The fast and testimony meeting was beautiful and touching, and the spirit lingered after the closing prayer, a warm, pure thread that ran between the hearts of members and missionaries, bidding each to remain a moment longer, to converse and to smile.
Elder Bradshaw and his companion came up to me. “Wasn’t that a good meeting, Bruder?” I nodded and we shook hands.
“Isn’t Sister Knabe amazing? That woman has such faith—I can hardly believe it when she bears her testimony.”
The praise of the two missionaries for old and overweight Sister Knabe was a painful tap on the shoulder for me. I had been serving as mission secretary in the Germany Central Mission for six months. I had worshipped on twenty-four consecutive Sabbaths with the Duesseldorf Ward. But never had I taken the time to meet Sister Knabe.
Perhaps my failure to perform this most elementary duty of a missionary can be attributed to a subconscious aversion I felt toward this particular sister. She was extremely heavy, and her face was distorted by sagging cheeks and chins. Her clothes were old and worn as well, and her skin was like pale, corroded leather.
I had admitted to myself that she was a good and faithful sister, for I had heard her speak in testimony meeting almost every month, and I had seen other members cry as she did so. Quite often members of the ward would mention Sister Knabe in the course of bearing their own testimonies.
But her high voice, almost baby-like in intonation, combined with her unique mixture of the standard High German and the more colloquial speech of the working classes, made it difficult for me to understand her, and so I really did not listen.
But I resolved this Sunday, perhaps softened by the spirit of the meeting, that I would at least introduce myself. She was standing in the foyer, a few feet from the chapel.
“Guten Morgen, Schwester!” I said, smiling and extending my hand toward her awkwardly.
She took my hand and looked up at me with questioning eyes. Then she smiled—a smile so unsettling in spontaneity and warm in love that I completely relaxed and forgot for the moment what she looked like.
“So you’re Sister Knabe!” I said. A not particularly inspired opening, but it got the conversation started.
“Yes,” she replied. “My, you’re a tall one. I’ve seen you around here a lot—you must be one of them that works in the office over there.”
“Well, I wish I could get to know all the missionaries. They’re all such glorious young men. But they change too fast for me to keep up with them all.”
We talked about the meeting, how good it had been, and she told me about the “wonderful joy” each Sunday brought to her.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to come,” she said, and again her voice reminded me of a child’s, high-pitched and unaffected, “but the Lord helps me. He has helped me in everything I’ve done since I was just a little child. Isn’t that marvelous? I can hardly express how much I love my Heavenly Father.”
Sister Knabe’s words were not like the polished, eloquent testimonies I was accustomed to hearing. Hers was like the unrestrained joy of a little girl talking about her love for her papa. No matter what I talked about, she talked about her Heavenly Father, the Church she knew was true, and the joy of the gospel.
In the middle of our conversation she suddenly stopped, cocked her head, and looked slowly up at me.
“Say now,” she said, “you work in the mission office. I’m sure you know all the missionaries. Do you by any chance know of two missionaries I could invite to dinner with me next Sunday?”
“Hmmm. I think I can find two,” I said, grinning the unsaid.
The smile she returned was charming. A chubby hand scribbled an address on a scrap of paper, a time was set for the next Sunday, and as we parted the tiny church meeting in the foyer of the Duesseldorf chapel broke up.
The following week after church, Elder McCune and I climbed in the mission’s red Volkswagen bus and drove to Sister Knabe’s apartment. She lived in a rather run-down neighborhood near the center of Duesseldorf, on a cobblestone street that needed repair.
Elder McCune was our mission printer, nearly twenty-five, an ex-Marine who looked it. We had been companions for four months at the time. Our companionship had been a good one, but in the last few weeks the burdens and pressures of working in the office had created tension between us. There had been sharp words, hard hearts, stiffened jaws, and brooding silences. Our slogan at the time might well have been, “Oh, how we mourn, and think our lot is hard.”
Being on a mission in a foreign land is hard. And the office, for all its compensating joys, could be a pressure cooker at times. There was always more work to be done than elders available to do it. There were deadlines and urgent letters and publications to be printed, requests from missionaries to be filled, a backlog of records to catch up on, a building to be kept clean, mail to be driven downtown late every night we were very lucky to get an hour of study and an evening of proselyting in every day. Many days we sacrificed even that. Many nights we retired long past the missionary time of 10:30 P.M. Every morning we arose early.
I would like to claim the responsibility made us humble, but such was not the case. We saw ourselves as martyrs. When we weren’t bemoaning our lot, we were polishing our tie tacks and letting our hearts lift themselves up a bit in the pride of jobs well done.
Yet the Lord always seems to have tools ready for humbling those called to serve him. In our case, the tool he used was an elderly sister living in a cheap flat in Duesseldorf.
We knocked, and Sister Knabe came to the door, glowing with joy and obviously anxious to please.
“Do come in, do come in. You must excuse me, I’m not quite ready. Make yourselves at home—just sit there on the couch.”
She seemed genuinely touched by our presence and addressed us almost reverently. She moved around the room urgently, apologizing again, and trying to engage us in conversation as she prepared the meal. Her effort to be the perfect hostess was total.
Elder McCune and I looked around at the apartment. The entire apartment was smaller than a medium-sized American bedroom. The kitchen seemed to be a mere cupboard, and the rest of the apartment served as living room and bedroom.
Elder McCune looked at me and shook his head. “Oh, Bruder,” he said. “I don’t believe this.”
We looked in awe at the cheerful, radiant woman talking and hurrying around the room. She seemed out of place in the dismal apartment. For no conscious reason, I felt ashamed.
There was barely enough room for the three of us to fit our plates onto her tiny table. Sister Knabe served us broiled chicken and tossed salad, then took only tossed salad for herself.
For the first time on my mission, I could think of nothing to say.
Sister Knabe seemed not to notice our quietness. She talked and laughed and kidded us, and spoke repeatedly of God. She spoke of his rich blessings, of the joy that filled her heart for having embraced his gospel, of the total security and fulfillment she found in him.
Try as I would, I could think of no response.
“You must have some of the chicken, too, Sister Knabe,” said Elder McCune.
“Oh, no. I never eat meat. I have this physical condition you see—you can see how fat I am, well, it comes from—”
I understood few of the medical terms she used. She had a gland disease of some kind—whatever the problem, it became clear that Sister Knabe was not overweight through any fault of her own, as I had thought. Once again, I felt ashamed.
The meal continued. The chicken was delicious, but I was not thinking of that. I kept seeing the apartment, and its ancient, meager furnishings, which all formed a rough frame around the picture of this glowing, happy woman who sat with us.
As we ate, Sister Knabe told us the story of her life. Told by anyone else, it would have been a tale of tragedy, disappointment, disaster, and trial. As she told it, it was a story of gratitude, discovered blessings, and joy. Elder McCune looked at his plate as she spoke, turning his fork randomly about in the chicken juices.
She told us of the horror that was World War II, of bombings and fear and death on all sides. She described the Soviet occupation of East Germany with painful vividness. She and hundreds of other Germans, mostly women and children, were herded into an old Catholic church and kept there for several days as prisoners of war, living on starvation rations, without sanitation facilities, without beds.
“It was so crowded and people were so sick,” she told us, “I couldn’t even find a place to kneel and pray. Always until then I had knelt when praying, and I felt it improper to pray standing up. So I just asked my Heavenly Father to forgive me one prayer, and I told him I needed a place to kneel. Right away he found one for me.”
She clasped her hands and smiled. “That’s how it’s always been! He has never failed to answer a single prayer. I have never known want in my life.”
Shortly after the war she met the missionaries and joined the Church. When she did, her husband left her, and her family disowned her. Twenty-five years of struggling alone just for existence had followed.
We were served a custard pudding for dessert. She apologized for not having more, but explained that even to buy the chicken she had needed to save every pfennig for weeks.
Then she told us the story that shamed and made ridiculous every complaint, every pride, every arrogance in us.
“I’ve not lived here very long,” she said. “Did you know that?”
“It’s so. Just a few months ago I lived on the fourth floor of a building in the Kieselberger Strasse. It had served me fine until—”
She looked us both over as though judging our worthiness to hear her story.
“Well, I’m getting older, and I’ve got this weight problem, and I had been feeling weaker and weaker, you see. It got so I couldn’t even climb up the stairs to my apartment. I couldn’t go to Church and I couldn’t do my shopping—I don’t do much anyway, but I must do some.”
She told the story like a dispassionate observer. Her voice, though childlike, was strong and firm.
“Fortunately I learned I could make it by walking up to the second floor and resting—and then crawling on my hands and knees the rest of the way up. That worked just splendid for several weeks until I got bruises and sores on my knees, and I kept getting weaker and weaker.
“Finally I was suffering so much I felt justified in praying to my Heavenly Father and asking for him to help me in some way, at least so I might keep visiting his church. That very day Sister Schmidt in the ward found me crawling up those steps. She scolded me and got all the Relief Society sisters to help me find this apartment here. So there! You see—God never fails me, never. He answers every prayer.”
Oh, what proud, spoiled children we are, I thought. Give us a two-foot cross to carry and we mourn in despair, give us an eight-foot cross and we question God’s mercy, or even his existence. Yet here was a woman who had carried heavier crosses than either of us could imagine, and she spoke of a yoke that was easy and a burden that was light.
Elder McCune asked if we might pray before leaving. She asked him to offer it. It was a contrite prayer in a poor and broken German.
We looked up. Sister Knabe was crying, gently, gracefully, and she spoke to us with a soft serenity that penetrated deeply. “You leave a blessing,” she said. “You come from the Lord, and you leave a blessing.”
A moment of reverent quiet as the tears trickled slowly down her cheeks.
“You are special people. You come from God.”
Then we left. Few words rippled the humble silence of the bus as we drove back to the office.
The day of judgment will come, and the nations of the earth will stand before the Lord to be judged.
I feel certain that on that day many talented, famous, powerful, and rich people will have to stand aside as Sister Knabe walks forward to enter the kingdom of her Savior to be crowned with eternal glory.
Indeed, I can truthfully say that of all the women I have ever known, she was the most beautiful.