It has been 17 years since my husband and I, with our three four-and-under children, first left for the mission field. Almost 20 years (and five more kids) since we first began preparing to make that move.
But that wasn’t our first experience with missions.
My husband’s parents had retired from their first careers to serve as missionaries in northern, rural Haiti. And right after I finished my master’s degree, I spent a year as a short-termer in SE Asia.
Those initial missions experiences sobered us as we saw firsthand some of the “institutionalized” mistakes missionaries have made, including:
- the negative impact of an expat culture strongly influenced by colonization on ministry strategies,
- the danger of authoritarian structures without corresponding accountability, and
- the hazards of unrecognized assumptions about both host and home cultures.
Those same experiences also humbled and challenged us for we had also witnessed
- sacrificial service long before the conveniences of today’s technological advances revolutionized communication and travel,
- the legacy of wisdom demonstrated by patience and costly humility, and
- faithful ministry in the midst unbelievable pressure and even, sometimes, persecution.
Thus, when we moved to Africa 17 years ago, we went idealistic, not so much about missions or who/what missionaries were and what they did – for we had a fledgling knowledge of the great potential for both good and bad.
Rather, we were idealistic and naïve concerning ourselves and our own abilities. Much like teens who don’t really believe anything bad will actually happen to them, regardless of the risks they might take.
We assumed that awareness of all of the above, thorough preparation, learning the language, zeal, grit and a whole lot of prayer would keep us from stumbling into those same pitfalls. We were determined to collaborate with local believers, allowing them to take the lead as experts in their world and culture. We wholeheartedly desired accountability and legitimate partnership not just with those back “home” but also our expat colleagues, and especially, our local partners. We wanted our well-being to be intrinsically linked to the good of the community that we had come to serve – so that there was mutual dependence and an atmosphere of “we” instead of an “us/them” mentality. We hoped to build an atmosphere of authentic give and take… all while balancing ministry, family and just-surviving-life-in-Africa responsibilities.
It sounded great in theory and we thought we were as ready as we could be. It was so much more difficult in practice – mostly impossible, in fact, as we discovered.
For trying as hard as we knew how, praying as fervently as we might – I don’t think we ever really “achieved” any of those goals, at least not in over a decade of service. Yes, we saw glimpses of success. We lived moments, even seasons, of genuine collaboration, accountability, partnership and mutual dependence. Our little corner of Africa did become home – and life there actually felt a lot more normal than life back in Michigan, most of the time… But? There was always a line we struggled to cross… and stay across… both in our eyes and, it appeared, in the eyes of our community.
I don’t know how to define it exactly. Perhaps it would have been easier had there been some clearly marked line in the Sahara sand, at least easily seen if not easily stepped over?
We didn’t give up. However, my husband’s key ministry largely included teaching those with a vision for developing broadcasting and audio-visual ministry tools (for evangelism and discipleship) in a largely illiterate society the technical and production skills needed to do just that. After more than a decade, he was working with guys that knew what they were doing. We began to realize that as long as he remained in country, people would continue to come to him for projects that others could… and probably should… do. Most of the guys (and gals) he trained were using those skills to earn enough to run a business, feed their families and sought to serve God at the same time. The studio he ran, however, was a nonprofit ministry and simply recuperated operating costs. Our family lived off of support monies provided by donors in the States. In the end, we concluded that we needed to remove ourselves from the equation. After all, as missionaries, aren’t we, at least in a sense, trying to work ourselves out of a job so that like Paul, we can move on to another place of service?
Continuing to reflect, we’ve come to the conclusion that part of the reason we were never able to permanently cross that line in the sand, no matter how much we wanted to and prayed and tried and then prayed some more…
that line remained as long as our well-being (personal, family, ministry) wasn’t intrinsically embedded within the well-being of our community.
Even though we theoretically wanted to be part of, and helping to build, a mutually dependent community – as long as others knew we could leave if things got THAT bad, as long as we knew that we had support monies coming in from elsewhere regardless of the local economy, etc. I don’t know what the answer is or even if there is an answer. I’m not suggesting the existence of some sort of missionary formula for achieving genuine community. I personally know others who did cross that line given similar external circumstances. Does that mean we failed? I don’t think so… at least I hope not.
I’ve wondered for a few days, now, how to wrap this post up. Then, in my margin time this morning, I took one of those silly Facebook quizzes, to see just how much I remembered from high school and college lit classes. This quiz had you match book titles with the name of a key character. Surprising, how many of those key characters were described as hero-slash-villain, in other words? Both. It is one of the things our kids have discovered watching the television reality show Survivor.
Most people aren’t simply all hero or all villain – but have moments (or seasons) of “either/or” as well as “both.“ The same is true for missionaries.
We’d like to “go,” serve, empower, collaborate and see ourselves as the enabling heroes. But sometimes we aren’t, despite our sincere motivations and best intentions. We even end up “un-enabling” others.
Sometimes we actually end up the villains in a story, especially when we forget we aren’t the author…