Tales of the Guilty-Rich American Missionary
In our last issue we presented Roger Greenway's article, "Eighteen Barrels and Two Big Crates: How and why our 'stuff' gets in the way of our witness."
In our comments in that issue we referred to the article found on the previous four pages, as well as promised to comment further this time.
Roger Greenway, first a missionary, then a mission executive, and now a mission professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, speaks of "my most embarrassing moment of my missionary career," at the delayed arrival on the field of the "18 barrels and 2 large crates."
He went on to say, "A thousand sermons could not undue the damage done that day. It would have been better for our ministry if the ship had dropped our barrels and crates in the Indian Ocean."
I assume Roger and his wife felt guilty about their relatively extravagant American way of life. They may have felt even guiltier because they arrived before their barrels, set up house economically, and lived for a few months amidst a relatively poor people in a strikingly different culture.
Greenway's article brings up various questions:
1. Why not pay five or ten "native missionaries" instead of sending out a $35,000-a-year American family?
Greenway's own son-in-law is a Mexican national planting churches with great success and little expense. But, note, if he were not working in his own language, and culture, in his own country (as is the case with most "native missionaries,") his son-in-law's family would no doubt cost a great deal more.
Just transporting a family to a foreign field is a big hunk of the annual support package for those workers who need special linguistic and missionary training, leave their own people, and begin work within a strange group in another country, or in a distant part of their own country.
"Nationals" like his son-in-law are the pride and joy of the missionary movement. No foreign missionary can do what they can do for the same price (and they are usually supported by their own people) or with the same natural savy.
But foreign missionaries are still needed for thousands of the remaining Unreached Peoples. Perhaps his son-in-law will try out for that more complicated kind of a job. If he does, his own people are the best ones still to support him. It is very complex and delicate to try to pay such people into existence with foreign funds. U.S. dollars are not worth as much as loving, dedicated, expert missionaries--whose efforts have by now generated about 1 million such national church planting pastors and evangelists. And, missionaries from the West today are desperatedly need to assist the new mission-field mission agencies to do their job better. Dr. Larry Pate (Overseas Crusades), the acknowledged leader in the area of "Two- Thirds World Missionaries" is even moving toward setting up a specialized agency to assist these overseas mission efforts. Now, there is where we ought to focus our attention!
The India Mission Association, with about 60 member missions, will not even allow a mission to join which accepts foreign funds for more than half of its budget.
2. If American missionaries cut down on their expensive life style can they then "bond" with the citizens of the foreign country?
This might help. But remember that "bonding" is to a great extent an armchair concept.
The "Strangeness of a Foreign Missionary" is something with which missionaries have struggled for years.
One single woman I know of got herself taken in by a village family in Ethiopia. The people took pity on her and one family felt virtually obligated to do so. She learned the language and the customs over a period of months better by that method than by any other way.
However, it is more difficult for a family with small children to assume that kind of a role. The woman I mentioned returned from Ethiopia and married a Jewish doctor. Real bonding is not that easy to walk away from. Effective mission work is more than skill and insight. It is love and commitment, and the people you work with can pick that up sometimes with uncanny sensitivity. They might be more offended by the way you take care of your children than by the equipment you employ.
For example, our children (when we lived in the Guatemala highlands) did not suffer malnutrition as did virtually all children in our valley. It would have cost millions of dollars a year to jack up the nutrition level of the 70,000 in our valley to even a minimum level.
But that meant our children had an embarrassingly a lot more energy left by the time of an evening service, and would wiggle and make trouble like none of the tired little tykes lacking enough food. Our kids did not fit the pattern of Indian life.
But neither did we, in some ways. I am short--5'9"--but most of the Guatemalan Indians only came up to my shoulder.
3. Isn't it best, just in general, for the missionary to try to "live like the native?"
One of the fascinating examples Greenway gives is of some young missionary families that loved to go water skiing up and down the river on a Saturday. Their normal work required the boats and some people back home thoughtfully sent them the necessary water skiing gear. Obviously, that was not a means of "living like the natives."
But the matter of "living like the natives" elicits a the question, "Which natives?" In the highlands of Guatemala we did not go water skiing and neither did the Indians with whom we lived. But, other, "national" Christians did. Some second and third generation Spanish- speaking evangelicals, relatively wealthy, had started businesses after going through missionary vocational training. Pretty soon they owned second homes on a beautiful tourist lake, inboard motorboats-- and water skiing went with that. Their homes were modest by comparison to suburban America, but very swanky by comparison to the earthen-walled homes of the Indians who were also church members.
Marian Lazlo, a Wycliffe worker in the north of the Philippines became really well accepted in her village. In that village culture the normal social dynamics virtually pressured an older man to take her under his wing as his daughter. As a result she had remarkable acceptance. But it was not as though she ever quite became "one of them." Other villagers could not snap their fingers and call a helicopter out of the sky. Nor did they have the radio equipment that enabled her to do that. She was valued and respected precisely for the ways in which she was not as limited as the villagers.
4. What about William Carey's "powerful, life-shaping ambitionƒof imitating Christ in simple lifestyle, identification with the common people , and the single-minded pursuit of mission," Greenway asks? I ask, "What did it look like in practice?"
William Carey is one missionary about whom we know a great deal! This is the 200th year of his leaving for India as one of the most honored missionaries of all time. What did he do?
The most prominent characteristic of Carey was his single-minded devotion to the Lord and to His work. This automatically guarded him from making a careless move that would waste his energies or resources. Yet he developed the world's most advanced typographic library--that was no crude simplicity.
He built buildings that were imposing by any parallel in the local culture. He handled enormous sums of money in his time, if currency equivalents were calculated.
It did not rub off. His own life was frugal to a fault, not so much by design or by discipline but by devotion. Younger missionaries arrived later on who mistook the apparent contrast between his methods and his spirit, and caused Ward, Marshman, and Carey immense heartache, splitting the Mission, cutting Carey off from the home board, etc. But this was not due to miscalculation on Carey's part as much as it was a case of younger missionaries rushing to judgment with superficial insights, not waiting long enough on the field to absorb the cross-cultural subtleties to which the more experienced missionaries were responding.