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A Call to Obedience

Father and Son, Victor and David Plymire

 

At the end of their furlough in 1947, Victor and Ruth Plymire, missionaries to China and Tibet, offered their teenage son, David, the option of going to boarding school where he could be with other young people. But David felt something pulling him back to the mission in Huangyuan. His decision to return proved to be a pivotal choice in his life.

David often accompanied his father on evangelistic expeditions. At certain times every year, the Tibetan monasteries held religious festivals, drawing people from all over the region. During one of these, a pastor from Huangyuan went with Victor and David to a small Tibetan monastery where they rented a room. Late in the night, the pastor suffered a demonic attack and cried for help. Victor understood what was happening and called out, “I rebuke you in Jesus’ name.”  The pastor immediately felt the attacker leave.

The next morning began the last day of the festival. Toward evening, Tibetan worshippers knelt in a long row outside the monastery. During the three days of ceremonies, monks had carried an image they believed bore illness, evil and everything that troubled them. As David watched, the image was passed over the heads of the kneeling throng and then thrown into the fire and burned.

Broken by the sight before him, David began to weep. Then the Spirit said to him, This is why you are coming back.

The decision David Plymire made that day would extend a father-and-son legacy that would span 100 years of missionary ministry to China.

 

How many times had he faithfully preached, raising his voice over those who jeered? But that day, the street preacher couldn’t possibly have known what the Spirit of God was doing in the heart of a young teenager in the crowd.

Victor Plymire in 1908
Victor Plymire in 1908
Neither could 15-year-old Victor Plymire. As the Holy Spirit drew him through the preacher’s words, the young man never dreamed he would one day take the message he was hearing to China and Tibet — and that his son’s voice would someday broadcast the same message to many millions of Chinese listeners.

Victor Plymire was born in 1881 in Pennsylvania on a cold January day, an appropriate foreshadowing of life in the snow-covered mountains of Northwest China and Tibet.

In the years following that eventful street meeting where he found Christ, Victor had a growing sense of God’s call on his life, first to full-time ministry and eventually to missionary service. He began his preaching ministry in downtown storefront missions with the Gospel Herald Society. But a burden for Tibet was undeniable, so he applied for missionary service with the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

After a long delay, he was asked to consider going to Tibet. He agreed and on Feb. 4, 1908, he sailed from Seattle, Washington, bound for Northwest China.

The trip took almost four months. To reach his destination he had to travel first by ship from Seattle to Shanghai, then by river steamer to Hankow, followed by three months up the Han River at a rate of just five miles per day. For the final 300 miles to Taozhou, he rode on horseback.

In those days, a missionary term lasted seven years. The arduous overseas journey made shorter terms impractical. But only five years into his first term Victor was asked to accompany an ailing missionary back to the United States. The trip proved providential, because while in the States he met another CMA missionary, Grace Harkless. He returned to China in 1914. He and Grace maintained a long-distance engagement for five years and married on New Year’s Day, 1919, in Min Zhou, China.

This photo of the Plymire family was taken shortly before Victor's wife, Grace, and their son, John, died of smallpox in January 1927.
This photo of the Plymire family was taken shortly before Victor's wife, Grace, and their son, John, died of smallpox in January 1927.
Soon after their wedding, the Plymires returned to the States for furlough and began attending Pentecostal services. Both were baptized in the Holy Spirit, and soon Victor was ordained with the Assemblies of God. The couple pastored the Assemblies of God church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for two years before returning to China with their newborn son, John David, in 1922.

The family moved to Huangyuan, a town in what was then northeastern Tibet. At Huangyuan, the main trade route from India through Tibet ended. Practically everything that moved between India and Northwest China came by that route. Huge yak caravans, sometimes consisting of as many as 1,000 animals, wended their way regularly through the mountainous terrain as they had for hundreds of years.

Though the town had a reputation as a regional trade center, Victor soon discovered that paper currency was useless when traveling among Tibetans. Instead, he carried mirrors, combs, needles, thread and pretty cloth when he traveled in ministry. He could trade a comb for a bucket of yak milk; a mirror brought a couple of yak cheeses. Two yards of cloth netted a whole sheep to be butchered and eaten on the journey.

Victor also carried large quantities of all four Gospels — as well as a translation of Genesis to teach people the origin of man. For tribal chiefs or leading abbots in the Tibetan monasteries (called lamaseries), he took Tibetan New Testaments — a treasured commodity. A complete Tibetan translation of the Bible would not be available for decades.

This photo of the Plymire family was taken shortly before Victor's wife, Grace, and their son, John, died of smallpox in January 1927.
As Victor traveled through Tibet on evangelistic expeditions, he gained free access to lamaseries and distributed gospel literature among the monks. When he offered a New Testament to the head abbot, the abbot would thank Victor kindly, wrap the book in a scarf and place it on a shelf with a promise to read it someday.

For five years Victor and Grace enjoyed a fruitful ministry in Huangyuan and began constructing a small mission compound. One of the structures still stands today.

In 1924, after 16 years of missionary labor in Northwest China, Victor baptized his first convert. Slowly a small congregation of believers began to grow. During the next two years Victor sensed God leading him to take the gospel to Tibet’s remotest communities.

Because of political instability at that time, he planned to send Grace and John back to the States while he trekked south through Tibet and crossed the Himalayan Mountains into India. But before his plan unfolded, tragedy struck.

Smallpox was a major health threat in the 1920s. When an epidemic swept through the region, first little John fell ill and then Grace. John died Jan. 20, 1927; Grace died a week later.

This photo of the Plymire family was taken shortly before Victor's wife, Grace, and their son, John, died of smallpox in January 1927.
Since the Plymires were foreigners, local superstitions prevented John and Grace from being buried in the public cemetery. Victor bought a small piece of land on a hillside outside the city, built two wooden coffins and buried his wife and son in the frozen earth. He didn’t title the land in his name, so he had the deed made in the name of the church. With those he loved most now gone, Victor found himself alone — again.

Pressing ahead with his plans for a missionary journey, he left only four months later. With the church in Huangyuan in the care of a mature Chinese believer, Victor set out for Lhasa, Tibet. By the time he returned, his 11-month journey would cover more than 2,000 miles, almost entirely traveled by horseback.

His original plan was to go from Huangyuan directly to Lhasa, then southwest through Nepal into India. But when he arrived at a point 80 miles north of Lhasa, he was told he could not go on south. He chose to turn west. By then, the bitter winter had set in, and he was poorly prepared for the last half of the journey. Still he pressed on, eventually evangelizing a much greater area than his original plan would have allowed. With 74,000 Tibetan-language gospel tracts carefully packed on the backs of yaks, he carried out what was almost certainly the widest distribution of gospel literature in the area at that point in history.

During the journey, Victor was entirely cut off from communication with the West, and his family and supporters presumed him dead. When he sailed back to China from India in 1928, he met a man with a copy of the Pentecostal Evangel that carried a notice of his death.

“You say you’ve just come from Tibet?” the man asked. “Do you know anything about this fellow, V.G. Plymire, who was supposed to have died there?”

“That’s me,” Victor replied. Over the years, he joked that he was one of the few people who had the chance to read his own obituary.

His trek through Tibet complete, Victor went to Beijing, where he renewed a friendship with missionary Ruth Weidman. Ruth and her sister, Elizabeth, were in the city studying Chinese. On Aug. 8, 1928, Victor and Ruth married.

Plymire family, 1938
Plymire family, 1938
The following month the Plymires and Elizabeth arrived in Huangyuan. Victor was overjoyed to find that the church he founded was thriving. While he was gone, the believers had met together every night to read the Bible and pray before journeying home in the dark.

Victor suffered a heart attack in 1930, and he and Ruth returned to the States for his treatment and recuperation. Their son, David, was born in 1931 in Los Angeles. The following year the family returned to Tibet, along with Ruth’s sister Elizabeth and her fiancĂ©, George R. Wood.

George and Elizabeth Wood served as missionaries in China from 1932 to 1938, and again from 1947 to 1949. Their son, George O. Wood, now serves as general superintendent of the U.S. Assemblies of God and chairman of the World AG Fellowship.

Victor and Ruth’s daughter, Mary Ann, was born in 1937. Victor continued to assist the church in Huangyuan while regularly making evangelistic preaching expeditions into Tibet. In 1943, Ruth suffered a heart attack, and she and the children returned to the States for her recuperation. Victor remained behind in China.

On June 19, 1949, the last baptismal service was held at Huangyuan in the Chinghai region of Northwest China, where Victor Plymire labored and lived with his family for 27 years.
On June 19, 1949, the last baptismal service was held at Huangyuan in the Chinghai region of Northwest China, where Victor Plymire labored and lived with his family for 27 years.
The family was reunited in January 1945. After a two-year furlough they returned to their home again in Huangyuan. But their time back in China was short. In 1949 they had to leave. Shortly afterward the mission property was confiscated and the church closed. One leader, Pastor Chin, died in a prison camp; another spent 24 years in prison before resuming his ministry until his death at age 80.

Victor and Ruth’s hoped-for return to China and Tibet never happened. They lived out their final years in Springfield, Missouri, where Victor responded to many invitations to speak in missions conferences. He died Dec. 8, 1956.

Though unable to resume their work in China, the Plymires’ ministry to the Chinese people didn’t end. Those they had reached and discipled for Christ continued to serve Christ faithfully under very trying conditions. The church survived.

And to the Chinese Victor and Ruth Plymire also gave their son — David.


An evangelistic expedition crosses the Nan Mountains in the Northwest Tibet.
An evangelistic expedition crosses the Nan Mountains in the Northwest Tibet.
Gazing out the train window at the barren Tibetan landscape, it is difficult to imagine what Victor Plymire faced as he traveled through these same mountains on horseback. Certainly a train ride in May was nothing like Victor’s journey as he braved freezing temperatures and camped each night in the snow and ice.

The commitment of such missionaries amazes me. As I ponder Victor’s life and ministry, I realize the same dedication is in the heart of his son, David, who is sitting beside me.

For many years I had hoped to visit China with David. Now we are on a 25-hour train journey across Northwest China and Tibet, following much the same route David’s father took almost 80 years ago.

As a boy, David Plymire traveled along with his father on horseback to remote tent villages and Tibetan lamaseries to share the gospel. Yesterday, we stood in the same Tibetan monastery that David had visited as an 18-year-old.

Back then he had watched the final moments of a heathen ceremony and heard the Holy Spirit say to him, This is why you are coming back.

David Plymire stands at the monastery where he received his call to missions.
David Plymire stands at the monastery where he received his call to missions.
Having watched his parents care for the sick and suffering, David had planned to be a medical doctor. But that momentous day at the Tibetan monastery changed his life as the Spirit clearly called him to be a missionary. His future was unknown, of course. But the call was clear. And young David Plymire simply obeyed.

David’s decision to obey the Spirit’s voice at age 18 led to 52 years of ministry. Last year marked a century of combined ministry by Victor and David — father and son — to China.


The Taiwan Years
David’s missionary service began just two years after Victor’s death in 1956. He had married Wardella Burk in 1953, and together they pastored Peace Chapel, a country church near Fair Grove, Missouri. Then, after receiving their missions appointment, they itinerated to raise their support.

Residing in China was impossible in the 1950s. They arrived instead on the island of Taiwan in 1958 with the hope of returning to China in the future.

David Plymire preaches with two translators in 1958, his first year in Taiwan.
David Plymire preaches with two translators in 1958, his first year in Taiwan.
David was fluent in the Huangyuan Chinese dialect from childhood, but in Taiwan the couple needed to learn Mandarin. For two years they studied at language school. After only a year, David was permitted to begin preaching.  He spoke at youth camps and in churches. He also ventured into ministry in Taiwan’s mountain villages, which had been warring with one another until only a few years earlier. His work as a “traveling preacher” lasted nearly 15 years.

In 1974, he began teaching in the Bible school. But by 1980, after serving 22 years in Taiwan, he was eager to get involved in ministry in Mainland China. Teaching English seemed a possibility, but even that opportunity didn’t open. Asked by national leadership to direct the Bible school for another four-year term, David struggled. Though he didn’t want to return to Taiwan, he and Wardella agreed and faithfully led the Bible school in a period of growth.

All the while, David’s heart longed to return to the Tibetan corner of China he considered his home. He struggled with God’s timing. Others were finding avenues of service in China. His frustrated prayers and thoughts echoed, Why can’t I go?

David Plymire preaches with two translators in 1958, his first year in Taiwan.
As the Bible school in Taiwan grew, more and more incoming students had graduated from high school. Increasingly, David was challenged by his limited Mandarin vocabulary. He spent many hours in the evenings poring over a Chinese dictionary, a Bible and Chinese textbooks. Sometimes he studied all night, determined to acquire the vocabulary he needed to communicate truth to the students more clearly. He had no idea this discipline was all part of God’s preparation for a much larger ministry to the Chinese people.


A Voice to China
After serving 26 years in Taiwan, David was invited to serve with China Radio, an Assemblies of God media outreach based in Hong Kong. The couple moved to Hong Kong in 1987, where they remained until 1996. During those years, David recorded more than 2,000 broadcasts. He covered the Bible from Genesis through Revelation, taught on contemporary topics and developed systematic doctrinal studies.

Over the years, people in China have commented that David’s Mandarin is so fluent that radio listeners assume he is Chinese. They are shocked to meet him in person and realize he is an American.

Recently, David was having dinner with a Chinese brother who used his cell phone to take David’s picture. “Many people in our church listen to you,” the man said. “I need your picture because they won’t believe me when I tell them you are not Chinese.”

David’s fluency in Mandarin is the result of those four years of tedious study in Taiwan — and his willingness to obey the Lord’s leading.

David Plymire, with two guides visits remote, small villages in central Taiwan's rugged mountains. These hikking trips often took as long as nine hours to reach the destination, although they covered no more than 10 miles in one day.
David Plymire, with two guides visits remote, small villages in central Taiwan's rugged mountains. These hikking trips often took as long as nine hours to reach the destination, although they covered no more than 10 miles in one day.
On a recent journey into the mountains with a Chinese friend, David climbed a nearby gorge and saw a small house built into a large rock. The humble couple living there had hardly any possessions other than their mud bed in their mud hut. They invited David and his friend inside, where David noticed a small transistor radio on a rough board shelf on the wall.

The friend introduced David to the couple by his Chinese name, Bai Dawei. “Bai” was the family name the Chinese gave to David’s father. “Dawei” is the Chinese name used in the Bible for David.

“He’s the one I hear on the radio!” the man exclaimed to David’s Chinese friend.

David has no idea how they manage to pick up the program in such a remote mountain area.

At first David’s program was broadcast on a medium-wave station, but eventually the technology expanded to short wave, making it is possible to reach at least half of China. Over the years the ministry has received letters from listeners living 2,000 miles from where the program is broadcast.

David Plymire, with two guides visits remote, small villages in central Taiwan's rugged mountains. These hikking trips often took as long as nine hours to reach the destination, although they covered no more than 10 miles in one day.
David’s programs are still broadcast over radio, as well as distributed on CDs and through digital files over the Internet. Letters have poured in over the years from listeners of all ages in China who have heard the broadcast and found Christ as their Savior. One young man in Northeast China accepted Christ, sensed God’s call, trained for ministry using materials mailed to him, and pastored a church — all because he responded to David’s radio message.

When Victor Plymire heard the gospel at 15, it was three years before Guglielmo Marconi would beam the very first radio signal across the English Channel, which would make it possible one day for Victor’s son’s voice to be heard by so many millions in the most populous nation on earth.


Return Home to Huangyuan
David finally had the opportunity in September 1987 to return to the region of China where his parents pioneered in ministry.

In Xining, the regional capital near Huangyuan, he found elderly Pastor Meng. David had heard him preach in 1949, the day before the Plymire family left China. Since then Pastor Meng had endured many years in prison but was eventually released. In 1981, he immediately started leading a group of about 30 believers. By the time David met him, the congregation had grown to more than 3,000 and had built a new church.

This commemorative arch in Huangyuan was destroyed decades ago. It was able to be rebuilt only because of photos taken by Victor Plymire.
This commemorative arch in Huangyuan was destroyed decades ago. It was able to be rebuilt only because of photos taken by Victor Plymire.
David’s initial visit with Pastor Meng led to 15 years of working with him and other pastors to assist and build up churches in the area. By the 1990s, about 14,000 believers were worshipping in numerous churches, including an abandoned factory that was converted into a beautiful worship center. Pastor Meng died in 2005 at the age of 96.

In 1994, the son of Pastor Chin, the pastor of the Huangyuan church who died in a prison camp, came to David and said he wanted to reopen the church his father led. But the authorities kept telling him to provide proof that a church had once existed on the property.

After David returned to the States, he was searching through his father’s papers in the AG World Missions files in hopes of finding documentation of the Huangyuan church’s existence. Locating the original deed to Grace and John’s grave site, he discovered that the property was clearly deeded to the church and even used the same name of the current congregation. When Pastor Chin’s son took the deed to local authorities, they allowed him to reopen the church. In time, a new church was built.


Bound by an enduring love for the Chinese people, David and Wardella worked side by side in ministry. In 1996, Wardella died, leaving David to carry on the radio outreach without her, just as Victor had continued on in Tibet after the death of his first wife, Grace.

As David and I talk during our journey through the mountains, David recalls the spiritual character of the believers his parents served and discipled. Speaking of a simple peasant woman he remembers in his youth, he tells of her faith-filled prayers. His voice breaks and with tearful eyes he tenderly says, “I don’t think I could speak to God like that.” He shakes his head in wonder at the memory.

This commemorative arch in Huangyuan was destroyed decades ago. It was able to be rebuilt only because of photos taken by Victor Plymire.
On Sunday, we attend one of the churches David has helped. As believers sing “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” and “Oh, to Be Like Thee,” I recognize the tunes. The people worship with heartfelt reverence, and their fervent prayers are a telling witness of their commitment and dedication.

Later we visit the graves of Grace and John Plymire and other believers from the Huangyuan church. “This is probably the last time I will visit here,” David says softly. He knows the people buried here did their part to spread the gospel across the region. They paid a price for plowing the soil and sowing the seed. And today the church exists because they gave the last full measure of their devotion.

David possesses a conviction that, should the Lord tarry His coming, the church in China will be so strong and zealous that few places in the country will remain where the gospel is unknown.

We arrive in Lhasa, Tibet.

People are observing the Saga Dawa festival, which takes place during the holiest month of the Tibetan calendar. At this time, Tibetan Buddhists believe they receive multiplied merit for each spiritual act. We watch as thousands of pilgrims circle the Jokhang temple, constantly turning prayer wheels. Many prostrate themselves on the ground every few steps. All the while, milling crowds saunter by outdoor altars, placing offerings in the fire.

In contrast, much has been reported about the exploding Church in China, with estimates as high as 100 million believers. But even with the largest number of Christians in the world, China also has the most unreached. More than a billion people, including 3 million Tibetans, still have not had an adequate witness of the gospel of Christ.


The Unreached of Tibet
Sitting on a bench in a courtyard at the base of the Potala Palace, David and I contemplate the overwhelming challenge of reaching Tibet. David says he has been blessed to see God work over great spans of time using people He has called to accomplish His purposes.

“I believe it is only a matter of God’s timing before the seemingly impenetrable spiritual wall is finally and eternally breeched,” he says.

David Plymire stands at the gravesite of Grace and John Plymire, on a mountainside outside Huangyuan, China.
David Plymire stands at the gravesite of Grace and John Plymire, on a mountainside outside Huangyuan, China.
In 1994, as the town of Huangyuan grew, the remains of Grace and John Plymire were moved to a new grave site outside the city. Dr. Wang, medical staff from the Huangyuan hospital and members of the Huangyuan church respectfully undertook the task.

In his own hands David carried the bones of his half-brother who had died nearly 70 years before. As he walked, he contemplated his own life and the very short life of John David, whose middle name he bears. He thought to himself, I wonder if I have done as much as he would have, if he had lived.

Haven’t most of us pondered the mysteries of what might or might not have been if things had been different? Probably the only value in such speculation is to marvel at what God, in His wisdom and mercy, does in and through our lives.

Even with life’s tragedies and our mistakes and failures, God calls us to obedience. Because of His grace, our destiny is not our fate — it is our choice. By faith we trust and obey Him. And someday we can look back in wonder and gratitude for what He has accomplished.

Through many challenges, God provided for the Plymire family. Both David and his father grieved the loss of their wives, yet God blessed each of them with another godly woman to join them in ministry. David married Pat (widow of missionary Jerry Sandidge) in 1998, and they continue to serve the Lord together.

Since the day at the monastery where 18-year-old David answered the Spirit’s call to missions, he only questioned that call one time.

He was in the United States, struggling to raise funds. In one month, after expenses, he had only $1.44 left. He considers that moment as his lowest point. Kneeling down, he prayed, “Now, Lord, let’s do this thing over to make sure I got it right the first time.”

A campsite of the 1942 expedition in the Qinghai Tibet region of China. This camp is at a small monastery called Dulan. Though only 200 miles from the mission station, because of time taken along the way to minister, the entire trip lasted more than four months.
A campsite of the 1942 expedition in the Qinghai Tibet region of China. This camp is at a small monastery called Dulan. Though only 200 miles from the mission station, because of time taken along the way to minister, the entire trip lasted more than four months.
Many years earlier, when Victor was on his four-month journey through China to Taozhou, struggling with fear, he asked God for a promise. The Lord directed him to Isaiah 41:10, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (NIV). At his “lowest point” David asked God to confirm that same Scripture to him as He had to his father — and in a way that it could not possibly be coincidence.

Soon after his prayer, David was asked to speak at a large Sunday School convention. Immediately after he finished, someone in the crowd gave a prophetic utterance — exactly quoting Isaiah 41:10. The Spirit had answered David’s prayer, and David never again doubted his call to China and Tibet.

The story of the Plymire family is one of obedience ... of an unknown street preacher who obediently proclaimed the message heard by Victor Plymire; of Victor’s obedience to God’s call to take that message to the lost in China and Tibet; of Grace Harkness and Ruth Weidman, who followed God’s leading to join Victor in his mission; and of David Plymire, who returned to Taiwan even when it wasn’t his heart’s desire — not knowing it would prepare him to communicate the gospel to far more people than his parents could have dreamed.

God has an eternal purpose for each lost soul — and a wondrous plan for everyone who will obey His call.

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