Win Gritter’s Life of Mission
“As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a missionary,” said Winabelle (Win) Gritter.
This year Gritter is celebrating 68 years of serving wherever God leads. She’s one of the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s longest-serving missionaries.
As a child, Gritter said, she looked up to Johanna Veenstra, who served in Nigeria as the Christian Reformed Church’s first overseas missionary. When Gritter’s kindergarten teacher asked the class to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up, Gritter drew a picture of herself teaching children in Nigeria.
But Nigeria is one field in which Gritter hasn’t served. God has had other plans, she said.
Eager to start her career as a missionary, Gritter graduated early from high school and from the education program at Calvin University. And as soon as she got her degree, she applied to serve in Nigeria with Resonate Global Mission (then Christian Reformed World Missions).
But they wouldn’t let her go, she said. At the time, the legal age to serve was 21, and Gritter was barely 20.
Gritter said she was devastated. But ministry leaders told her not to lose heart; they encouraged her that she would serve overseas someday. They advised her to put her teacher’s certificate to use and try to gain some experience living cross-culturally in another community before traveling overseas.
Soon Gritter had a teaching job lined up in California. Then she also received a call to serve as a teacher at Zuni Mission School in New Mexico.
“I wanted to go to California,” said Gritter. But after hearing a sermon that Sunday from a Calvin Theological Seminary pastor who spoke about the conflict between duty and desire, Gritter said she decided to go to Zuni.
To the Field
Gritter taught at Zuni from 1955 to 1960. There she saw a need for better language-learning, she said. So she enrolled at the University of Michigan to earn a master’s degree in English as a second language.
While she loved working with the children at Zuni, she said,overseas missions continued to tug at her heart. Around that time, the Christian Reformed Church had started serving in more mission fields, and Gritter signed on to help start a seminary, teach classes, and help strengthen a growing local church in Taiwan.
‘The Church Just Blossomed’
In Taiwan, she said, she experienced one of the most memorable experiences in her career as a missionary.
While she was there, a huge typhoon ravaged the small island. “The dam was threatening to break, so they opened the dam, and the area where our church stood was flooded,” she said. “We were walking in knee-deep mud, and everyone lost their shoes” trying to walk through it.
The community also lost many of their possessions, and food and clean water were hard to come by.
Gritter and the church leaders knew they needed to do something, so Gritter contacted the United States military and World Renew (known then as the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee). Although the relief agency had primarily served in Canada and the United States, she asked if they might also have the capacity to aid Taiwan. They said they did, and Taiwan became one of the first settings in which World Renew worked overseas.
Soon loads of supplies arrived at the church in Taiwan. Gritter gathered young people to help organize the piles of supplies and hand them out to the entire community.
“After that, the people there were so impressed that the church just blossomed,” said Gritter. “They were saying, ‘Why are they doing this? Not just for their own people but for all of us?’”
Gritter said she also remembers a young boy who received a suitcoat from among the donations. And inside a pocket he found three Wilhelmina peppermints, a favorite of many churchgoers in the CRC.
Unfortunately, the typhoon also caused sickness to spread throughout the community. Gritter soon became very sick with typhoid fever, and doctors advised her to return home to Grand Rapids, Mich. At the time, she said, treatments for typhoid were limited. So, on doctors’ orders, she couldn’t return to Taiwan.
Following the Spirit’s Leading
Disheartened, Gritter prayed for God’s guidance, and the Holy Spirit led her to an opportunity in her hometown.
At the time, Grand Rapids was welcoming its first wave of refugees from Cuba and immigrants from Mexico, and the Grand Rapids public schools were desperate for teachers. With her degree in ESL, Gritter said, she knew she could help. So, for a year, she worked with students who spoke Spanish as their first language. During that time, she said, she picked up quite a bit of Spanish—which prepared her for her next step in ministry:
“[World Missions] called and said, ‘We need somebody in Mexico.’”
Gritter then started serving again with Christian Reformed World Missions. While continuing her studies at the University of Michigan to obtain a doctorate in bilingual education, Gritter led training with pastors, Christian teachers, and other leaders in Mexico. And before long her field of mission work expanded to include countries throughout Latin America: nearly all of Central America, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and a land that has become near and dear to her heart: Cuba.
Eventually, however, she said, it became time for a change. Gritter had been traveling a lot, and the area in Mexico where she was living had become increasingly problematic, so she made Grand Rapids her home base.
Today Gritter has retired from serving on the Resonate staff, but she continues to serve as a Resonate volunteer. She travels a few times a year to lead training in Mexico and Cuba. And several children in Cuba call her “Grandma.”
A Changing Missional Landscape
Gritter noted that while mission work has changed over the years, missionaries are still important. Now that there are more Christians in countries where Resonate is serving, the strategy has largely shifted from direct evangelism to equipping and supporting local leaders. Gritter said that support from churches in Canada and the United States continues to be vital for the gospel to spread throughout the world.
“[Local leaders] are doing the best they can, but they often have no training,” she said. “It’s also just an encouragement for them to know people are praying. In Cuba, one of the pastors said to me one time, ‘When you come with a group, it tells us we’re not alone. We’re this little island that’s isolated, but we know people are praying for us.’”
One of those pastors met Gritter more than 30 years ago at a summer camp when he was a teenager in Cuba.
“I was very impressed by her passion, dedication, and commitment to understanding our culture, and by her enormous willingness to share with everyone,” he said.
Today he leads a church and is thankful for Gritter and Resonate’s partnership.
“Working with [Gritter] has been a rewarding experience. She has always had a great ability to teach and work with us as a team. In all these years she has managed to be another member of the Cuban church and has been an instrument of God to develop and sustain educational projects, mostly, but also other projects as well,” he said.
A Missionary at Home
Gritter said she is still passionate about overseas missions, but she added that you don’t need to travel abroad to be a missionary. Schools often invite her to speak to students, she said, and she always asks them, “What about your neighbor? What about your community?”
She reminds them that it’s important to get to know your neighbors and to help out where you can.
Gritter added that prayer has also been constant in her life. “Every day I say, ‘Lord, this day is in your hands,’” she said.
Following Jesus, she said, is what her life has been about. Whether in Zuni, Taiwan, Grand Rapids, Mexico, or Cuba, it has not so much been about where she’s been but about how she’s been able to live her life and share the love of Christ.