Sadie Custer was born into a Christian family on January 29, 1911 in Allendale, Michigan, a farming community. She was the sixth in a family of eight children. Her father Benjamin loved the Lord and read the Bible to the family daily, while her mother Sadie Visser was a quiet and contented person who loved music.
Although she and her siblings attended catechism class, Sunday School, and church regularly, she did not know the Lord personally. Her conversion experience started in 1929 in Grand Rapids, Michigan when Dr De Haan led her to the Lord with the Bible verse John 3:16. From that point onwards, her life was transformed and the presence of the Holy Spirit was evident in her life. One day, she attended a mission conference at her church. The speaker was Dr Isaac Page, a missionary from China Inland Mission (CIM). At the end of the meeting, the Holy Spirit compelled her to respond to an altar call and she made a commitment to dedicate her life for mission work overseas.
In 1932, after Custer completed 10th grade, she was accepted into Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. Her schedule in Moody was extremely busy. She needed to juggle study, part-time work in various places, ministry, and meetings at CIM in preparation to serve in the mission field. She was required to complete a certain number of hours of assignments in evangelism: witnessing, street preaching, mission work, and teaching children. Through these assignments, she led many people to the Lord. Sadie’s faith grew as she realised her life was in God’s hand.
In 1936, she was accepted into CIM and on September 11, she and 40 other missionary ladies boarded a Japanese liner bound for China. It was a rough journey and they encountered storms and towering waves. However, she was comforted by the verse from Joshua 1:6, “ Be strong and of good courage”. In China, Sadie and 52 young women of different nationalities attended the Yongchow language school and by 1939, her ability to speak and understand the Chinese language had improved tremendously.
From 1936 to 1944, she was involved in pioneering evangelistic work and Bible teaching in New Market, Shensi (Shaanxi) Province. God had given her a gift of adaptability in a foreign land. With just a blanket, she could sleep on a bed made from boards or straw on the floor. She loved her work and was happy in spite of the poor living conditions where rats, mosquitoes, and fleas were a constant nuisance. In 1951, she and other CIM missionaries were expelled from China.
After leaving China, she spent the next few years taking care of her invalid mother in Michigan. She continued to spend time praying and visiting supporters. This involved sharing about China in churches, youth groups and Christian colleges. Her intention was to mobilise young people to serve in overseas missions.
During a CIM prayer meeting, Bishop Houghton, then the director of CIM, shared that there was a great need and opportunity to share the gospel in Malaya. In 1955, she managed to get full financial support from Lansing Bible Church and others. As her mother’s health condition deteriorated, the doctor advised that she be admitted into a nursing home for better medical care. At that moment, Custer felt that God was releasing her to go to Malaya.
She arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 1955. The first three months were orientation and learning the Cantonese dialect. Initially, she had difficulty differentiating the tone, but after much prayer and hard work, she achieved a breakthrough. During the language training period, she taught Sunday School class to English-speaking Chinese and Indian girls.
From 1955 to 1972, she served as an itinerant Bible teacher in New Villages in Pahang, Malaysia. For four years, she was the resident missionary in Sungei Ruan, a village of 3,000 people, built on a hill. The practice of ancestral worship and spirit worship was very pervasive. She prayed and claimed the villagers within Sungei Ruan’s fence for the Lord. Though the ground was hard, about 150 to 200 people attended evangelistic meetings organised by Sadie and her team. Some of the invited speakers were Ewan Lumsden and David Beard of OMF. Many villagers were touched by God’s message.
Other events that Custer organised were street meetings, Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, and home visitations. She preached using posters and phonograph. There were times of encouragement when many people accepted Christ and shared the gospel with their family members. There were also times of discouragement when not a single person attended the church service. Another disappointment was when students taking Bible correspondence courses skipped lessons and prayer meetings for many months. But her joy was always in the Lord and not in circumstances.
In May 1960, she went back to Michigan on furlough, and returned to Malaya in April 1961. In her new term, she was stationed in Kuala Lumpur as a full-time itinerant Bible teacher. Her role involved traveling to churches to conduct Short-Term Bible Study (STBS) in Selangor, Pahang, and Johor. She could teach in English and Mandarin and was sought after by many churches for her clear and practical lessons. In the first year alone, she ran STBS weeks in 22 centres with an average attendance of nine each. She also conducted Bible correspondence courses.
The work was hard but she said, “In Genesis, chapter one, we read that each day the Lord looked upon His work for the day and saw that it was good. My prayer was that each day of the coming year the Lord would look upon His work done in and through me and would be able to say, it is good.”
In July 1965, she was back again in Michigan on furlough and came back for a third term in July 1966. Her visa was renewed until the end of May 1970 with the stamp “final” on her passport. The highlight of her new term was a conference where she gave two messages, “The Church as a Witness” and “Individual as a Witness”. Stella Hooi, the first OMF missionary from Malaysia, also gave her testimony. During her free time, Custer helped in the Daily Vacation Bible School (DVBS).
When her visa expired, Mr Sadler from the OMF office made an appeal to the immigration office and miraculously, it was extended for another two years. She believed that this was God’s divine intervention.
In July 1972, she was reassigned to serve in Taiwan to do Bible study among the 60,000 Paiwan Christians. Serving in a new field at the age of 61 was not easy but she knew that God’s grace was sufficient for her. She said, “In those remaining years overseas the Lord never failed me once.” She served in Taiwan for three years and finally retired from OMF at the age of 65 after serving the Lord for 40 years.
In 1976, she arrived back safely in Michigan. Happy to be home, she was not quite ready to retire and asked the Lord, “Now what, Lord?” Her gratitude for all her prayer intercessors who had prayed with her for 40 years while she served in the field led her to start a prayer ministry for missionaries.
The Lord provided a car for her and she learnt to drive. For 12 years, she travelled in a prayer ministry in Michigan to mobilise prayer intercessors to pray for missionaries. Finally, she retired to Lammermuir House, followed by Calvary Fellowship Homes in Lancaster. Even in these homes, she helped those who could not read due to poor eyesight. Occasionally, she was invited to speak about missions at churches around that area.
When she looked back on her life, she said, “I am just amazed at what the Lord did with an ordinary farm girl. I would follow Him all over again if I could start over. His way is perfect.” She was called home to be with the Lord on February 18, 2007 at the age of 96.
- ^ “Collection 470 Oral History Interview with Sadie Custer,” Archives of Wheaton College, 1992, https://archives.wheaton.edu/repositories/4/resources/372.
- ^ Czarneke, God’s Vagabond Autobiography of Sadie Custer, 27.
- ^ Czarneke, God’s Vagabond Autobiography of Sadie Custer, 234.
- ^ Czarneke, God’s Vagabond Autobiography of Sadie Custer, 281.
- ^ Czarneke, God’s Vagabond Autobiography of Sadie Custer, 286.
- ^ “Sadie Custer,” LifeStory.Net, https://www.lifestorynet.com/obituaries/sadie-custer.21195.