retired missionary Bishop Emeritus Gerald Bates. “When construction started at Nundu Deaconess Hospital, the Nelsons lived for a couple of months in a combination of tents. In this unlikely assortment of shelters Helen could produce a nice meal for weary travelers. When Marlene and I used to travel that ‘Cape to Cairo’ highway (a dirt, rocky road) from Bukavu to Baraka, we could always count on warm hospitality when we arrived at Nundu. Helen also stepped into many gaps of service – because there was simply no one else to do them. She was a noble woman, a genuine friend, and a willing servant of the kingdom.”
Colleagues Jim and Barb Stillman recollect, “The Nelsons were a few hours’ drive from our station, but if we were traveling we would stop in to say ‘Hello’ or to spend the night. Helen was a cheerful person and made us feel welcome even on the spur of the moment. (At that time we did not have the possibility of phoning ahead.) Helen was a wonderful hostess, a very good cook, and a great fill-in grandmother! Helen and Al helped fill in the empty spots when one would think of family and home in the USA.
The Stillmans add, “Helen was a lady of great dedication to spreading the gospel. Showing a humble attitude and true pioneer spirit, she lived for some time in a tent, with likely a snake or two, while Al and others worked at building a house they could live in.”
Fellow missionary to the Democratic Republic of Congo Connie Kratzer remembers, “Helen lived and entertained in very primitive conditions when she and Al first went to Nundu, and I never once heard her complain as she related the early stories. She could put together a fantastic meal out of almost anything. Helen was the station grandmother and the kids all loved her.”
Myra Adamson McCloud, a nurse to Africa, writes, “Helen and Al welcomed me to Nundu Station in 1974. I worked with them for ten years. While Al and his short-term helpers changed the grassy hillside into a hospital compound, Helen worked at home, serving delicious meals, washing dishes, and doing the bookkeeping. She had the gifts of hospitality and patience.
“Helen was faithful and loyal to her family, her mission, and to her God. She led us in mission prayers and singing on a Sunday evening. One of the songs she taught us was ‘Dona nobis pacem,’ Latin for ‘Give us Peace.’ The African workers had a special name for Helen, ‘Msohakeci,’ meaning, ‘I make him happy,’ as Al would return to work happy after lunch with Helen.
“Today Nundu Hospital is a place of blessing. We remember Helen as one of the pioneers who endured the inconveniences and uncertainties of the early days to help make this possible.”