Angels from the Rooftops – A Christmas Story from Pakistan

There are some stories that remain in a family and become a part of our DNA. These stories are told year after year, but they never get old. Here is one of our stories that reminds me each year of the wonder of Christmas.

My mom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts called Winchendon known at the time for its toy factory. The toy factory made a variety of wooden toys and the town earned the well-deserved nickname of Toy Town. A large wooden rocking horse named Clyde created in 1912 stood under a pavilion in the center of town, a symbol of the town’s history.

My mom was named Pauline and she was the first-born, the oldest of four children born to my maternal grandparents, Ruth and Stanley Kolodinski. Hers was a world of seasons; hot, humid summers, fall with red and golden foliage, white Christmases, and rainy April’s that brought out the glorious mountain laurel in late June. She knew baked beans, brown bread and New England boiled dinners.

The long sea journey that took her, my father, and my oldest brother to Pakistan in 1954 transferred her from a town of sidewalks and bay windows to a desert with dusty palm trees and Bougainvillea. The contrast between her life in New England and that in Pakistan could not have been more pronounced. Her story was one of a commitment and calling rooted deeply in her soul; a story with many chapters that began with a move across the world to create a home and life in Pakistan.

Christmases in Pakistan differ dramatically from those in the west. As an Islamic Republic, the majority of the population is Muslim and green, red, and gold twinkling fairylands and holiday music don’t exist. Christmas traditions among the minority Christian population include long drama presentations depicting the Christmas story, all night Christmas caroling parties, and new clothes for everyone in the family. Christmas was a time where my parents opened up our home to people coming from near and far, serving hundreds of cups of sweet Pakistani chai throughout the day along with special sweets and savory snacks.

When my mom and dad first arrived, adjusting to Christmases in Pakistan was a challenge. Loneliness and homesickness tended to come on like thick clouds, made more difficult by their desire to create magic for their children. They were acutely aware of the absence of grandparents and other extended family members back in the U.S. I don’t remember this happening, but I’ve no doubt that sometimes the effort to make things special for us kids overwhelmed and tears crept in, throats catching on Christmas carols as they celebrated Christmas far away from where they had been raised.

The town they lived in at the time of this story possibly resembled ancient Bethlehem more than any place on earth. Dusty streets, flat-roofed houses with courtyards, and donkeys and ox carts that brayed and roamed outside were all a part of the landscape of Ratodero. We were the only foreigners in town and our house was located right in the middle of a neighborhood. Mosques surrounded the house, their tall minarets ever present; the call to prayer echoing into our home five times a day.

When I was almost three years old, my mom experienced deep sadness during the Christmas season and, despite the excitement of  my brothers and me, felt more than ever like we were “deprived” of a “real” Christmas. It was a few days before Christmas that the feelings became more than she could bear and after we were put to bed, she went up on the roof top and looked out over the city of Ratodero. She gives words to her feelings in this narrative:

“Leaning against the wall, I pulled my sweater closer against the evening chill of December. The tears I had been holding back spilled over as I looked up at the stars, then out over the flat roofed houses where our neighbors were cooking their dinner. The smoke from wood and charcoal fires rose in wisps, and with it the now familiar odors of garlic, onions and spices. Familiar, yes, but at that moment the smells only reinforced the strangeness of this place. Then I wondered ‘Did Bethlehem look and smell something like this?’ – Bethlehem where God came down to become a human being, a little baby in a manger, in a setting not so different from some of our neighbor’s homes”.(Jars of Clay, page 128)

It was at this point, tears falling, experiencing the loneliness and sadness of a world apart, that she looked up at the dark, clear sky. As she watched the bright stars, millions of light years away, she heard singing just as on that night so long ago the shepherds heard singing. Could it be angels? It was a moment of wonder and awe that the God who she loved so deeply, who knew her frame, knew her sadness, would provide angels to bring comfort and a reminder that she was not alone.

There were no heavenly angels, but “earth angels” had arrived in the form of our dear friends, the Addletons and the Johnsons – two missionary families with 7 kids between them. Out of love for our family they had traveled along a bumpy dusty road, remembering that we were alone in this city. There they stood in the street outside our front door singing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. Let Earth receive Her King!” I am too young to remember the celebration that followed, but my mom writes this:

“We woke our children, and together we sang Christmas Carols, ate Christmas cookies and drank cups of steaming tea. And I knew God had sent them to us on that very night to show me once again that no place where he sent us could ever be “God-forsaken” Jars of Clay, page 128

My mom, far removed from the snowy childhood Christmases of her past, where eggnog and Grandma K’s raisin-filled cookies were plentiful, taught us that Christmas is not magic that can quickly disappear. Instead it’s wonder. It’s the wonder of the incarnation; it’s the wonder of God’s love; it’s the wonder of angels heard from rooftops.

Should Debt Disqualify a Missionary?

I don’t usually start a blog post with an “I’m sorry” . . . but I’m not above it.

I offer my sincere and heartfelt apologies to anyone who clicked on this link looking for a solid, definitive answer. I don’t have one . . . but maybe you do so I would love to engage in the conversation.

Here’s the scenario:

Young couple. Just had a baby. Know that they know that they know (or at least think that they know) that God has called them to live and work overseas. They’re willing to do the due diligence. Hit the road. Raise support. “Develop partners”.

Everything lines up with the org they’re applying to. Good fit theologically. Passed the psych evaluation. References check out.

But.

They have debt.

And so . . . rejected.

Here’s the question:  

Should debt be an automatic disqualifier (or postponer) for missionary deployment?

I want to be careful here.

If you’re like me you probably have a visceral reaction. “Absolutely it should” or “No. Absolutely not” but I dare you to try to argue for the other side (whichever side you land on) if for no other reason than to see from a different perspective.

It’s a two handed issue.

On the one hand, you have qualified, clearly called, willing and able candidates who have been duped into a system that says, “we won’t send you unless you have a degree” and “we won’t give you a degree unless you pay us ridiculous amounts of money” and “the only way you can realistically get that money is to borrow it” and “now that you have borrowed it . . . we won’t send you.”

On the other hand, you have supporters giving hard earned money for the sake of the Kingdom. They want return on investment and frankly paying off someone else’s bad decisions doesn’t qualify.

On the one hand, saying, “get a job and pay down your debt first” may make it harder for people to quit that job five or ten years down the line once they have settled into a certain lifestyle. We might lose them.

On the other hand if they are really called . . .

On the one hand, debt is a heavy weight to carry when you’re adjusting to an already stressful, cross-cultural life.

On the other hand, so is a newborn baby or a new marriage, or a new language, or EVERYTHING ELSE IN YOUR WORLD.

On the one hand the Bible and Dave Ramsey say certain things about debt.

On the other hand do past choices make you ineligible for future service?

On the one hand I support you because I believe in you.

On the other hand I support you so I’ve earned an opinion in your finances.

On the one hand God is patient and His mission is timeless. We can wait.

On the other hand . . . last days and urgency. Hurry up.

On the one hand stewardship.

On the other hand respect.

On the one hand school debt. Like Bible college. Jesus degrees.

On the other hand credit cards. Car payments. Couldn’t afford pizza one night so . . .

 

It’s not an easy topic. There are multiple angles to consider.

So consider away.

What has been your experience?

Where do you land on the issue?

Can you see the other side?

Comment below . . . I look forward to learning something.

Are You OK? and Help! Two Things You Really Need to Learn to Say in Your Target Language

When you visit a country where the people don’t speak your language, there are several important phrases you should know how to say: things such as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “How much is this?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I have ice with my water?” But when you move to that country, the stakes become higher. The important words and phrases become deeper and more necessary and more . . . important. They’re usually not covered in the first five chapters of your language book, and you may not end up learning them until you come face to face with the need for them. At least, that’s the way it was for me.

Are You OK?

The streets in Taiwan give new meaning to the phrase flow of traffic. Outnumbering automobiles two to one, scooters zip in and out to fill in the narrow gaps between cars, and when they all come to a red light, they pile up at the intersection, waiting to spill forward again when the light turns green. Watch that whitewater river for long, and you’ll see quite a few accidents.

One morning while I was walking to language school in Taipei, I came up to one of the city’s crowded intersections and waited to cross. As several lanes slowed for the light, a lady on a scooter was unable to stop and broke through the pack, sliding several feet on her side. She wasn’t hit by anyone, but she was slow getting up. My first thought was to run over to her and see how she was. I didn’t make it, though. First of all, by the time I could cross the street, she was back on her way, though pushing, not riding, her scooter now. And second, I didn’t know what to say.

Yes, I knew the greeting “How are you?” but that’s not the right question for someone who might be hurt. I knew how to say several other things, too, but none of them seemed appropriate. I could imagine the woman’s horror having me, a foreigner, rush up to her in her time of need, letting loose with my vocabulary of “Hello. How are you? I’m an American. What part of Taipei are you from? What’s you’re favorite food? I like pizza.”

It’s one thing to be able to say the equivalent of How are you? Howdy, or What’s up? It’s another to go beyond trite formality, to ask caring questions and expect heartfelt responses.

G. K. Chesterton writes, “The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” If I could add to Chesterton’s observation, I’d say, “The resident sees what can’t be seen.” Or that’s what should happen. There are many things hidden from the outsider, tucked deep in the souls of the people. And the best way to see behind the curtain is to ask. One of the simplest yet most profound questions we can voice is “Are you OK?” It shows caring. It shows that we know all may not be well, and yet we ask anyway. It shows that we are truly willing to step in and be a part of the community around us.

Help!

The second phrase isn’t a phrase at all. It’s just one word, but what a word it is. It’s a word that became the focus of my thoughts one day because of a leaky air conditioner.

At one point, we lived on the third floor of an apartment building, with a barber shop below that had a fiberglass awning over its entrance. Under normal circumstances, the condensation from our AC unit would travel down a plastic tube to the street. But of course, circumstances rarely seemed normal, and the water from our AC did not drain into the tube. Instead it drip . . . drip . . . dripped . . . and dripped . . . and dripped onto the awning. We knew this because the barber told us. I set out quickly to fix the problem—which involved climbing out on a window ledge and stretching as far as I could to reach the air conditioner. I did this when my wife wasn’t at home, mostly because I didn’t want her to talk me out of it. But as I had to step closer to the edge, clinging to the bricks with one hand and trying to grab the AC with the other, I thought, “What if I slip and end up hanging over the alley by three fingers? How do you yell ‘Help!’ in Chinese?” It simply hadn’t come up in my language class during the unit on common food items at the grocery store.

It’s not that I hadn’t asked for help before: “Excuse me, could you tell me if I’m on the right train?” “Can you help us take our photo?” “Do you have these shoes in a larger size?” But I’d never thought about shouting “Help!” because I’d never before thought about needing to be saved.

It’s an odd thing for a missionary to think about his own need for salvation. Isn’t that what we came to offer? But spiritual salvation wasn’t what I had in mind. I was thinking about the kind of saving you need when you’re deeply afraid, when your child is struck by a car in the crosswalk, when you face a mugger in a dark alley, when flood waters are rising, or when loneliness grabs ahold of you and won’t let go.

Knowing how to call for help, though, is not the same as admitting that we need real, meaningful help from those around us. And it’s not just the security guard or the policeman or the nurse who can answer our pleas. It might be the student next door or the businessman hurrying to work or the homeless lady sorting through the trash, whoever is close by as you dangle from the ledge.

Those of us who go to other countries to help must be able to receive help, too. We need to be willing to rely on those around us, to learn, to take advice, and to share our needs—even our emotional and (gasp) spiritual needs. This, too, shows that we want to be part of the community.

People of the Cloth

We talk about the “social fabric,” and it’s an apt metaphor when it comes to needing and being needed. They’re the warp and woof of community. For many, it’s easier to ask “Are you OK?” than to cry out “Help!” but we must be vulnerable enough to say both, to be able to allow someone to voice what’s wrong before we offer a solution and to be able to acknowledge our reliance on those around us.

Take a look at the tapestry that surrounds you. Do you see yourself as a seamstress or tailor, mending the neighborhood according to a pattern of your own making? Or are you, yourself, a part of the fabric, a thread woven in by the skilled hand of the one who knits hearts together and makes all things new?

It may just be that we need to expand our vocabulary.

[photos: “helping-hand,” by Faith @101, used under a Creative Commons license; “Connections,” by scrappy annie, used under a Creative Commons license]

When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed:

When our inner GPS is “recalibrating”
When we decide to go overseas, our convictions tell us that we’re making progress. No matter what careers or plans we’re giving up, mission work is a promotion. And as we acclimate ourselves to our new home and the depths of our new work, we say things like “I could never go back to my old life.” But what happens when we do go back? We’re faced with the jobs, lifestyles, and habits that we told ourselves were in our past, and we can feel guilty for pointing ourselves in that direction. Forward seems backward and backward seems forward. The way of life we are seeking can be the way of life that we fear.

In The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Matt B. Redmond writes about the difficulties of living a run-of-the-mill life when we believe that radical service is what God wants from us. As a pastor, Redmond had often preached this message:

Your days should be blood-earnestly marked by an urgent, nerve-twisting love for people you have never known. And if you truly loved them you would join the mission team’s trip at the expense of your vacation to know them. If you loved God, you would do it. And if you really believed—BELIEVED, you would go and stay. You should want to go. It should be hard to stay where you are in the comfort of where you are.

While understanding the value of the call to “change the world,” Redmond looked over his congregation and realized that he also needed to preach another sermon—that there’s “a God, for instance, for those who are not changing anything but diapers.” There’s a God for construction workers and teachers and the unemployed and cooks and cashiers and bankers. That last one Redmond learned about through experience. After writing his book, he left his church position and took a job—for him an often frustrating job—at a bank. As he writes at Echoes and Stars, living out the mundane can, at times, frustrate the soul, even as it teaches valuable lessons, and practicing it can be harder than preaching it.

When embracing means letting go
The goal for those of us who’ve returned is to find our place and to live out God’s kingdom here, but that means releasing the hopes and dreams and prayers that we’ve held close for so long. Will we go back?  Probably not . . . but maybe? We can’t stay in a holding pattern forever. That’s not realistic nor is it healthy.

As time goes by, we give up our support, we quit mailing out prayer letters, we change our Facebook details, we forget words in our second languages, we take new jobs, we buy houses and couches and lawn mowers, and we hang pictures. With each step we see ourselves moving further away from resuming our cross-cultural lives, and we hear the distant sound of closing doors. Some slam quickly, while others we watch slide closed slowly, over time.

When we lose even more of our Me Toos
We’re no longer missionaries, no longer expats, no longer neighbors to the nationals oceans away. So with whom do we identify? Well, there’s still the group of fellow travelers living through the challenges of repatriation. But even then . . . as our roots grow deeper and we become more a part of the landscape, we find ourselves leaving that group, that identity, too. As our prayers are answered, as our goals are realized, are we walking away from even these brothers and sisters, those who aren’t as far along? What about next year, when we hear of other cross-cultural workers just returned? Will we have forgotten what they’re going through?

With each move, we leave others behind. May we continue forward and yet still remember, and empathize with, all those who continue in the places where we’ve been.

When disappointment becomes a way of life
During a flight across the Pacific, following a time overseas involving several setbacks, my wife and I watched Last Chance Harvey, a movie about a down-on-his-luck American pursuing the affections of a tired-of-being-let-down Brit. In one scene, Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) implores Kate (Emma Thompson) to give their relationship a chance. She replies,

I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it, because it’ll hurt. . . . and I won’t do it. . . .

You see, what I think it is, is . . . is that I think I’m more comfortable with being disappointed. I think I’m angry with you for trying to take that away.

When we’ve faced disappointments, especially disappointments on top of disappointments, we can get to the point where we find comfort in the predictability of our discomfort. So we stop hoping for something better, because we’re afraid “it’ll hurt” more.

Ruth Van Reken, Adult Third Culture Kid and former missionary, discusses something similar in Letters Never Sent. As a TCK, she’s many times had to let go of things she holds dear, and as an adult, she writes the following concerning her engagement to her fiancé, David:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

A few months later, after her wedding, she writes, “God didn’t yank David away after all!”—though she still needs more time to deal with her continuing fears.

When everything’s “OK”
Last month I wrote that as we chronicle our lives, we need to share epilogues to our stories even when things haven’t gone the way we’d hoped. But it can also be difficult to share the positive updates, too. I know my own tendency, when I hear someone’s slice of good news, to say too quickly, “Glad to hear all is well.” And then I stop asking questions and cross that person off my prayer list. We so much want to get rid of all the loose ends in our lives and in the lives of others. But I distrust tying everything up in a neat bow, because, well . . . life.

When Letters Never Sent came out in 1988, the publishers gave it the subtitle “One Woman’s Journey from Hurt to Wholeness.” In the 2012 edition, Van Reken writes in a new epilogue that when she originally saw the full title, her reaction was a feeling of horror and she immediately called the publishers. “That subtitle isn’t right,” she told them. “I’m not whole yet. My life is still in process.” But they responded, “We need to sell the book,” and the subtitle remained unchanged. (I guess most readers don’t like unresolved issues.)

But the new version has a different publisher and a different title: Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing. For Van Reken, there is hope in the process. Yes, transition brings wounds, but God’s grace brings healing, bit by bit, even if complete wholeness is still out of reach. It may take longer than we’d like, or longer than we’d planned on, but healing does come, because of the one we follow— Jehovah Rapha, the Lord who heals.

So . . . our pictures are on the walls!

Some of our pictures made the trip from the States and back again. Some we added to our collection while we were abroad. We’ve got photos, prints, and a puzzle mounted in a frame. And another one is the painting at the top of this post, by my now 96-year-old mother. It has a prominent place in our entryway, which is appropriate, since we’re working on a new beginning . . . and Mom didn’t take up painting until her 70s.

We’re enjoying this time of being closer to family. We’re enjoying meeting our new neighbors. And we’re also looking for some more pictures to hang, ones that represent this next chapter we’re starting, while we make our new home. It may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it it can’t be good.

As I work on my own epilogue, I’d like to return to Van Reken’s—and close with her description of the healing that is still taking place for her. It is so good to learn from the wisdom of those who have traveled the same paths before.

[T]his is my story—a life hopefully in process and growing, but not completed nor perfected until the Shepherd I love calls me for my last journey home.

(Matt B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Kalos, 2012; Ruth Van Reken, Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing, Summertime, 2012)

In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries

Imagine what it would look like if western churches hired their staff with the same priorities that they choose overseas missionaries to financially support.

First of all, a Children’s Pastor would definitely be out.  Not strategic enough; he’s only supporting the children of believers.  Youth Pastor?  Also out, unless he targets neighborhood kids.

How about a Music Pastor?  Or Pastoral Counselor?  Nope.  Those are just support roles.  Not enough front-line ministry.

Administrative Pastor?  Receptionist?  Good heavens.  We could never dream of paying someone for those kind of inconsequential jobs.

How about a Preaching Pastor?  Well…..that’s if-y, but he probably doesn’t make the cut either.  After all, he’s only feeding the Body.  Most of the time, he’s not actually reaching the lost.

So that pretty much leaves only the positions of Community Outreach Pastor or Evangelist.  Yet how many churches even have those paid positions?

I’m not suggesting that churches go about firing two-thirds of their staff.  I just want to talk about a double-standard I often see.

Let me introduce you to the class system among missionaries. 

Who is on the A-List?  Well, that would be the Church Planters.  Among unreached people groups gives you A+ status.  Pastoral Trainers and Bible Translators might be able to squeak by with an A.

The B-List?  Doctors and other health workers, community development and poverty alleviation workers, ESL teachers.

The C-List?  Administrators, missionary member care, MK teachers, or anyone else considered “support.”

Whatever tends to be the current trend in “justice ministry” also often ends up on the A-List.  These days, that’s fighting human trafficking.  It used to be orphan ministry, but that’s pretty much been relegated to B-status now.  It’s cool, but not that cool.

Granted, this class system doesn’t usually originate with the missionaries themselves, but it’s come out of the culture of missions in their home countries.  How many missionaries have sat before missions committees back home who examined if they fit into their “grid” of priorities?  And often that grid looks exactly like the hierarchy I just outlined.

My husband and I worked for eight years in TCK ministry at a missionary school.  When trying to raise support, we called and sent information packets to over 200 churches in California.  We heard back from two.  Churches told us, over and over again, Sorry, but that ministry doesn’t fit into our strategy.  

That all changed when we transitioned to theological training of East African pastors.  Finally, we had churches calling us.  It was nice.  But frankly, kind of frustrating.  We didn’t change ministries so that we would become more popular with churches.  We switched because that’s where God was leading us.  But the truth is, we don’t consider theological training to be any more strategic, or any more exciting, than what we were doing at that MK school. 

Unfortunately, the missionaries themselves are often acutely aware of this hierarchy, and it makes many feel like they are second-class.  Over and over again, I hear things like this from missionaries:

Yes, I love my job as an MK teacher and I know it’s really important, but I fill my newsletters with pictures of the slum I visit once a week.  After all, that’s what my supporters are interested in.

Yeah, I’m a missionary, but not a ‘real’ missionary.  I live in a city and spend a lot of my time at a computer.

My visiting short-term team was supposed to help me out with my ministry to TCK’s, but they only want to spend their time with orphans.  

Why do these missionaries feel this way?  Maybe because when Christians stand up and say, I’m called to missionary care!  I’m called to teach MK’s!  I’m called to missions administration!, the churches say, Well, sorry, you don’t fit in our strategy.  We’d rather get behind the exciting church planters and the pastoral trainers and the child-trafficking rescuers.  Except, we expect them to do it without all the other people they need to be successful.

And so what happens?  The talented church planter gets bogged down by administrative tasks.  The mom who is gifted and called to women’s ministry has no choice but to homeschool.  The child-trafficking rescuer has a nervous breakdown because he has no one to help him work through the trauma of what he is facing.  Missionaries are particularly prone to burn-out.  Could this be partially because they are trying to do too many jobs themselves? 

I’m all about strategy in missions, and it’s important for churches to be careful in their vetting process of potential missionaries.  But can we expand our idea of what strategy means?  Missionaries, as an extension of the Church, must function as the Body of Christ.  Could the Western Church function by only hiring evangelists?  I realize that mission work can have different goals than churches back at home: Missionaries are working ourselves out of a job; they are doing everything they can to replace themselves with national believers.  But to get there, they need the Body of Christ. 

We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.  (Romans 12)

The legs can’t do anything without the arms and fingers and neck.  So go out today and find your nearest missionary accountant or counselor or MK teacher.  Join their support team.  Encourage them in their pursuit of their calling.  Affirm their value to your church or your team.  And remind them they are never second-class.

 

Relax! God was at Work Before you Arrived!

the-hanging-church
The Hanging Church – Coptic Cairo. This church is one of the oldest in Egypt and dates back to the 3rd Century.

In August of 2015 I had the privilege of going to the Kurdish area of Iraq to work with refugees. On my first day there, I was traveling to a mobile health clinic when I got into a conversation with a pharmacist. One year before she lived and worked in Qaraqosh in the Nineveh province of Iraq. When ISIS entered the city, Christians were given three choices: Convert, pay a massive tax, or leave. She got out on the last bus to leave Qaraqosh. As we were talking I asked her what she would want me to communicate to Christians in America about Christians in Iraq. “What?!” she said in astonishment. “There are Christians in America!”

I love this story for many reasons, but the main one is that it reminds me yet again that long before America was born, the Church had been established and was growing even as it endured persecution, human mistakes, and petty gossip. I found out later that the pharmacist’s church was built by St. Thomas two thousand years ago. God and the Church had not left Iraq. They had been there all along. 

In my parents early years in Pakistan they felt like pioneers. They stepped out in faith just a few years after Pakistan had become a nation and left the shores of New York Harbor along with two other young couples. There were three couples with five children between them and for three months they lived in two rooms, the only foreigners in the city. My mom talks about the day they arrived in Pakistan in her book, Jars of Clay: 

As we stood on the deck of the Steel Recorder with our little ones around us on November 4,1954, we felt like pioneers. Today was the day we would finally set foot on the soil of Pakistan. Our years of study, preparation, and prayer, had brought Ralph and me, and Ray and Jean to this place at this point in time. We expected to spend our lives here in Pakistan, serving God and telling people of his love. We had not come on a short, fact-finding tour, gathering material to write an article or even a book. This would be our life.

However, we soon learned that others had been there before us, preparing the way.

More importantly, God was, and had been, at work preparing the way before they arrived.

In my conversations with people who work overseas, I often get the sense that they see themselves as alone. They are Elijahs in a hostile world of Jezebels and Ahabs. No one else has gone before, and no one else will come after. Instead, they are alone and they must succeed, for if they don’t then there are eternal consequences.

But in the background there are thousands who have not bowed to Baal, thousands who have come before us, thousands who will come after us. None of us has ever arrived in a place where God has not already been working. Because he is God and by his very nature what he does is reveal himself to people in a million creative ways. He generously invites us into his work, because he knows that we will grow and learn in ways that are unimaginable.

In the book The Power of the Call, the authors give some excellent principles that are good reminders for us as we seek to live effectively as those invited into God’s work overseas.

I summarize some of the principles here to remind and to challenge us.

  1. God has been working in his people long before you arrived. So for your first year, seek to understand what God has been doing so that you can be a catalyst for what God has already placed on their hearts. Do not give the impression “Now that I have come, God has come.”
  2. Be willing to listen to the hearts of people – 0nly then will you learn what God has begun.
  3. Affirm the good work that has begun. It will not be perfect, there may be a lot more that you see needs doing. But first affirm what has already begun.
  4. Above all, approach every person and every program with cultural humility. Be the learner not the Saviour.
  5. Change your questions. Instead of first asking “What should I be doing here?” first ask “What has God been doing here?” Instead of “What shall I say?” first ask “What has God been saying?”

We are given the great privilege of joining God in what he has done. Recognizing that God has worked way before us, and will continue working way beyond us, helps us to relax and keep our hands and hearts open wide to receive his good gifts.

So today – relax! God has been, is now, and will be at work.

Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion
Is to take off our shoes
For the place we are approaching is holy
Else we find ourselves
Treading on another’s dreams
More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.

We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.”*

*Quote attributed to Max Warren in 1963

When the Mission Field Comes to You

While rounding a corner on a run in the United States the other day, I came across a Muslim women clad in a headdress and robes. I could see her cower off the sidewalk a bit as this white, American man came plodding her way in middle America. You could sense her apprehension and read her thoughts of “here we go again.”

I greeted her warmly, commenting on the beautiful day. You could visibly see her relax and the tension leave her body.

I’ve been in her position before. I too have been the foreigner in a land and culture which is not my own. I can relate to wishing I could change my nationality or accent in order to blend in. I wouldn’t wear my USA soccer jersey because of the perception of my nation in South Africa.

There are many foreigners in South Africa who have a much rougher go than an American not wearing a soccer jersey.

South Africa is a land of opportunity for the rest of Africa. I have met doctors and lawyers who clean houses and wash cars to escape a corrupt government or hope for a better life.

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With immigration and refugee issues we actually have the mission field coming to us in both South Africa and the United States.

In the past, persecution of Christians caused the gospel to spread in the book of Acts. Now the persecuted and displaced are often not believers. Today, we have nations with bad presidents and horrible conditions. People are fleeing for a better life. The mission field is coming to us.

I recently learned of an Egyptian friend moving to the United States. For the first time in my life I was quite nervous to hear of someone moving to my country. I fear for the welcome she will face as a person of Middle Eastern descent even if she is a Christian.

The Bible speaks often about hospitality,  devoting 2 books to this (2/3 John) as well as making it a requirement for leadership (1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:8).

We often define hospitality as having guests our house or making meals for our friends. The true definition is doing this to people you do not know. What does this love of strangers look like today?

Jesus told us to love God and our neighbors. In the classic parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the entire story is told based on the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Who is our neighbor that we are to love? Those who look and sound just like us? The kingdom will not advance unless we go to those who hail from different places. Without bridging these divides we will merely build up our local Christian bubbles.

Hospitality is love of the stranger and those who are different than us. Perhaps instead of us going to the mission field, today the mission field is coming to us!

In the current climate, this has become a very political discussion.

Let’s lay our politics aside and have a gospel discussion about loving our neighbor, showing care for the stranger, and sharing the gospel with whoever God brings our way.

This week, let’s take a step in the direction of inclusion rather than exclusion.

  • Let’s do something kind for a stranger
  • Greet someone who looks or sounds different than us in a warm manner.
  • Be aware of our stereotypes, our words, and our thoughts to the “foreigner” in our midst
  • And most of all – let’s extend the kingdom of God.

Photo credit: Qiqi via photopin (license)

Facebook lies and other truths

Have you ever created a fake boyfriend? Yeah, me neither.

One woman did, though, and while she’s no Chewbacca Lady, I still think she’s pretty awesome. You can read Ms. Smothers’ story here. Apparently, It only took one week and five easily stageable posts for Smothers to convince her followers that she had found love.”

Facebook, er, Instagram, lies. [And for the purists, Facebook owns Instagram, so the title of this post still fits.]

Ms. Smothers succeeded in convincing her followers that something amazing had happened: she had found love!

But it was all a ruse.

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I’m really glad you’ve never created a fake significant other, but have you ever created a fake missions point? You know, tweaked a ministry photo of someone else’s ministry and gently hinted that it was yours? Piggybacked on someone else’s success without explicitly giving credit?

Ever not posted your vacation pictures because they look a bit too exotic for the home team?

Ever tweaked your ministry numbers just slightly because you know the people counting?

Using social media to deceive is pretty easy, especially when everything gets washed through thousands of miles of sub-oceanic internet cables. Using social media to salve our souls (or attempt to) is also pretty simple: have you ever shared something because you were lonely and you needed some smiley faces and thumbs up and likey hearts? I have.

The accumulated consequences of these behaviors are enormous, both to us individually and to the future of cross-cultural missions. How we use social media really, really matters.

We all know that our online lives differ significantly from our senders’. Our supporters and friends probably won’t lose money by showing a picture of a vacation. We might. On the other hand, our friends won’t make money by showing a picture of a destitute child or a baptism. We might.

And that’s disgusting and gross.
It’s also true.

Our use of social media, like all communication, can construct or destruct. Our words can be sweetly hospitable or bitterly mean.

I want to figure out how to bless the socks off of people with my online presence. I want people to meet Jesus and his power when they browse my Instagram feed or Facebook page. I want them to leave in awe of a God who takes little people, connects them to his heart, and then changes the world.

To do that, I have to own my role as a curator/creator. And so do you.

 

Missionaries as Curators
Facebook and other social media allow us to show a curated life, and that’s not a bad thing. As it turns out, most of us actually like curated things, like National Geographic and the BBC. “To curate” simply means to select, organize, and present, typically using professional or expert knowledge.” We really should do that.

Curating is communicating; it’s you and me choosing what to communicate to the world outside of our heads.

The alternative of “just being real and showing everything” is a non-option. It’s not that people don’t care about our ENTIRE lives, it’s that people aren’t God. Simply put, no one has that kind of capacity. So, again, we must curate, select, and present.

Now, the key is to remember that the thing is curated.

The one photo in a National Geographic stands in the place of thousands that didn’t make it. The story on the front page of the Huffington Post hides hundreds of others.

What we share is what people see. How we spin stuff is typically how it stays spun.

You see, the power to curate is the power to blind.
It’s also the power to create.
To raise awareness, instill courage, raise up prayers.
To disciple, challenge, and bless the world.

 

The Power We Wield
How we talk about missions impacts the next generation of cross-cultural missionaries. It impacts their expectations and their hopes, and perhaps whether or not they even show up.

Those arriving on the field in 10 or 20 or 2 years won’t learn about cross-cultural missions from a book. They’ll learn from Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat (Lord, have mercy!) and whatever’s next. Will they think it’s all safaris and hugging kids with darker skin? Will they think it’s all boat rides and baptisms, with a swig of bubble tea to end the day?

Will they think it’s all loss and dirt and manual labor? All grief and regret, and after a certain number of years, you just come home weird?

How we talk about missions impacts how our senders see missions. Is missions something we do (as in “we, the elite missionary force”) or is it something WE do (as in, “we the global church reaching the people of the globe”)?

How we talk about missions impacts how our senders see the next missionaries. Do missionaries rest? If we never let our supporters see us resting and having fun, they will go on thinking that the next missionary they send can go 20 years without a vacation. That is not a gift I want to leave for the next missionary!

We influence these discussions. A lot.

 

Going Deeper – The Curator’s Id
Social media can be a dangerous place. We take our fleshy souls and string them up on an http:// and hope for the best. Maybe we hope for love and acceptance. Or affirmation.

Or maybe we’re afraid that if we don’t post, we’ll be forgotten, abandoned, and ignored. The fear is real.

Because the curator’s task – our task – is so crucial, we must seek to understand what lies underneath our social media selves.

Fear: Am I afraid of losing support. Am I deeply afraid of being labeled as lazy, or ineffective, or unworthy? Am I afraid that people will withdraw their love? Or money? Fear is such a terrible motivation for everything (except maybe teeth-brushing). If what you post/don’t post on social media is driven by fear, name it, call it out, and talk with God and your close friends about what to do with it. And maybe read some Brené Brown.

Attention: I need to be awesome. I need people to think I’m doing amazing things and visiting amazing places because, you guessed it, I’m amazing. You wouldn’t really say that, but does your Instagram account? I’m 100% sure the Pharisees would have been on social media, and they would have looked good – like, perfect, white-washed good. They had their street corners of boasting/prayer. Is social media yours?

Affirmation: Am I ok? Am I doing enough? Am I enough? Will my kids be ok? Have I ruined my family? Are you sharing your life in order to be affirmed by your friends and senders? Hopefully, there are people IRL (in real life) who do affirm God’s work in you. People who know you deeply and love you unconditionally. Write their names on a list. Then talk with them. Regularly.

 

Facebook, Fracking, and Viral Posts
Social media is like fracking. We inject tons and tons into this thing in hopes that we’ll get something usable bubbling to the surface. And we do. But then we come to find out that we’ve just destabilized a whole region and earthquakes are now common in Oklahoma!

Facebook “like” buttons and happy emojis offer illusions of care and affirmation; they’re nice, but they cannot fill the void. They are empty carcasses, incapable of answering the deeper longings.

It took one viral blog post to sink this home for me. It felt really great, sure, and I got a lot of attention. But pretty quickly, “real people world” crashed my internet party with the messiness of kids and ministry and marriage. And you know what I found? Real joy, lasting joy, is found in real places with real people. Not online.

It’s a ruse. A golden pot at the end of a rainbow. On the moon.

 

A Word on Vulnerability
Curating your story openly and with vulnerability does not mean you share everything. Transparency doesn’t mean everyone sees everything. Jesus himself didn’t let it all hang out for everyone. He had layers of subscribers and followers and disciples and friends. And then he had John.

Vulnerability gets hijacked when we use it to meet our own needs, and that’s not healthy for us or anyone else. Brené Brown, renowned vulnerability and shame researcher, goes so far as to state in her book, Daring Greatly, “Using vulnerability is not the same thing as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite – it’s armor.”

Are you using your online vulnerability in an attempt to get your own needs met? Is it your armor? One easy way to find out is to quit the internet. Go dark for two weeks and see what it feels like? If you feel like the wind got knocked out of your sails, like you lost all your friends, like a failure, you might need to recalibrate.

I tried this last January, and I was really nervous. I wondered if I’d die. I didn’t. In fact, I’m planning to do it again because it was entirely refreshing. It reminded me of the outernet, which is actually way bigger and more entertaining anyways.

 

Logging Off
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, curate an online life, but live a real one. Connect with your neighbors and your teammates and your friends and let them see you. Not the Facebook you, not the Insta-filtered you. You.

Yeah, Facebook lies. So find some friends who won’t. Friends In.Real.Life. Of course, “In Real Life” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re physically present; these could be people with whom you spend time connecting, personally – and privately – via e-mail or private message or Skype. We all need people who are close enough and trustworthy enough to hold our stories.

The world doesn’t need any more fake boyfriends. Or fake missionaries. Let’s learn how to curate our stories well, and with integrity. Perhaps we could start by praying this prayer…

Serenity Prayer for Social Media.1

 

Peace,
Jonathan T.

 

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Articles someone somewhere might find helpful
Check out How to Communicate so People will Care for some simple guidelines to more engaging communications.

Read Elizabeth’s thoughts on asking supporters for prayer When the lights go out.

 

Chewbacca Lady
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you could just go on thinking I’m crazy (which would go on being accurate), or you could just go ahead and do something 150,000,000 other people on the planet have done and watch this video. You’re welcome.

America, Meet the World

Hello America. Meet the Rest of the World.

Note: This is not a political post but one of identification.

The closer we get to the election in the United States, the more comments, eye rolling, and jokes I am hearing as an American living overseas.

My journey as an American in missions has spanned over 25 years. When I began, everyone loved and warmly welcomed Americans. I can remember being in the Philippines and everyone shouted, “Hey Joe” at me, referring to G.I. Joe. It was with warmth and not derision.

The looks of disbelief started with the war in the Balkans and increased with the invasion of Iraq.

Upon moving to South Africa under Bush II, I often wished I could change my accent. Things improved remarkably over the last eight years under Obama. His African roots may have had something to do with this.

I will never forget Barack Obama’s first inauguration, which aired live on local television in South Africa. I stood next to multiple nationalities of people who were stunned to witness the peaceful transition of power. Many of their nations changes leaders with bullets and violence, not handshakes and civil exchanges.

As this election approaches, I feel like the 8 years of goodwill is up and I can once again expect ridicule as the circus of the coming election unfolds.

Africans are constantly commenting in my Facebook feed about what they are witnessing. Here is one recent comment:

_”Just love watching the American politics at the moment. Making South African politics look good. Is Donald Trump the Julius (Malema) of America?_”  (Just so you know, most South Africans would consider Julius to be a disruptor and not a positive influence. But it shows the world is watching! )

One constant thought has been running through my mind. This helps me identify with the pain of other nations. I do realize my understanding is still very limited.

The pinprick of pain I feel from the current madness is nothing compared to the agony many nations have been under for years.

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While dysfunction is now the rule in America, I’ve never been faced with a dictator or tyrant leading my nation. While there are many inspiring leaders in Africa, her people have also witnessed genocides or imposed famines.

Voting in America is still a choice which is not forced through threat or intimidation.

The pain of a nation does not disappear quickly. I still see German youth cringe when Hitler or Nazism is mentioned. Even after multiple generations, the decisions a nation makes can have a lasting effect.

I have very good friends from Zimbabwe. For years, whenever a bad leader was mentioned, theirs was on the list. The shame of this is hard, even though it is no fault of their own.

It is the strength I see in these people which well help me to endure the jokes and mocking which is sure to follow the current circus in the United States.

In a small, very small, way I feel I am identifying more with my international friends from nations with really bad leaders.

 

Note: Since this is a post about identification and not politics, I ask that you refrain from leaving political comments and only discuss the issue of identification. Thank you.

Photo credit: indifference via photopin (license)

People are not our Project

As a zealous, young missionary I seemed to make  the same mistake over and over. Now as a veteran, I find the same never-ending truth must remain continually before me.

People are not our projects.

 

We never set out to do this intentionally. Our mistakes are made in ignorance. Our desire is to do good, to help others, and to bring change.

Even with these godly desires, we must remain ever careful to not walk in superiority and arrogance.

The message “I have something to give you” may be true, but must be balanced out with a healthy dose of humility and a learning spirit.

Because the truth is, we all have something to give each other.

Examine these two statements. Although similar, they can create two completely different perspectives.

“I have walked with so and so for this many years.”

and

“We have walked together for this many years.”

The difference is subtle.

If you are working in an area where colonialism has been present, these subtle differences can be interpreted in ways you would never desire.

As we walk with different people in various cultures, humility requires us to be willing to receive and learn from others.

One particular young man and I have now journeyed together for nearly ten years. The other day we went for a meal and he insisted on paying. Even though I consider him a friend and not a project or my ministry, I could feel some push back in my heart.

Must I be in the place of power, being the one who pays? Do I allow myself to receive…or only give?

I received his offer to pay, and we had a wonderful meal together. But in this event I saw  I must still constantly be aware of this subtle form of pride which creeps up; even after all these years.

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Let’s ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Can we receive from those we work with?
  • Do we learn from the culture we are working in, or is our way always better?
  • When is the last time we were taught at a local church service rather than a podcast or blog post from home?
  • Do we feel uncomfortable when we find ourselves on the receiving end of generosity?

I recently heard the story of a friend who was given a rather lavish gift from someone. It is one thing to accept a cup of tea or a meal, but can we receive an extravagant blessing given by someone who hails from culture we serve in?

If people are our friends, and we view them as equal, then we must be willing to receive.

Bishop Desmond Tutu famously says, “We are stronger when we are together.”

This same image is reflected in Scripture speaking of one body with many parts. Different members, yet all essential.

Recently I organized a conference of Bible School leaders from all over the African continent. I was intentional in trying to create an opportunity to learn from each other, not just present one view from the front. We had a beautiful time discussing difficult issues such as finances, tribalism, and injustice we have faced.

We truly were “better together.”

When we do not view people as our projects, but rather see them as equal image bearers of God, remarkable things can happen.

Let’s preach this “gospel” to ourselves each day.

Photo by Eutah Mizushima

5 Thoughts for the Local Church

The local church and missionaries on the field should be on the same team, but often a wedge of misunderstanding is driven between the two.

There is a danger when missionaries feel entitled to the support of a local body. Many dig their own grave in destroying relationships with their sending churches.

Equally, misunderstanding can come within the body of Christ and be directed towards those on the field.

As a veteran of missions for over 23 years, here is my encouragement for the body of Christ about their care of missionaries.

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5 Ways the Local Church can Serve a Missionary:

1. Communicate
There are two forms of communication which are essential. Communication to us, and communication for us

Please communicate to us because it is often lonely on the mission field. I remember calling home collect in the middle of the night when I happened to find a phone. Now with technology, we literally are always available.

While it is primarily the responsibility of the missionary to maintain communication, a call or email from home asking how things are going or even updating us on church life is fantastic.

When we do return, please communicate favorably for us and about us. I recently sat in a church service where the phrase “deepest, darkest Africa” was used several times. This does not create a love for the nations, but a fear of them! Language like this makes us strange and difficult to relate to (not to mention what it says of the precious people in “deepest and darkest…”).

2.  Help us connect
Returning to your church after months or years away can be daunting. Times and people change quickly. Any assistance you can provide to help us plug-in and meet new people through small groups or BBQ’s would be welcome.

These connections do not need to be ministry oriented; allowing us to “share.” Relationships are what make home, feel like home.

3. Engage us when we return
A one word answer satisfies many people as to how things are going. It can be demoralizing to sum up your entire ministry with responses of “good” or “really well”.

While this conversation is the norm, please provide someone who can celebrate our successes and empathize with the struggles we face. Nothing beats a face to face with someone else in ministry. Even better, would be a conversation with someone who is familiar with the work we are doing.

A simple service to a missionary would be having a person who “understands us.”

4. Ask us the hard questions
Many meetings with the pastors involve recaps of our ministry. This is valid and necessary. But we desire and need more.

Please engage us on a deeper level about our ministry and our personal lives. Ask questions like:
– Have you maintained freshness in your vision?
– How is your walk with God?
– Are you dealing with the stress of missions in your marriage?
How are your kids responding to life in a foreign country?
– Are you making it financially? Can you set aside some money for the future?
– Do you rest regularly?

As a leader or missionary overseas, we may not have peers in our life asking these questions. Please make us uncomfortable for the sake of our long-term success!

5. Let us rest
Trips home are often busier than ordinary life. We are living in a house which is not our own, visiting all kinds of people, all while trying to bang the drum for generating support.

It is exhausting. And worse, our co-workers on the field think we are on holiday!

While still engaging us, please don’t run us ragged!

My church has often gone the extra mile by providing opportunities for fun, or even simple assistance such as a car or a bit of pocket cash for shopping.

This post is not designed to take any shots at our supporting churches. (Ours are fantastic!) My hope is to bring awareness from a missionary’s perspective and to engage us in a dialogue.

I invite pastors, missions boards, or people who support missionaries to comment.

What would you add to the discussion?

What are your pet peeves in the way missionaries respond or act entitled?

What other suggestions do you have to assist in the relationship between the church and a missionary?

What does a missionary need to know about the local church?

Let’s discuss!

Photo credit: In the Shadow of the Cross St Martha – paint via photopin (license)

They Are Not Ready…

“They are not ready…”

These may be some of the most frequently uttered words when missionaries consider passing the baton of leadership.

They can also be the most painful.

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One of the leaders I work with shares the story of being a young, oppressed worker in South Africa during the time of apartheid:

A white Afrikaner man (the people group previously in power) wanted to bring him and a few others hailing from different ethnic backgrounds into a leadership meeting. At the time, this was unheard of; even in a missions organization which championed people from all nations, tribes, and tongues.

When met with resistance from the other meeting participants, the white Afrikaner suggested they at least be able to observe, even if they did not participate.

He wanted to see these young men learn and gain experience so they could step into leadership roles in the future.

In the corporate world this type of a request is common. Interns and associates receive invitations to attend prior to receiving permission to speak. This corporate model does have its shortcomings (assuming a fresh set of eyes is unnecessary), but it gears towards providing needed experience.

But in the days leading up to the fall of apartheid, even this simple request met with a refusal. The other men present were not bad men, but they were raised in a system where this freedom was not present.

The gentlemen of other ethnic backgrounds found themselves waiting in the hallway rather than gaining needed experience, the words of “they are not yet ready,” echoing in their ears.

How often are we guilty of similar tactics?

Do we engage in this subtle form of racism disguised as care and concern?

As we evaluate our leadership, are we giving opportunity to fresh faces and voices?

We must remember our own journey. Many of us were invited to give leadership a try well before we were “ready”.

Training, experience, and internship are all valuable tools.

But we may need to consider if readiness has been redefined as having equal maturity to that of a twenty-year veteran?

Our people are rising, but may not yet be at our skill level.

Most new potential leaders don’t come “pre-cooked.”

Part of our role is to walk along them for a season, allowing mistakes which will promote and stimulate growth.

Seasoning as a leader does not come in a microwave oven, drive-thru approach; but rather through the slow cooker of time and mentorship.

We must be aware of a harsh reality. It is always easier to recognize potential in our own culture and style of doing things than in one which is foreign.

When a younger leader approaches an issue differently, we should be slower to declare them unprepared.

In listening to their idea, we may in fact, hear a better, more culturally appropriate solution.

We are making disciples not clones. We call out potential and uniqueness in those we hope will carry our work into the future.

Or even exceed what we have accomplished…

One of the men who was denied entry in the above story, is currently leading the ministry.

It is one of the largest training and ministry locations Youth With A Mission has in the world.

 

 

Photo credit: sa_apartheid_crop via photopin (license)