I get it. “Africa” is mysterious and enticing to those who have never been there – who have only viewed the continent (yes, it is a continent, not a country) through sensationalized narratives written by television and movie producers. And of course, there are certain eccentricities to be found, just as there are in any geographical region, among any culture – yes, even (or especially) American culture.
There is a long and raging battle in the church and missions world regarding the value of short-term missions trips. Since we’re in the middle of mission team high season here in Kenya, I get to watch a lot of teams come and go. Some are genteel and some are pushy. Some are question-askers and some are solution-speakers. All are thoroughly convinced that the time, effort, and money they are spending is not only worth it, but is accomplishing good.
And some of them are right about that.
About a year ago, I had an idea. It was an idea inspired by numerous conversations with friends who felt they had no voice. These friends were well-liked, but held deep concerns and even fear about being transparent with their friends and family. They were, in a sense, living double lives, hiding their reality from those who should love them unconditionally and support them mightily.
I am, of course, talking about missionaries.
It’s not that my missionary friends set out to hide anything. In fact, many of them made attempts early on to be very open about the realities of their lives, only to discover that they were being judged and misunderstood. At some point, it just became easier to smile and nod and tell happy stories than it was to be real with people and suffer ridicule. Perhaps that sounds hyperbolic…until you’ve lived it.
My idea? A simple blog post to express what many of them were feeling, but were afraid to say publicly. I thought that perhaps I could express ideas in a general way that might help foster authentic conversations between missionaries and their supporters.
With that one blog post, Ten Things Missionaries Won’t Tell You, I discovered that not only were there missionaries all over the world with whom these words resonated, but that there were also people all over the world ready and waiting to criticize and judge not only the missionary community, but also me personally, simply for being human.
The anxiety of my missionary friends, I discovered, wasn’t unfounded. People actually are as nasty as they feared.
Consider a few comments on my original blog post:
“Sounds like he needs to come home…”
“Just goes to show how low down and sneaky these missionaries are.”
“…it’s a [blog post] from someone who does not know God.”
Now consider that I made it clear I was not speaking about my own experiences, but those of real life missionaries, some of whom have been living difficult lives in harsh places and doing the kind of work that most people consider honorable, but would never offer to do. My attempt to advocate for missionaries managed to paint a target on my back.
Well, I guess I’m a glutton for punishment – or perhaps my passion about this stuff just outweighs my fear of criticism – because a couple of months after writing that original blog post, I had another idea. Driven by the over 200 responses from missionaries who thanked me for expressing what they either couldn’t or wouldn’t, I decided I needed to write even more about the realities of missionary life.
What began as a blog post grew into a book, and now, that book is ready to be read. Missions Unmasked: What I Never Knew About Missionary Life is an attempt to lift the veil on much of what it means to live as a missionary. It is both a pastoral confessional about my own shortcomings in supporting missionaries and hopefully, a frank conversation starter to help us move toward more authentic communication between missionaries and those who support them.
Not everyone will like this book. Some will say it’s too negative. Others will insist that this hasn’t been their experience. But perhaps the most common question people will ask is, “Who do you think you are?”
I’ve already been asked this question even before the book launches. Some people, especially those who know a bit of my story, read the title and assume this is a book about my life. And they wonder how I’ve had enough experience to write about missionary life. After all, I’ve lived in Kenya less than a year.
But this isn’t a book about my life, except in the sense that it chronicles my interaction with missionaries, both before and after I moved to Kenya. No, this is a book about a group of people I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend. It is a book with their stories, their experiences, and their life. It’s a story about all the things they’ve taught me – things I never knew before engaging in a different way with missionaries.
I’m not a missions expert. I’m a student. Missions Unmasked is my attempt to share what I’m learning with others who might want to learn from my mistakes and misgivings, rather than stumbling through on their own. My sincere hope and prayer is that this book can help bring freedom to missionaries and some new understanding to those who love them.
For the sake of fostering these much-needed conversations, I’m willing to be a target. For the sake of God’s work around the world, I’m happy to give voice to the missionary community. Who do I think I am? Just a guy trying to do right by my friends and to do what I can to encourage those working for God’s Kingdom around the world.
If you pick up the book and have something to say, let me know! And if you like it, I would appreciate a review at Amazon.com.
Being a missionary is hard work. Everybody knows that. But the things we think of as the hard parts – lack of modern amenities, exposure to disease, and the like – only begin to scratch the surface of the difficulties of real missionary life. Often, it is the things left unsaid that really begin to erode the passion and soul of a missionary. Here are just a few of those things…
Sitting out on the patio on another beautiful Kenyan morning, it’s hard to take in all the events that have brought me here. In fact, my whole life has led up to this point. Now, that may seem overstated, but rest assured, wherever you are right now, your whole life has led up to this point, too. That’s the way life works. It takes us forward, with each moment adding to our experience.
For me, though, I’m particularly aware of how little of my life has gone according to my plan, but how it has nonetheless worked out the way God designed. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul writes:
…we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
It’s interesting to me that the onus is completely on God. He is the one who makes us worthy. His power brings to fruition our goodness and our deeds. And, implied, is that not only does he bring these things to fruition, but that he plants those desires in us in the first place. So he is the one planting, the one tending and the one harvesting. We’re just the dirt.
As I sit here on the leading edge of what is certain to be a wild ride for me and my family, I’m reminded that I didn’t get myself here and I won’t get myself through. The onus is completely on God. Sure, I have responsibilities, but in the end, those responsibilities just amount to me being good dirt and receiving what God is planting in me. Then he can do the tending and harvesting. I’ll just be the dirt.
Wherever I go and whoever I talk to about my relationship with Kenya, one point I always try to make is that the relationship between the “developed” world and the “developing” world (in my case, between Americans and Kenyans) doesn’t have to be a one-way relationship. There is a myth that has been advanced by both “first world” and “third world” people that says that those from developing nations must always be on the receiving end of the transaction and those from developed nations must always be on the giving end.
One of the most profound moments I’ve had in Kenya was on my first trip there when I made a simple statement to the church where I was speaking – a statement attached to a request. “I know you want me to pray for you,” I said, “but I think you have something to offer as well. I would like you to pray for me.” The people of that small church were shocked at the idea that they had anything to offer. They had been convinced that they were supposed to always be recipients. The pastor of that church, with whom I am now friends, was moved to tears (very unusual in Kenyan culture). “Who knew,” he said, “that Africans had anything to offer an American.”
With that backdrop, I present to you Richard Turere, a Kenyan boy whose ingenuity not only got outside the box of traditional thinking within one of Africa’s oldest tribes, but whose invention could become a game-changer all over the world. If he had any doubt before, Richard now knows that Africans have a lot to offer the rest of us!