Growing up, I believed with my whole heart that Jesus was the Savior of the whole world and that missionaries were needed to “take his light into a dying world.” Missions Week at my church felt more exciting than Christmas, and I imagine I was one of many kids who grew up in that church in that era who wrote on commitment cards that they’d be willing to take His light into the dying world.
At some point, I think this morphed into a belief that it was my responsibility to learn about the things that were dark and wrong and dying and to do something about it.
Yet over the past several years I’ve found myself increasingly sensitive to how Christians talk about the countries they’re moving to and the places they hope to minister. In my own self-importance and ignorance, I have also been guilty of speaking in these ways.
Before I went to India for a six-month internship, I remember reading articles about poverty, trafficking, pollution, and the treatment of Dalit. I was participating in a program about international development, yet much of what I focused on were problems rather than the beauty, ingenuity, creativity, and generosity of the people who were teaching me.
Before moving to Kosovo for a three-year apprenticeship, I remember learning about the war, ethnic tensions, corruption, and unemployment rates. I talked to people about going to a “post-war, post-communist country that is 90% Muslim with 40% to 60% unemployment.”
I still feel embarrassed over how I misrepresented a country and a people I came to love. Now I wish I could go back to those who heard me speak and tell them about the Kosovo I came to know: a country with super motivated students who are largely self-taught in English, where families included and cared for me like a daughter, where I experienced remarkable hospitality through sacrificial meals, coffee, and time. I’d want to describe Kosovo’s circle dancing, cheek kissing, and big dramatic hand gestures more than rattling off statistics.
Before moving to Japan, I remember learning and telling people about mental health issues including hikikomori and high rates of suicide, low birth rates, and (related to my specific timing due to moving after March 2011) the earthquake and tsunami. I especially remember saying the phrase over and over: “Japan is the second largest unreached people group in the world.”
I don’t want to come across as cynical, as I still am motivated by these statistics. I grieve that millions of people in Japan live and die without knowing Jesus — without his forgiveness and hope, without freedom from shame, and without experiencing acceptance and love in the family of God. I also believe that issues related to poverty and injustice matter. They matter to God, and they should matter to me and to all of us who follow Him.
But if I could go back, here’s what I would say…
I would talk to Younger Roberta about how she talked as an outsider about things she knew little about — even if she’d respond with, “Hey, I read a book/read an article/watched a video on YouTube/heard on a podcast.”
But, you goofy, intense, bit-of-a-know-it-all Young Roberta, you neither know much about the people whom these issues impact, nor do you have meaningful relationships with actual, real life people there. Don’t go with a pointing finger and answers; please go with curiosity and a desire to see the image of God in those you seek to love.
I wish I could ask Younger Roberta about how it might feel as an American to hear someone preparing to come to the U.S. give presentations about gun violence, economic disparity, the opioid epidemic, homelessness, and our past and current divisions around race. Would she have felt defensive, ashamed, and frustrated that problems were drawing people to her country rather than love and curiosity?
These are incredibly complicated problems without simple answers, and no country is the sum of its problems. Do we think we can solve a country’s problems, or are we humbly willing to go and – in time – be part of the conversation?
I would tell Younger Roberta to be careful how she presents countries and people to others. Be cautious when pointing out problems, even though it’s sometimes necessary to communicate the why while raising support. Consider trying to frame issues and problems within a bigger picture including beauty, kindness, and shadows of the kingdom of God.
I would also ask Younger Roberta about her insecurity. Did pointing out problems in India, Kosovo, and Japan make you feel significant for going there? Specifically, why did you feel like you had to prove so hard that Japan is a real mission field? Did quoting disturbing statistics make you feel more important or less “soft?” Were you trying to prove to others or to yourself that your going mattered?
Rather than self-importantly reciting the statistic about Japan being “the second largest unreached people group in the world,” I would now prefer to explain that our boys are some of a handful of kids from Christian families in our city of 50,000 and how lonely this is for them. Or maybe I’d contrast driving by thousands of people going to the Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day with our church service on the same day with a few dozen faithful Christians.
Rather than citing suicide statistics, I’d want to consider the people we care about who have had their lives impacted and upended by suicide. What is an honorable way to talk about their lives and struggles?
Rather than quoting stats about aging pastors and churches, recognize that this is a huge, complex topic. It’s not made simple by Westerners giving money to young Japanese Christians to replicate Western churches in Japan. It’s not made simple by using a specific program or method.
A decade-plus after moving here, I have a lot fewer “answers” or accidentally judgmental questions (“Are they holding onto power? Are they not passing the baton well?”) and have a lot more respect for older pastors who have worked hard, sacrificed much, and tried their hardest to remain faithful.
Mostly I’d want to talk with Younger Roberta about how I’ve changed my mind on many things — or at least how I see aspects of the culture with a bit more nuance. I’d talk with her about my decades-long struggle with a savior complex and needing to learn again and again from Jesus who “moved into the neighborhood,” who “dwelt among us,” and who shared his life with a group of friends. In short, I’d want to tell Younger Roberta that I hope she will feel and demonstrate a lot more compassion and a lot less judgment the longer she’s here.
Of course there are problems here. There are problems related to loneliness, shame, demographics, and workaholism. There are problems for men, women, marriage, kids, the elderly. There are problems related to earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, typhoons, mudslides, geopolitics.
But it’s not a country made up of the sum of its problems. It’s a country made up of people who are curious and quirky and kind and broken and shy and outgoing and proud and hilarious. And I’m a guest here.
There are shadows of the kingdom of God here which are more visible to me the longer I’m here, even in this place where 99% don’t identify as His followers and haven’t received new life in Jesus. Parts of the culture that I originally viewed as wrong, broken, and even damaging, I’ve come to see as the opposite. (The “It’s not wrong, it’s just different” axiom from mission training comes to mind here.)
I wonder how it works for missionaries who go to a country to do development work and have more of an expert role. I admire people who are doctors, community development leaders, teachers at seminaries, and human rights lawyers. I marvel at their commitment and courage, yet I’m genuinely curious how they maintain a learner’s posture when they arrive “on the field” as experts in their field.
Perhaps it’s a weird blessing that I’m not an expert in much. Most of the time I feel like I’m just fumbling along. Even so, I imagine Younger Roberta might have struggled to receive correction, guidance, and advice from Now Roberta with her grand opinions and scattered thoughts and unfinished sentences and a naughty toddler on one hip, shooing a kid out of the kitchen with her foot, and her hair getting frizzier by the moment as more neighborhood kids cycle through her small house. But I still hope she would listen and consider.
Because, my goodness, I don’t want us to be motivated by problems. I want us to be motivated by love.
Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.