Missionary Memes: Tea Bags and Coffins

Some stories seem too good to be true. Some seem too good not to be true. Both seem too good not to be told over and over again. Here are a couple I’m thinking you’ve heard before.

Used Tea Bags

They very well may be the most talked about items to ever be lovingly tucked into a missionary care package. No conversation about odd gifts sent overseas would be complete without their mention. They’re the bless-their-hearts-what-were-they-thinking used tea bags.

Surely you’ve heard somebody somewhere say they know a missionary who received used tea bags from a well-meaning supporter. But is there truth behind the tale? Or is it just an oft-repeated urban legend, used to caution supporters against giving less than their best?

Australian author Nathan Hobby looked into the issue a few years ago, and reported his findings in a blog post on the topic. He’d come across several second-hand accounts and was rather skeptical, but it was his reading of a comment on another blog that turned the tide for him. A man named Phil, someone Hobby knows personally, had commented succinctly at Backyard Missionary, “We got sent used tea bags in Afghanistan.”

Because of that, Hobby declares the used-tea-bag care package “a ‘true’ meme, at least occasionally.” Then he goes on to ponder the story’s popularity:

I’m interested in how such a meme has spread. It would be fascinating to trace it back to its earliest appearance in print. Perhaps it actually was a common practice and a search through old church newspapers of the 1920s or so would reveal pleas to send used tea bags to the mission fields. Perhaps it happened occasionally but spread orally because it epitomized a mindset so well. Or perhaps it began as a sermon illustration by one of the famous preachers of the early twentieth century and was picked up from there. (For anyone who has sat through many sermons, sermon illustrations are a fascinating genre of their own, delivered as if truth, but many of them concocted, lacking specifics, spiritual truth the central concern, not historical truth. . . .)

My own Internet searches came up with several other mentions from a variety of sources. The most convincing to me are the first-person accounts given in the comments of a post by Josie Oldenburg at The Missions Blog (though I’m still waiting to hear from someone I know personally.) I also see where the former director of the USAID Center for International Disaster Information told CBS News about used tea bags given to disaster victims.

The oldest reference I came across was in a “snippet view” from Google Books, quoting a 1962 issue of the Mennonite magazine Christian Living. (Since it’s only a snippet, I don’t have the full context—or the complete sentences.)

. . . America who sent 500 used tea bags to the mission field. It would seem that when we give to the Lord’s servants, we should at least give as if we were giving to ourselves!

Sounds rather apocryphal to me, but it pairs well with a 2017 story about a Mennonite couple who “amassed a collection of more than 20,000 used tea bags” to “send to needy missionaries around the world.” But, alas, it turns out that that one is from the satirical website The Daily Bonnet.

So how about you? Have you ever been gifted with used tea bags? Let us know in the comments here. No “I heard” stories, please. I’m looking for the recipients themselves . . . or at least first-hand witnesses.

And now, moving on, I come to a more serious meme.

Coffins for Luggage

There’s another conversation that those in missionary circles sometimes find themselves in: talking about difficulties on the field. And that often leads to the topic of how, in the past, it was even harder. And then someone will jump in with “You know, it used to be that when missionaries went overseas, they’d pack their belongings in coffins.”

How many times I’ve heard this or seen this written about missionaries long ago. But I’ve yet to find it written about by missionaries long ago.

Being so sure of dying on the field—probably prematurely—that one would carry a coffin on the journey certainly creates a vivid picture. But I wonder . . . did it really happen?

In no way am I discounting the devotion of past missionaries in the presence of very real difficulties and dangers. They willingly went to far-away places, facing a risk of death much greater than we have today. In fact, findings in William Lennox’s Health and Turnover of Missionaries show that from 1825 to 1829, for every 1,000 missionaries in service sent from the US, 35 died each year. And fast forwarding to the early 1900s (approximately 1900-1928), for those missionaries whose work ended during that time, 12% of the attrition was because of the missionary’s death, with an additional 3% leaving because of the death of a family member. And yet, as high as those numbers are, we can see that most missionaries did not die overseas.

Or maybe the missionaries simply left home with the assumption that nothing but death could ever interrupt their ministry abroad, planning to die of old age in their new country after a long, fruitful life. In that case, would it be that important to take a coffin along? Would the means for crafting a box for burial, someday, in even a remote location, be that hard to come by?

Of course, any speculation to the contrary doesn’t matter if even one missionary, in fact, travelled with a coffin. It could be that some, headed to a particularly dangerous place at a particularly dangerous time felt that death overseas was a near certainty, and they took unique steps to prepare for it, including bringing along their own coffins. Even if it wasn’t as common as we’ve presumed, if it happened, using Hobby’s words, “at least occasionally,” then it happened.

So can you help me out here, too? Does your agency have in its annals original records of missionaries using coffins to transport their belongings? Have you seen it written about in a missionary’s journal or autobiography? Do we have more proof than just hearsay?

I’m rather skeptical. But if the stories are true, I’d love to see them verified. Then I just might join in and tell them over and over again myself.

(Nathan Hobby, “Used Tea Bags for Missionaries: Notes on a Meme,” Nathan Hobby, a Biographer in Perth, June 11, 2014; Phil, at “Used Teabags Are a Fading Memory,” Backyard Missionary, August 3, 2007; Josie Oldenburg, “Six Pitfalls to Avoid when Welcoming Missionaries on Home Service,” The Missions Blog, May 25, 2018; Scott Simon, “Best Intentions: When Disaster Relief Brings Anything but Relief,” CBS News, September 3, 2017; Christian Living: A Magazine for Home and Community, vol. 9, Mennonite Publishing House, 1962, at Google Books; Andrew Unger, “Generous Mennonite Couple Sends Used Tea Bags to Missionaries,” The Daily Bonnet, November 20, 2017; William Gordon Lennox, The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, Methodist Book Concern, 1933)

[photo: “DSC_1968,” by Sarah Han, used under a Creative Commons license]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Published by

Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

Discover more from A Life Overseas |

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading