The name Vera means “faith.” Today we’d like to introduce you to Vera Penz, co-director of Kako Retreat Center, whose life is an unfolding book of faith–even in the midst of devastating circumstances. The following life testimony is published with her permission (and many of her own words).
I am so thankful for a godly heritage! As a child, I was taught from the Scriptures, and I saw evidence of a real and living faith in the lives of my mother and older sister. Both greatly influenced my life. My father died when I was six years old. Mother kept the family together. There were five children; my twin sister and I were the youngest. During those growing up years I felt very secure and loved. We did not have a lot of money, but we did have a lot of fun. I never felt poor.
At the age of twelve, I trusted Christ as my own personal Savior. Although I knew a lot about the Bible and Jesus, I had just a head knowledge. During a special evangelism meeting, I was convicted of my sin and invited Christ to be my Savior. My family rejoiced with me and welcomed me into the family of God.
In the years that followed, many influences were used of God to prepare my heart and bring me to the place of total commitment to Him. In preparation for missionary service, I attended Shelton College in New York City. Through Foreign Missions Fellowship, North America-Alaska Prayer Group, and missionary speakers, God laid upon my heart a burden for Alaska.
While at college, I met my husband-to-be, Al Kelley. He was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, six-foot-two semi-pro football player with a real love for his Lord. We were married at the beginning of our Junior year in 1951. Our wedding verse was 1 John 3:16: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” We were very much aware of God’s great love for us, and we desired to share this love with others, presenting ourselves to God for service in Alaska. Little did I know that just five years later, Al would literally lay down his life in the Alaskan waters.
We were accepted by the Central Alaskan Mission (CAM), and in 1954 we made our first trip to Alaska over the Alcan Highway. Our daughter Debbie was just nine months old. How can I begin to sum up those early years of service? Our first year was spent in the Indian Village of Copper Center, the first mission station of CAM. It was an introduction to Alaskan life as we faced cold winters with temperatures of 50-60 below zero. We learned to live off the land, enjoying moose, caribou, and salmon. Most importantly, it was a year of getting to know and love the Alaskan people and see God work in their lives.
From there we opened up a new work on the Prince William Sound among the Aleut people in the village of Tatitlek. Tatitlek is an isolated village, thirty miles from Valdez, and can only be reached by plane or boat. We soon purchased a fishing boat for travel. Again much time was spent in just living…hauling water, chopping wood, and living off the land. As we shared the Gospel message, we saw some come to Christ. We saw much opposition, as well. It was here that we literally passed through the deep waters spoken of in Isaiah 43:2.
Traveling to Valdez in our boat, we came into a storm. As we decided to turn around, the engine of our boat died. My husband and a native boy with us worked on it for many hours, but to no avail. Al then made the decision to go back for help in our skiff. I last saw him rowing into the waves.
We spent that night on the boat, and the next day a huge swell took our boat and cast it up against some rocks on the mainland. We were able to reach safety and made our way into the trees where we found two fallen logs to use as a shelter. The double mummy bag I had grabbed from the boat proved to be our only source of warmth as we divided it among ourselves. Debbie was almost three, and my son Tommy was six months old. This was the month of November. It was snowing, and temperatures were below freezing. We later found our boat washed up in a cove nearby, but the food locker was washed out. We did find a can of bear meat, brown bread, mustard, and ketchup. We were there five days in all.
I had recently weaned Tommy, and these days proved to be impossible for him. He was too young to eat the food that we had found, and in vain I tried to keep him hydrated with melted snow. On the third night, Tommy died in my arms. The hardest thing I have ever done was setting his body aside to care for my little daughter.
The next day, the storm let up, and a search was started for us. We were eventually rescued by a fishing boat from the village, and an extensive search was begun for my husband. His body was never found. We were then flown to Glennallen, where I was hospitalized for frost-bitten feet. The Lord wonderfully kept Debbie through all of this. In that hospital bed, I was very much aware of God’s comfort, peace, and grace as He wrapped me up in His love. I found comfort in His Word and hymns and was lifted up in prayer by many people. Psalm 18:30, Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28-29, 2 Corinthians 12:9, and 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 were especially meaningful promises I claimed. Take time to read them.
There are no dead ends in the life of a believer. Death is not the end but the beginning. I knew that both Tommy and Al were with the Lord. As for myself and Debbie, I believe God spared our lives for a purpose, and the seeming dead end became a new beginning as we trusted the Lord. When the waters were the deepest, the Lord God was the closest.
Over the next thirty years, Vera Kelley raised her daughter Debbie as a single mother and continued the whole time in active ministry in Alaska. Today there is a sound church in the village of Tatitlek, pastored by a native couple. God faithfully grew the seed that Al and Vera planted, and it bears lasting fruit. In 1988, Vera married Dave Penz and came to Kako Retreat Center to work beside him for the salvation of natives in over 50 surrounding villages. They continue to operate a vital ministry to native families and children in western Alaska.