A Trip to the Store

by Robert Buchanan

We were on a six-month home assignment after having served our first term as missionaries in a South Pacific country. At the time we were living in our friend’s finished basement and using one of their vehicles. One night my wife Heather told me she wanted to do some shopping in town. Like many men, I’m not a big fan of shopping, and I didn’t want to go. Heather persisted, and I finally said, “Why don’t you just take the car and go? We can do something when you get back.”

For several seconds she looked like she was in deep thought and then said, “Oh yeah, I can do that here!” In our country of service, it is unwise for ladies to drive off our mission center by themselves. Heather and I had spent over 40 years of our life in the U.S. before going overseas, but now after only two years abroad, we had changed.

Even simple tasks aren’t that simple when one lives in the developing world. If you live in a suburban location in the United States and want to go into town to shop at a local store, what do you do? Most likely, you make a shopping list, grab your wallet and car keys, and drive into town without much thought.

You probably don’t check with the local authorities about road conditions and zero out your trip odometer so that you’ll know exactly how far away you are from home if you break down. Or take the time to ensure that you have a full tank of fuel, check to see that your license and registration is up to date, and know that the vehicle is in good working order.

You are even less likely to make sure someone else knows your itinerary, that you have emergency contact numbers written down, have redundant communications devices available, ensure that there is a reasonable proportion of adult men to women and children, think about who would be an asset and who would be a liability in a critical incident, have a throw-away wallet in your possession in case of a robbery, or on occasion request an armed escort from a local security provider.

As you drive, the tactically minded among you may be looking for roadblocks and choke points, but for most Americans without a law enforcement, military, or security background, that is an odd and foreign concept often relegated to the paranoid. Of course, humans aren’t the only hazards on the roads, but in the U.S., you are unlikely to have pigs, dogs, and drunk people wandering in the middle of the “highway.” If for some reason that does happen, it doesn’t last very long.

Similarly, you’re unlikely to drive over bridges without railings or that seem ready to collapse. Pedestrians and other drivers may sometimes use bad judgement, but for the most part, Americans follow the rules of the road which are actively enforced by the police.

When you arrive in town, you probably don’t have someone stay with the vehicle to deter theft. You probably don’t consciously ensure that the men in the group take responsibility for looking out for the women and children. You probably aren’t looking for surveillance and likely don’t have a mental contingency plan for a riot, medical emergency, or firefight between the police and local criminals.

If you live in the developing world as a missionary or NGO worker, you likely do all of this and more for every trip into town. Are there some missionaries and NGO workers who become complacent and fail to take all these precautions? Yes, there absolutely are, but even in their complacency they are more alert than most Americans who have never lived overseas.

This is understandable since the United States has good roads, well-trained police, fire, and emergency medical service professionals, trauma centers, available tow trucks and mechanics, solid communications infrastructure, and a stable power grid. So thank God and count your blessings if you live in suburban America, but remember that, to the majority world, the stability you experience in the U.S. is unheard of.

As a career security professional, I have always run scenarios in my head and made plans for a whole host of contingencies, but it wasn’t until the I lived overseas that I began to fully understand the quote from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who famously said, “Plans are nothing, but planning is everything.”

No matter how good my plan is, it is unlikely to match the exact situation I find myself in, but having gone through the act of planning, I can more easily adapt. Now, as practical as that statement is, my time overseas has also taught me a corollary: “No matter how much I plan or how adaptable I am, I am still totally reliant on the One who knows the end from the beginning.”

God stands outside of time, knows all things, and works all things together for His glory. As a servant of God, I fall short when I only rely on my ability to plan and adapt. My faith must be in Him, who not only gave me the skills and intellect I have, but who knows far more than I ever could.

Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is prepared against the day of battle: But safety is of the Lord” (KJV). Notice that the horse is prepared. We are not to shirk our duties or ignore our talents and abilities, but in the end, it is God who gives safety.

As a missionary with 10 years of overseas experience and a security professional with 34 years of experience, I can give this advice: Learn everything you can, plan to the best of your ability, and prepare for foreseeable events, but most of all, rely on the One who holds all people and all history in His hands.

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Robert Buchanan is a career security professional who answered God’s call to use his skills in overseas missions. He currently serves as a security advisor for a mission organization in the South Pacific. His wife, Heather, serves as a teacher in the local international school, and together they have found that true joy comes from doing God’s will – even when conditions are challenging.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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