Who’s Writing this Story Anyway?

by Richelle Wright on September 30, 2016


It has been 17 years since my husband and I, with our three four-and-under children, first left for the mission field.  Almost 20 years (and five more kids) since we first began preparing to make that move.

But that wasn’t our first experience with missions.

My husband’s parents had retired from their first careers to serve as missionaries in northern, rural Haiti. And right after I finished my master’s degree, I spent a year as a short-termer in SE Asia.

Those initial missions experiences sobered us as we saw firsthand some of the “institutionalized” mistakes missionaries have made, including:

  1. the negative impact of an expat culture strongly influenced by colonization on ministry strategies,
  2. the danger of authoritarian structures without corresponding accountability, and
  3. the hazards of unrecognized assumptions about both host and home cultures.

Those same experiences also humbled and challenged us for we had also witnessed

  1. sacrificial service long before the conveniences of today’s technological advances revolutionized communication and travel,
  2. the legacy of wisdom demonstrated by patience and costly humility, and
  3. faithful ministry in the midst unbelievable pressure and even, sometimes, persecution.

Thus, when we moved to Africa 17 years ago, we went idealistic, not so much about missions or who/what missionaries were and what they did – for we had a fledgling knowledge of the great potential for both good and bad.

Rather, we were idealistic and naïve concerning ourselves and our own abilities. Much like teens who don’t really believe anything bad will actually happen to them, regardless of the risks they might take.

We assumed that awareness of all of the above, thorough preparation, learning the language, zeal, grit and a whole lot of prayer would keep us from stumbling into those same pitfalls. We were determined to collaborate with local believers, allowing them to take the lead as experts in their world and culture. We wholeheartedly desired accountability and legitimate partnership not just with those back “home” but also our expat colleagues, and especially, our local partners. We wanted our well-being to be intrinsically linked to the good of the community that we had come to serve – so that there was mutual dependence and an atmosphere of “we” instead of an “us/them” mentality. We hoped to build an atmosphere of authentic give and take… all while balancing ministry, family and just-surviving-life-in-Africa responsibilities.

It sounded great in theory and we thought we were as ready as we could be. It was so much more difficult in practice – mostly impossible, in fact, as we discovered.

For trying as hard as we knew how, praying as fervently as we might – I don’t think we ever really “achieved” any of those goals, at least not in over a decade of service. Yes, we saw glimpses of success. We lived moments, even seasons, of genuine collaboration, accountability, partnership and mutual dependence. Our little corner of Africa did become home – and life there actually felt a lot more normal than life back in Michigan, most of the time… But? There was always a line we struggled to cross… and stay across… both in our eyes and, it appeared, in the eyes of our community.

I don’t know how to define it exactly. Perhaps it would have been easier had there been some clearly marked line in the Sahara sand, at least easily seen if not easily stepped over?

We didn’t give up. However, my husband’s key ministry largely included teaching those with a vision for developing broadcasting and audio-visual ministry tools (for evangelism and discipleship) in a largely illiterate society the technical and production skills needed to do just that. After more than a decade, he was working with guys that knew what they were doing. We began to realize that as long as he remained in country, people would continue to come to him for projects that others could… and probably should… do. Most of the guys (and gals) he trained were using those skills to earn enough to run a business, feed their families and sought to serve God at the same time. The studio he ran, however, was a nonprofit ministry and simply recuperated operating costs. Our family lived off of support monies provided by donors in the States.  In the end, we concluded that we needed to remove ourselves from the equation. After all, as missionaries, aren’t we, at least in a sense, trying to work ourselves out of a job so that like Paul, we can move on to another place of service?

Continuing to reflect, we’ve come to the conclusion that part of the reason we were never able to permanently cross that line in the sand, no matter how much we wanted to and prayed and tried and then prayed some more…

that line remained as long as our well-being (personal, family, ministry) wasn’t intrinsically embedded within the well-being of our community.

Even though we theoretically wanted to be part of, and helping to build, a mutually dependent community – as long as others knew we could leave if things got THAT bad, as long as we knew that we had support monies coming in from elsewhere regardless of the local economy, etc. I don’t know what the answer is or even if there is an answer.  I’m not suggesting the existence of some sort of missionary formula for achieving genuine community. I personally know others who did cross that line given similar external circumstances. Does that mean we failed? I don’t think so… at least I hope not.

I’ve wondered for a few days, now, how to wrap this post up. Then, in my margin time this morning, I took one of those silly Facebook quizzes, to see just how much I remembered from high school and college lit classes. This quiz had you match book titles with the name of a key character. Surprising, how many of those key characters were described as hero-slash-villain, in other words? Both. It is one of the things our kids have discovered watching the television reality show Survivor.

Most people aren’t simply all hero or all villain – but have moments (or seasons) of “either/or” as well as “both. The same is true for missionaries.

We’d like to “go,” serve, empower, collaborate and see ourselves as the enabling heroes. But sometimes we aren’t, despite our sincere motivations and best intentions. We even end up “un-enabling” others.


Sometimes we actually end up the villains in a story, especially when we forget we aren’t the author…


Which Bible Expat Are You?

by Editor September 28, 2016

Below is a quick questionnaire about your experience overseas. Each response links to one or more people from Scripture, each of whom are profiled in the second half of this post. Perhaps one figure will resonate with you more than others. Or, you may identify with aspects of a few different people. And hopefully, by studying […]

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The Beauty of Unrequired Sacrifice

by Jerry Jones September 26, 2016
Long winding country road leading through rural countryside in the English Peak District with beautiful evening sunlight.

This post gets awkward really quick.  Sorry about that. I’ve been pondering something that I think has huge implications for people living cross-culturally.  For some it changes everything.  For others it’s business as usual. I was recently asked to teach from Acts 16.  It’s a chapter that teachers and preachers have been getting excited about for […]

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Conflict and Our Dustlikeness

by Elizabeth Trotter September 22, 2016

Conflict. If you’ve been in church work for long, you know what it’s like. People abound, and conflict happens. Then there’s the big blow up or the cold exit or, even scarier, the explosive exit. I’ve been in church work for a decade and a half now, and big blowups and bad exits seem to […]

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Little-h heroes

by Craig Thompson September 21, 2016

In a university class I’m teaching, I started the semester by having the students answer some questions about themselves: What scares you? (spiders, heights, and death were popular—or unpopular, as it were.) What is your hometown, or where else have you lived? (See how I phrased that one in case we had some TCKs in the group?) Who is your hero and […]

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Savvy Expat Traveler or Overconfident Traveling Idiot?

by Rachel Pieh Jones September 19, 2016
zen traveler

We’re expats and we fly a lot. Right? We can fill out a lot of immigration forms with our eyes closed, have passports stuffed full of visas. We can use several different currencies, even in a single transaction. We know how to pack liquids, how to sail through airport security lines, what kinds of snacks […]

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My Liberation is Bound Up With Yours

by Editor September 16, 2016

A lot of people move to Africa on a mission. Some of them classic religious missionaries and others compassionate humanists who feel called to serve, to care, to give. I came here under that banner, thinking I was going to help to pull people out of the mire of poverty. I came here with dreams […]

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I didn’t know this was a cost to count

by Amy Young September 14, 2016

I naively went to my pre-field orientation thinking the big pieces of saying goodbye was over. After months of goodbyes and preparing to GO, relief flooded me as the hellos and getting settled could start. Imagine my surprise when less than a month later I was sobbing harder than I did when I left my […]

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Culture Shock: On the Up Curve

by Anisha Hopkinson September 11, 2016

Coming up to three years in country and most days are finally ok. It’s been almost a year since I broke out in sobs because I burnt granola, or couldn’t find oats in town, or judged a friend better at everything than I am. Through the free fall from honeymoon into disillusionment and then the […]

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No Easy Answers

by Marilyn September 9, 2016

My mom and dad raised five children in Pakistan. At the time, options for educating children were limited. Here is her story about kids, trust, and ultimately learning that God loves and cares for her children. All five of us have come to know the God that she trusted. ***** “Do YOU think it’s right […]

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Ask A Counselor: How can I recover from stress, now that I’m safe?

by Kay Bruner September 6, 2016

We are back in our passport country for the first time in two years and while adjustment has been pretty easy, I was very surprised to realize that the traumatic events experienced overseas seemed to follow me here. I had a little understanding of reverse culture shock, but hadn’t ever heard anyone speak or write […]

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Go to the small places

by Jonathan Trotter September 4, 2016

There are three places that make me feel very small. Standing at the edge of the sea, watching the never-ending motion as water is pulled by the unseen and unrelenting forces of gravity and wind and planetary motion. Standing at the foot of a mountain, pondering the historical shifting and breaking that pushed stone into […]

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