Risk and the Cross-Cultural Worker: An Interview with Anna Hampton, Author of “Facing Danger”

Dr. Anna Hampton, along with her husband, Neal, have lived and worked for nearly 20 years in war-torn Islamic countries. This includes almost 10 years in Afghanistan, where they started raising their three children. Their experiences led Anna to write 
Facing Danger: A Guide through Risk (Zendagi, 2016), which is based on her doctoral dissertation at Trinity Theological Seminary. 

Many cross-cultural workers recognize the need to develop a theology of suffering, but you write that a theology of risk is also necessary for resilience on the field. You cover this in depth in Facing Danger, but could you give a short elevator speech on how the two are different?

A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?

While risk and suffering are closely related and really go hand in hand, they are not the same thing. A theology of suffering does not answer the challenges of how to think, feel, and make decisions in risk. Instead, a theology of suffering answers how I am to respond to God in suffering, how I am to think, feel, and view God’s heart once I am in suffering. Suffering in many ways is more of a “static” scenario, whereas risk is inherently dynamic—one is moving toward or away from risk and danger, and the situation is often unstable and confusing. A theology of risk answers how I am to act on the opportunities presenting themselves in risk: Risk equals opportunity for both great loss and great gain.

Making this distinction is crucial to resilience, because our Enemy will use every threat out there to get us to back down and back away from pushing God’s kingdom forward. The unreached people groups are mostly now found in the most dangerous areas. Our Lord has commanded us to go to all peoples to make disciples, and this requires the ability to stay long-term in an area to build relationships to share the Good News.

As a young family in one of those dangerous areas, how prepared were you to face the threats, big and small?

I recall thinking we were prepared for Afghanistan: I had already traveled extensively in developing and third-world countries. Neal had lived a term in Albania as a single. We had each faced danger before as singles in cross-cultural environments. Our sending organization had asked us many hard questions and had had extensive dialogue with us ahead of time about many dangers, such as kidnapping and such. We were both very Biblically literate and generally stable individuals from stable Christian backgrounds with no presenting traumas or psychological problems.

But we found that as the threat level in Afghanistan changed, our theology of suffering was not able to flex and match the changing risk environment and level of confusion and suffering we were called to endure in. We were not equipped in how to think about risk for ourselves and a multi-million dollar project, and we didn’t know how to make decisions in risk.

What are some of the strategies you’ve developed to help in making those decisions?

Now we are very purposeful to work through risk-related decisions. We pay attention to our gut feeling about the matter. We evaluate—Is the situation of risk in line with our values and calling? We engage in real-time risk analysis using the four aspects of probability analysis: Severity, Frequency, Demographic Proximity, and Geographic Proximity. We seek counsel from those who understand the culture and situation and evaluate a wide variety of security and information analysis. We also look at the history of the situation, global politics, etc. We consider what resources are at risk and how we are called to steward ourselves, others, and resources in this risk.

We ask: “What do we sense the Holy Spirit is saying about the risk and our role?” “Are we in agreement as husband and wife?” And increasingly, “How do our teenage children feel about it?”

Because we are part of Barnabas International, we also make sure that our leaders are on board and have the information they need as well for decision making and support;

We also know ourselves and our limits, so quite often it is almost intuitive what we will say yes to and what we don’t feel called to. Of course, that doesn’t mean that God can’t call us to do something we think is beyond what we can handle, but then He gives grace and strength, and we’ve experienced that, too.

Facing risk with courage, resilience, and clarity can be done with calmness when we’ve evaluated it and know He is calling us forward.

You include several tools in Facing Danger, such as the grid Neal developed using the four aspects of probability analysis you mention above. Another helpful “tool” you offer is “B’s Robbery Recover Recipe.” Could you share how that came to you?

The evening of the robbery was on a Monday or Tuesday. This was when 10 Afghan men entered our home around 7:00 pm, during the month of Ramadan in the fall of 2002. It was a very scary experience for Neal and me.

Our friend, “Aunt B,” (name protected for security), told me the next day she’d come over on Thursday and work in my kitchen making cinnamon rolls, pizza, calzones, and donuts with one recipe and then leave the recipe and all the food for us, and also she’d clean up the kitchen. She knew that we’d want the home smelling “like home” and that comfort food would help us. We felt so loved by what she did and appreciated all that good food on Thursday! It was such a loving and practical way to minister to us during a time when we were very traumatized.

She also taught me that I could use the recipe even in the mornings if short on time when hostessing—that the dough will rise fast and be a tasty morning treat. It’s been a faithful recipe at numerous elevations with only minor adjustments of flour. I heartily recommend this recipe to folks going to live overseas especially and needing to be able to “whip up” a good food quite fast. The dough works for freezing, as well, and then is ready to be made when needed after a short thaw.

What a great example of understanding and empathy. Of course, those facing danger don’t always get that kind of response. Your book includes 12 myths (and you’ve added two more in your blog) that address the “comfort” people give that turns out not to be comforting at all. You also talk about statements that “overspiritualize” risk. Can you tell us about a couple of examples of these that you’ve heard most often?

This journey that I have been on to map out our experiences in risk in a way that is helpful to others has had an incredibly life-changing impact on me. I recognize that by putting structure to risk, which is such a confusing experience, makes it seem that there are strict “boundaries.” My goal instead is to increase the dialogue and get people to evaluate how they think and talk about risk, to realize what assumptions they may be making that aren’t helping in resiliency in risk, and, as well, to deepen their relationship with God.

When I sit and listen to missionaries’ problems in risk—for example, they have an active death threat against them—I don’t resort to the truth of God’s control and sovereignty over the matter. Honestly, this is when we’ve most often had people quote Romans 8:28 or I Peter 5:7 at us, which are entirely unhelpful things to say and a waste of our time, even though truthful. An active death threat by Muslims against Christians is a practical problem requiring real-time security analysis, evaluation of the types of information coming in and what should be paid attention to, consideration of mitigation measures, etc. It is not a time to spiritualize conceptual truths.

Some statements are inherently created to benefit the tellers and help them feel as if they’ve given an “answer” even though it doesn’t actually help the person in risk. Bible verses or theological truths are overspiritualized when reduced to a pithy, simplistic meaning. Theological truths may be comforting in some situations, but when they are reduced to a slogan-esque-bumper-sticker-style, they lose their spiritual potency. They don’t help the actual risk problem.

Much of cross-cultural risk requires discernment and wisdom, and the focus, when it comes to how we encourage folks in risk, is not “correct dogma” or the right conceptual “truth” but, instead, “What is the Holy Spirit’s leading?” and “What does the person in risk need right now?” When the focus is on “What do I need to say right now to make myself and the other person feel better?” we have missed the point entirely . . . and the opportunity to deeply soul-encourage others and help them work through a complex problem. A risk problem is usually complex and multi-faceted.

The West comes at problems and questions with “right” and “wrong” and “truth” and “not truth.” I advocate asking, “What is the Holy Spirit’s leading here?” “What do I sense this person facing danger (life and death) really needs to hear or talk through right now?” When we ask these questions, then our focus shifts both to Christ and truly loving our neighbors as ourselves.

In the case of I Kings 19, Elijah did not need so much the truth that God was in control, but he needed to be told to sleep and eat. Next he needed to hear he wasn’t alone (there were 7,000 others with him). Risk is exhausting and often we feel lonely in it.

Perhaps this still frustrates folks who want to be told exactly what the right thing to say should be.

The reality is that risk . . . life . . . has a lot more ambiguity, and that’s when we need to rely on the Holy Spirit to help us, because we simply don’t have all the answers. It’s right where God wants us . . . depending not on ourselves but on Him.

Anna and her family have lived for the past five years in Turkey and are currently on furlough in Minnesota. You can follow her blog at Behind the Veil.

[photo: “Warning!” by Ray Sadler, used under a Creative Commons license]

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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.

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