Live in Such a Way to Make Missionaries’ Lives Intelligible

by Nick Steffen

“Lance and Carol were missionaries to Brazil, where they ministered to street children. After two years of service in Brazil, they returned home to New York for Christmas. Their first evening home, they drove to a local mall to do some Christmas shopping. Carol had looked forward to this moment for a long time.

They stood together at the entrance to a large up-scale department store and stared. The sheer choice of products and the amount of people buying things overwhelmed them. Everything glittered and glowed, lights flashed on and off, numerous displays seemed to say, “buy me.” They watched as people wandered aimlessly, wallets at the ready, looking for anything half-acceptable on which to spend their money. Carol saw one man take a $50 bill out of his pocket and buy a bottle of perfume without so much as looking to see what brand it was. She remembered Brazilian mothers who would give their souls for $50 worth of food to feed her children.” – Re-entry 79 Peter Jordan YWAM Publishing 1992

We should all be well aware of the privileged position we have been given growing up in the United States. If we forget and begin to complain about small stresses and frustrations consuming our mind, others may remind us that these are “first world problems.” In other words, our concerns would likely pale in comparison to the sheer gut-wrenching poverty experienced by so many people in this world. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), our lives are structured in such a way that we rarely have to experience the distance from our world into the other.

To do so would quickly give us vertigo.

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Missionaries try to straddle these class divisions by maintaining lives both in the world of their supporters and the one where they live. But they often suffer the attempt to transition from one to the other. What would we say to Carol in the story above? How can we support her when we know that the larger systemic issues she is struggling with are bigger than our conversation?

I suggest that the issues missionaries are struggling with are not “their” issues, but “ours.”

By transcending the boundaries between one group and the next, they are seeing the boundaries that we use to make our lives intelligible, to identify whose ‘world’ we’re in. By trying to see the world as God sees it, they undoubtedly become sensitized to the ways that men have tried to create the world as their own.

Carol’s concern above is not simply the reaction of an overly-sensitive person, but one who has been re-sensitized to the truth. Our responsibility as the church is not to coddle or console them, but to share their concern.

The church’s job must be to live in such a way as to make missionaries’ lives intelligible.

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