Honoring “Grandma (Bertha) Holt,” Evangelist

Phyllis Nissila

Blogger Mary, at “Reflections From the Heart,” posted a story today about an amazing and inspiring elderly woman in her life which inspired me to honor, once again, such a woman in my own life, Bertha Holt.

     Bertha Holt and her husband Harry founded Holt International Children’s Services in the nineteen fifties. She passed into the presence of the Lord in the mid-nineties, in her own mid-nineties. I knew her for six years when I worked for the international adoption and child welfare agency. I will never forget her, or the story I relate about her, below.

     Bertha “rubbed shoulders” and received honors with the likes of Corrie ten Boom, Mother Teresa, Nancy Reagan. She was honored by heads of state, kings and queens of nations (over the years the agency has worked with and for some 26 countries). People traveled great distances with their growing children adopted through the organization just to have a chance to meet “Grandma Holt” at our once per year all-comer’s picnic.

     Bertha was quite famous and elegant awards given her by many service organizations crowd a display case in the entrance to the agency. But all of this notoriety mattered little to her, it seemed to me. Bertha was an evangelist, first, last, and foremost. Once, when I was helping her with some task or other and we passed near the awards case, she waved a hand and with her customary chuckle said, “this stuff just collects dust.” But she took a moment to describe the unique design of one crystal figurine and to express appreciation for the people who had given it to her.

     On the occasions when she walked near my desk on an agency tour with international representatives or “ordinary people” with extraordinary hearts to help needy children, I heard her ask within minutes of meeting them, “And do you know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior?” The same question she asked me when I first met her.

     Perhaps the most significant of such moments for me was the day the agency hosted high level government officials from a country notorious at that time for its severe restrictions on the practice of Christianity. They were just then considering opening up their country to international adoption and had heard of Holt’s reputation.

     As phones rang and keyboards clattered Grandma paused within earshot of my station, looked up into the faces of the three gentlemen she was with, and asked the same question. Her interpreter, a Christian woman from that country, faithfully interpreted each word, words that “back home” would likely have landed her in prison, particularly in the presence of these VIPs…

     I was suddenly struck by the import of this.

     These three men, imprisoned themselves, so to speak, away from the Gospel message by the citadel of an anti-faith ideology, would no doubt never have heard the question of questions and the message to follow. And they certainly would not have gone anywhere to seek it out.

     But, lo, here in the middle of a busy day in a busy office in average-town USA, the simple question posed by this harmless little white-haired Grandma had come to them.

     I wanted to jump up on my desk and shout: “People! Stop everything! See what is happening, here!”

     I just sat. Quiet. Awed.

     I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, as they continued with the tour, but I know its remaining content because I had engaged in a similar conversation. And I had this thought.

     How many Christians in that country officially closed to the faith, from their underground churches or prison cells, had pleaded with God for just such a penetration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the minds and, hopefully, the hearts of the men–even these three–who held the key to their freedom of religious expression? And for how long?

     And who knew this little old white-haired lady from rural Oregon with a heart to help orphans and special needs children–and the steely resolve to win souls for Christ–would be God’s perfect message-bearer?

     I am still in awe…

     Here is a link to her official story:


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7 Responses to Honoring “Grandma (Bertha) Holt,” Evangelist

  1. Mary says:

    What an incredible woman of God! You did her justice and honored her well in this piece 🙂


  2. Cathy says:

    Beautiful Person, and a Wonderful Story, that is Truly Inspiring!


    • pnissila says:

      Yes, I love that story. Grandma was quite a woman. Two other anecdotes about her, these on the humorous side.

      Grandma jogged every day (until she suffered the stroke that preceded her death by two weeks) and she was a strong, sturdy woman who worked hard and still tended a large garden into her nineties. So when I first went to work for the agency I decided she must also eat health food to have lived so long and so well. One day I came into the lunch room while she was eating her lunch and lo and behold, it wasn’t nuts and granola she was munching on but a bag of Cheetos! Made me chuckle.

      She also had a notorious “lead foot” while driving her seventies’ VW Micro-bus the thirty miles from her small town into the agency. She finally decided to give up her keys at age ninety-two–and I’m sure people up and down the Interstate breathed a collective sigh of relief.

      What a gal, and faithful servant of the Lord.


      • Cathy says:

        She was a Faithful Servant of the Lord! She lived for God, and not the god of this World! I am sure, she is in, her Heavenly Home, worshipping at the Throne of God! (This time, eating the 12 Fruits, from the Tree of Life!….instead of Junk Food. 🙂


  3. Carl Gordon says:

    Incredible! I had the pleasure of a brief meet with Mrs. Holt and she asked me the same question! Wow this was a good read!


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