November 15, 2023
“As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a missionary,” said Winabelle (Win) Gritter.
Today, Win 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, Win looked up to Johanna Veenstra, who was serving in Nigeria as the Christian Reformed Church’s first overseas missionary. When Win’s kindergarten teacher asked the class to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up, Win drew a picture of herself teaching children in Nigeria.
Nigeria is one of the only fields where Win hasn’t yet served. God had other plans.
Win was eager to start her career as a missionary. She graduated early from both high school and from the education program at Calvin University (then Calvin College). As soon as she got her degree, she applied to serve in Nigeria with Resonate Global Mission (then Christian Reformed World Missions).
They wouldn’t let her go.
At the time, the legal age to serve was 21. She was barely 20.
Win was devastated. But ministry leaders told her not to lose heart and that she would serve overseas someday. They advised her to put her teacher’s certificate to use in another state so she could get some experience living cross-culturally in another community before traveling overseas. Win lined up a teaching job in California.
That’s when the mission called and said they needed a teacher to serve at Zuni Mission School.
“I wanted to go to California,” said Win.
But then that Sunday, her church had a visiting pastor from Calvin Theological Seminary. When he got up to preach he said, “I had a different sermon prepared but the Lord laid on my heart to preach this one. So I’m talking about the conflict between duty and desire.”
“So then I went to Zuni,” said Win.
To the Field
Win taught at Zuni from 1955 to 1960. There, she saw a need for better language-learning. So she enrolled at University of Michigan to earn her Master’s in English as a Second Language. She loved working with the children at Zuni, but overseas missions still tugged at her heart. By the time she felt more prepared, the Christian Reformed Church had started serving in more mission fields.
Win went to Taiwan to help start a seminary, teach classes, and help strengthen the growing local church.
It was in Taiwan where Win lived through one of the most memorable experiences in her career as a missionary.
‘The Church Just Blossomed’
A huge typhoon ravaged the small island. Not just once, either. It went across, backed up, and then went across again. Multiple times.
“The dam was threatening to break so they opened the dam and the area where our church was flooded,” she said. “We were walking in knee-deep mud. Everyone lost their shoes in the mud below.”
The community lost much more than their shoes, too. They lost many of their possessions, and food and clean water was hard to come by.
Win and the church knew they needed to do something, so Win contacted the United States Military and World Renew (then Christian Reformed World Relief Committee). At the time, they had primarily served in Canada and the United States. She asked if they had the capacity to aid Taiwan. They did. It was one of the first times World Renew worked overseas.
Everyday I say, ‘Lord, this day is in your hands.'
One day, loads of supplies arrived at the church. Win gathered young people to help organize the piles and hand them out. Not just to the church, but to the entire community.
“After that, the people there were so impressed that the church just blossomed,” said Win. “They were saying, ‘Why are they doing this? Not just for their own people but for all of us?’”
She also remembers a young boy who got a suitcoat from the donations. Inside a pocket, he found three Wilhelmina peppermints.
Unfortunately, the typhoon also caused sickness to spread in the community. Win soon became very sick with Typhoid Fever and doctors advised her to return home to Grand Rapids, Michigan. At the time, treatments for Typhoid were limited. On doctor’s orders, she couldn’t return to Taiwan.
Following the Holy Spirit’s Leading
It was disheartening for Win, who loved serving overseas. But she prayed for God’s guidance, and the Holy Spirit led her to an opportunity in her hometown.
At the time, Grand Rapids was welcoming the first wave of refugees from Cuba and immigrants from Mexico. Grand Rapids Public Schools were desperate for teachers. With Win’s degree in ESL, she knew she could help. For a year, she worked with students who spoke Spanish as their first language. During that time, she picked up quite a bit of Spanish—which prepared her for the next step in her ministry.
“They called and said, ‘We need somebody in Mexico.’”
Win started serving again with Resonate (then Christian Reformed World Missions). While continuing her studies at the University of Michigan to obtain her doctorate in bilingual education, Win led trainings with pastors, Christian teachers, and other leaders in Mexico. It wasn’t long before her field expanded to include countries throughout Latin America: nearly all of Central America, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and a country that has become near and dear to her heart—Cuba.
Eventually, it became time for a change. Win was traveling so much, and the area in Mexico where she was living was becoming increasingly problematic, so she made Grand Rapids her home base.
Today, Win has retired from serving on staff—but she serves as a Resonate volunteer. She travels a few times a year to lead trainings in Mexico and Cuba. Several children in Cuba call her “Grandma.”
A Changing Missional Landscape
Win notes that while mission has changed over the years, missionaries are still important. Now that there are more Christians in countries where Resonate is serving, the strategy has shifted from direct evangelism to equipping and supporting local leaders. Win says that support from churches in Canada and the United States is 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 pastor met Win 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 an enormous willingness to share with everyone,” he shared.
Today, he’s a pastor leading a church and is thankful for Win and Resonate’s partnership.
“Working with (Win) has been a rewarding experience. She has always had a great ability to teach and work 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,” he said.
A Missionary at Home
Win is still passionate about overseas missions, but she says you don’t need to travel abroad to be a missionary. Schools often invite her to speak to students, and she always asks them: “What about your neighbor? What about your community?”
She says it’s important to get to know your neighbors and to help out where you can. And prayer has been constant in her life.
“Everyday I say, ‘Lord, this day is in your hands,’” said Win.
And that’s what Win’s life has been about—following Jesus. Whether it’s to Zuni or Taiwan, Grand Rapids, Mexico, or Cuba, it’s not always about where Win is, but how she’s living her life and sharing the love of Christ.