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Former prisoner of war still a missionary at 85

By John W. Kennedy

Gratitude, love, faithfulness and even glee lace Gladys Knowles Finkenbinder’s words as she looks back on her 85 years on earth. "God has been very merciful to me, not just one time but many times," she says.

Finkenbinder’s life is one of undeterred service to the Lord. She is a woman who has quietly persevered through heartaches and made the most out of suffering and hardship. Setbacks she has endured forged her faith.

She spent more than three years in a prisoner of war camp, but didn’t question or waver in her Christian faith. She had to flee her chosen mission field twice, but didn’t stop spreading the gospel elsewhere. When widowed at 83, two years ago, she chose not to retire.

Finkenbinder sees God’s hand in all circumstances. If not for interruptions on the mission field, Finkenbinder never would have met and married her husband. Together, they spent nearly 50 years ministering to the blind around the nation.

She remains an Assemblies of God Intercultural Ministries missionary, involved in church services for the blind in the Denver area. She also embarked on conducting Bible studies for the elderly last month in Lafayette, the suburb where she lives.

Finkenbinder always has been up for a challenge. After graduating in 1939 from Central Bible Institute (now College) in Springfield, Mo., she sensed God calling her to China, even though Japan had invaded the country two years earlier.

"The fact that something might happen to me didn’t bother me in the least," Finkenbinder says matter-of-factly. "There seemed to be a need there." She went to help in the office of Truth Bible Institute, while also attending an interdenominational Chinese-language college in Beijing.

However, after nine months, Japanese soldiers threatened Beijing, so officials moved the language school to Baguio City, Philippines. They figured it would be safer for missionaries in the Philippines, then a U.S. territory, especially in an inland city 5,000 feet above sea level.

A lengthy captivity
Yet in December 1941, Japanese planes simultaneously bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and Baguio City. Air raids continued the next three weeks, prompting American soldiers to withdraw.

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The 500 foreign civilians in the city, ranging from missionaries to gold mining executives, gathered in an American school, figuring their probability of survival would increase if they stayed together. At 2 a.m. on December 29, the Japanese overran the school.

"They immediately crowded us into one room at the school," Finkenbinder remembers. "We could hardly breathe because we were standing so close together." The first night the captured Americans had to lie on the bare floor, so close to each other that they had no room to turn over. Guards walked by with bayonets poised. A missionary cried out in her sleep, "Oh, God, make them repent and bring back the things they have stolen."

"I was afraid the soldiers were going to stab her, but fortunately they didn’t understand English," Finkenbinder says.

At daybreak the Japanese soldiers assembled their prisoners, whose passports and Bibles had been confiscated, in a courtyard. In an effort to instill fear they pointed machine guns at the 500 internees, proclaiming that Japanese soldiers had conquered the West Coast and moved as far inland as Denver.

A week later, the prisoners were forced to walk five miles – without any of their possessions – to Camp John Hay, which had been abandoned by U.S. troops. In all, nine Assemblies of God missionaries and their 13 children were interred. Their incarceration lasted three years and a month. Finkenbinder is the last living member of the adult group.

Because the water mains had been bombed, the prisoners at first had no access to water, not even to wash diapers. Ubiquitous flies didn’t improve the unsanitary conditions. Consequently, a dysentery epidemic erupted. But in January a record 25-inch rainfall provided water that saved lives, Finkenbinder believes. "God answered prayer in many, many ways," she says.

Along with other women, Finkenbinder spent part of her day sorting through rice that had been discarded. She removed gravel, mold and worms, keeping what little edible rice might be left to stay alive.

"We were always hungry," Finkenbinder recalls. "We had two small portions of rice a day. We were so hungry we didn’t feel it until we ate." Several people died of disease and starvation; a few died of torture, including a young Baptist missionary.

Most of the time Finkenbinder tended the sick, including those who had been tortured in an effort to extract confessions of being spies. Finkenbinder says the Lord protected the women from being molested or beaten.

"I was so thankful for the Scriptures I had memorized," she says, citing the 23rd Psalm and 1 Corinthians as examples. "The Lord brought them to my mind. The Lord was with us." Finkenbinder and others gathered surreptitiously in groups of three or four for prayer meetings. Because they lived in one large crowded room, the prayer circles didn’t attract attention. Nevertheless, one person always stood watch in case a guard approached.

While caring for the sick, Finkenbinder became deathly ill herself with jaundice. Providentially, someone provided a cooked potato, which strengthened her faith and put her on the road to recovery. "It had been months since I’d seen a potato and it was a sign that God cared," she says.

Transfer and freedom
Three years after captivity began, the Japanese, sensing the Allies closing in, moved their prisoners south to Manila. The prisoners rode atop ammunition trucks, which would serve as targets if spotted by the Allies.

For a little more than a month, Finkenbinder lived at Old Bilibad Prison, which earlier had been closed by Filipinos because of its deplorable state. Up to eight POWs lived in a cell designed for one person. They had to sleep on mattresses encrusted with blood, lice and bedbugs. The only mail Finkenbinder was allowed to receive her entire captivity came nearly three years into her imprisonment. She learned that her mother had died.

In February 1945, U.S. troops and Filipino guerrillas rescued the 447 civilians and 828 servicemen prisoners behind enemy lines. After a brief skirmish at the prison’s entrance, the Japanese captors fled before the Allied troops arrived in tanks and jeeps. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, fulfilling his "I shall return" vow of three years earlier, shook hands with the liberated American prisoners, who hoisted a concealed U.S. flag on a makeshift flagpole. Every woman in the camp had sewn a few stitches cobbled from red, white and blue clothing material.

The freed Americans returned to Los Angeles on a monthlong voyage aboard a U.S. troop transport ship. Upon arrival Finkenbinder had to be hospitalized for four months for malnutrition and emotional stress. "Everyone was very thin," she says. "We were in need of great physical and mental help. A lot of men who stood over 6 feet tall weighed less than 90 pounds."

The ordeal didn’t dampen Finkenbinder’s enthusiasm for missions. In 1947, after attending Yale University to study Chinese, she became an Assemblies of God missionary appointed to a mission station in Hangzhou in central China. There she played a pump organ at 21 packed worship services a week.

"We had to tell people to only come to one meeting a day to allow others to attend," she says. Finkenbinder also taught afternoon classes for women, many of whom never had the opportunity to attend school. Under an "each one teach one" plan, she focused on how to read and write one word a day, such as "Jesus." Students memorized the word and after class taught their neighbors the same lesson.

But Finkenbinder left China in 1949 as the nation turned communist so that nationals who knew her wouldn’t be endangered. "I was always very glad that the Lord allowed me to go back," Finkenbinder says. "Many came to the Lord in Hangzhou."

Upon returning to the United States, Finkenbinder sought more education. She attended Southwestern Assemblies of God University as well as Latin American Bible Institute in Texas, where she married her husband, Frank H. Finkenbinder, in 1951.

Blind ministry beginnings
Frank’s parents, Frank O. and Aura Finkenbinder, had been Assemblies of God missionaries to Puerto Rico and Argentina. Frank H. was born en route to the mission field, premature and blind due to malnutrition. But he made it to adulthood and felt called to minister to other blind people. Finkenbinder and his brother George became the first sightless people to receive Christian literature in braille from Assemblies of God Blind Ministries when it formed in 1952. Back then, no other Christian denomination had started such a specialized ministry. Few braille Bibles and hymnals existed.

Frank Finkenbinder, who earned a living tuning pianos, went on to become the first appointed Assemblies of God missionary to the blind.

"He approached Home Missions with a need and a willingness to fulfill that need, so he was appointed," says Paul Weingartner, director of the National Center for the Blind. "Gladys was his faithful partner in all of it. She was his eyes and wheels."

Soon after Finkenbinder started Christian meetings for the blind in Denver and three other Colorado cities, other disabled people began to attend. "People in wheelchairs came because they felt recognized as a person, not a handicapped person," Gladys says. "For many people, the greatest need is to be recognized as a person that Jesus loves."

Frank died in 2000 of congestive heart failure and a rare form of leukemia.

Carrying on in ministry
"I’m glad the Lord didn’t forsake me when my husband passed away," Gladys says. "I appreciate so much the goodness of the Lord."

Three decades ago Frank became president of the Inter-Church Fellowship of the Blind in Denver, which continues to meet every six weeks. Around 50 people, including Gladys, still gather for singing, prayer, fellowship, a sermon, special music and refreshments. Although she no longer plans the meetings, Finkenbinder passes out braille hymnals, guides attendees to seats and helps serve refreshments. She also is part of a volunteer group that makes quilts for nursing home residents and she helps watch babies in her church nursery.

Marvella Fresquez, who is blind, has known Finkenbinder since she started attending meetings in Denver in 1980. "I’ve never heard Gladys say an unkind word about anybody," says Fresquez, 49. "She’s always there when you need her." Fresquez, who works as a switchboard operator for an insurance company, says Finkenbinder never mentions her trouble as a POW.

Vicki Ireland, a visually impaired Denver resident who is secretary of the Inter-Church Fellowship of the Blind, has known Finkenbinder for 30 years, "She does a lot of behind-the-scenes work," Ireland says. "She teaches by word and example."

In October, Finkenbinder started a daytime Bible study for the elderly in her Lafayette, Colo., home. Sighted helpers drive the sightless to the meetings and make phone calls to arrange transportation. Five regular attendees are both blind and deaf.

"It’s quite admirable that she chose to continue Frank’s mission after he is gone," Weingartner says. "Most women of her age and situation would be ready to retire and enjoy family and friends."

But Finkenbinder says the gatherings are mutually beneficial. Her friends are the blind.

"It’s so important that the blind know that God loves them," she says. "Some people fail to see that a blind person is a person. It’s true that they have a problem with their eyes, but they have other problems like being a diabetic or having a non-Christian spouse."

Finkenbinder’s current ministry is vastly different from the missions work she began more than 60 years ago. But that doesn’t mean she got sidetracked. "Receiving the Lord’s call doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be in one place for the rest of our lives," Finkenbinder says. "We need to be where He wants us at the time that He wants us to be there."

Editor’s note: A 1984 oral history interview of Gladys Finkenbinder by Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center Director Wayne Warner aided in the preparation of this article.

John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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