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 why?
In answer to that last question, a few said Jesus—with a couple adding, “Because he’s, uh, Jesus.” Some chose a famous athlete or a figure from history. But for most, their heroes aren’t well-known. They’re personal heroes: my father, because he works three jobs to support our family; my grandma, because she raised my sisters and me by herself; my teacher, because she never gave up on me.
Last year, Amy Peterson wrote a wonderful article for Christianity Today entitled “Farewell to the Missionary Hero.” In it she talks about how missionary biographies of the past have portrayed missionaries as larger-than-life “saints,” often moving from one glorious adventure to another. She contrasts that with the approach of many missionaries today who are more willing to present the hardships and mundane routines of missionary life, as well as their own shortcomings. Peterson even mentions A Life Overseas and some of the authors here as examples of this new openness and honesty.
As I reread Peterson’s article, I am even more a fan, and I’m glad that she has extended the conversation outside the missionary community. So it might surprise you to hear me say that I actually don’t think we should say “farewell to the missionary hero.” I’m not arguing against her premise. No, mine is only a semantic concern. I just want to take that word hero and look at it from a different direction.
Maybe someone has called you a hero. If they did, you probably replied with something similar to what you’ve heard others say—”I’m no hero. I just did my job,” “I only did what needed to be done,” or “Those people, they’re the real heroes.”
Not long ago, a friend of mine told me that my wife and I are his heroes. Why? Because of when we sold our house and moved our family of six to another country. I can’t remember my exact response to my friend, but it was something profound like “Oh, come on.” Doesn’t he remember that we didn’t stay overseas? Hasn’t he heard how hard it was for us? Doesn’t he know that we didn’t leave behind a vibrant, growing church? Doesn’t he read Christianity Today?
But I’m pretty sure that’s not the kind of hero he was talking about. In fact, most of us, when we use the word, aren’t thinking about that kind of hero. Not a demigod, which is what the Greek word originally meant. Not a folk hero—the stuff of legend—which Peterson refers to in her article. Not a superhero, with the ability to fly (or at least walk on water). Not “Heroes of the Faith,” as in Hebrews 11. Not big-H Heroes.
Sure, we still have big-H Heroes. But they’re rare, and the extreme audacity and effects of their actions are what make them so uncommon. It’s the little-h heroes that touch us most day to day. They’re the unlikely heroes, the everyday heroes, the ordinary heroes.
When most people say, “You’re my hero,” they mean, “I admire you for what you’ve done.” They’re talking to someone whom they’ve seen tackle a difficulty instead of turning away from it. That difficulty might be a burning building or a war zone . . . or something much less dramatic, but difficult nonetheless.
Few of my little-h heroes will have books written about them. They are families who are still serving faithfully overseas, long after we left. They are relief workers confronting humanitarian crises abroad. They are couples who make the heartbreaking decision to return home, because of the needs of their young child or an aging parent. They are the single missionary who hangs on in a dangerous country with little visible results, as well as the one who goes back and takes a job where she lives out her belief that God loves her for who she is, not for what she does. It is the twelve-year-old who bravely joins a local school without knowing how to speak the language. They are the national believers who choose Jesus in spite of persecution. They are the woman turned down by the mission agency who tirelessly prays for missionaries instead, and the elderly gentleman who scrimps and saves so that he can write a small support check each month. They are the parents who let their children go without letting go of them. They are the cross-cultural workers who honestly share their struggles regardless of the consequences.
I could go on, and I think you could, too.
Those are some of my heroes—and that’s just from the sphere of missions. As I’ve gotten older, I see more and more ordinary heroes in all walks of life, regular people who have earned my respect because of the decisions they’ve made. They are butchers and bakers and fulltime homemakers. They are underemployed and unemployed. The are young and old. They are neighbors and uncles. They are people who advance for good in the face of adversity; people who, when unable to advance, resolutely hold their ground; and people who, if they simply must retreat, do so with dignity.
Little-h heroes will not be public figures or gain much broad attention. They won’t be the subject of award-winning documentaries or blockbuster movies (or even their own Wikipedia pages). They simply do what needs to be done, especially when others can’t or won’t do it. They say the real heroes are “those people,” over there, and that’s true. But the real heroes are here, too, wherever “here” is. They populate our passport countries as well as the ones in which we serve. They are all around us and among us. May it always be so.
Your list of heroes probably won’t match mine. Certainly the names won’t be the same. That’s to be expected, if for no other reason than because my list will change and grow as I continue to change and grow. But that’s the beautiful thing about little-h heroes. They are imperfect people who resonate with us individually and personally at particular times in our lives.
That’s why I can be someone else’s hero. And that’s why you can be a hero, too—even a missionary hero.
[photo: “Solitude,” by G.S. Matthews, used under a Creative Commons license]