Those in North American churches sometimes laud the suffering and sacrifices made by missionaries. Missionaries to Africa are often particularly pitied/admired as having gotten the toughest assignment of all. The “suffering servant” image has also been referred to by African Christians (who must have heard it from the suffering missionaries). They refer to the challenges of living in places like Burkina Faso due to the heat and the inefficiencies. The irony is that these missionaries live better than the local Christians who also have to cope with the heat and inefficiencies!
It occurs to me that what we call suffering is often not really suffering and that pitying the missionaries for their noble sacrifices skews what is really going on when people leave their own country to work overseas. So let me counter the prevailing image of self-sacrificing suffering missionaries with another story. First, let’s talk about the sacrifices. It is true that missionaries leave their families, friends and church communities. The children of missionaries see their grandparents less often and may not feel any connection to their parents’ church community. Living cross-culturally entails a certain level of stress and frustration because minor tasks such as grocery shopping can become very challenging. There are ample opportunities for misunderstanding and the foreigner can feel awkward and foolish. As well, missionaries often need to learn a foreign language and so communication becomes very challenging. Being unable to communicate can feel humiliating. So there are certainly challenges which missionaries face.
Each challenge, however, brings opportunities for growth and blessing. Missionaries often form strong relationships with other missionary families who become like aunts, uncles and cousins to their children. When missionaries return to their sending communities, they often spend extended time living with their parents, enabling strong ties to develop between grandparents and grandchildren. Our children have fond memories of the things they do every time they visit grandpa and grandma. Over the years, those rituals have become part of the reason they look forward to seeing their grandparents. As well, having family members visit the children in their overseas home for a week or more strengthens the ties. So it does not seem that the children are being deprived of meaningful relationships with their extended family.
While living cross-culturally is challenging, it is also an opportunity to examine one’s own culture from a new perspective. I have found significant spiritual, moral and intellectual growth happens when I learn from my host culture. As I see the world through the eyes of my Burkinabe friends, I begin to question values that I have always taken for granted. For example, it is much easier for me now to give away my belongings and to find pleasure in thinking of someone else enjoying them. In my experience, relationships are more important than possessions in West Africa.
Learning a language can be humiliating if you see yourself as an expert or leader. It is hard to be a leader when you can’t even ask where the bathrooms are in the local language! However, language learning entails so much more than memorizing vocabulary. Often the missionary who spends significant time studying the local language will learn much more about the culture and the people she has come to serve. By approaching the new situation as a learner and not an expert, the missionary is in a stronger position to serve and to be useful in the long run. When you can laugh at yourself for your mistakes and learn from them, you open yourself to build deeper and more authentic relationships with the local people.
Now how about suffering? Does walking over a kilometer in 40 degrees Celsius (120 degrees F) weather constitute suffering? How about having the electricity shut off for six hours? How about having such slow internet speeds that sending and receiving e-mail becomes a challenge? Or having to stand in line to pay your bills because you can’t pay them electronically? It seems to me that comfort and convenience have become so idealized in North America that we feel deprived when faced with discomfort or with inconvenience. We define the loss of comfort or convenience as suffering.
Real suffering is much more than a little discomfort or having to wait for something, however. I consider that suffering occurs where there is emotional and/or physical pain. The loss of a loved one, for example, constitutes suffering. Being physically ill also brings with it suffering. In my experience, suffering occurs in every country around the world and is intimately linked to our human (ie mortal) condition. Since we occupy physical bodies which experience wear and tear, we are inevitably going to suffer. As a general rule, we might say that poor people suffer more than wealthy people because poor people have less access to food, clean water, and adequate health care. Poor people also tend to work at more dangerous occupations and to have less safeguards against accident and injury.
There are missionaries who have lost a child or have suffered a debilitating illness and I consider their experience to be marked by suffering. Many of us, however, live quite well and better than many of the people we have come to serve. We eat well; we sleep under ventilation or even air conditioning; we have electricity and running water in our homes. We have access to health care as well as those things which make for good health, such as mosquito nets. We have access to financial resources; our children have access to quality education; we have vehicles for transportation. Furthermore, we often have people who work for us and do the physically challenging jobs such as washing our clothes by hand.
Living in West Africa requires losing our sense that we are entitled to efficiency. It means accepting that a certain level of physical discomfort is normal. Both of those are good things. I feel blessed to live and work in Burkina Faso. I believe that God has chosen me for this work not because I am noble, but because God loves me and wishes to bless me. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve!