Missionaries in Dangerous Situations

For the past weeks the TV news has been showing refugee men and women and children fleeing their war torn countries. The heart rending scenes of desperate families, exhausted children, worried mothers and frustrated fathers risking their lives and sometimes losing them while trying to escape danger and death reminded me of a story I heard about one of our Wycliffe missionaries.

Dangerous Mission Fields
He and his family were living in Colombia during an especially dangerous time. One Wycliffe missionary had already been kidnapped and killed while others were threatened by the terrorist drug gangs because of Wycliffe’s work with indigenous people in the jungle.

When this family came home on furlough someone asked him,

“When did you first realize that you were living in a dangerous situation?”

He thought for a minute and then told this story:

The Story
bearsOur family lives in Loma Linda and we had gotten used to hearing nightly gunfire. One evening, as I took my young son to his bedroom and tucked him into bed, I noticed that none of his teddy bears were in bed with him. They were all lined up on the dresser along the wall between the window and the bed. So I asked him,

“Which teddy bears would you like to sleep with tonight?”

“None of them, Daddy. I want them all to sit there on the dresser.”

I said, “Okay,” and prayed with him, then kissed him goodnight and turned to leave. As I was opening the door I heard his little voice call,

“Daddy!”

“Yes?”

“Daddy, if a bullet comes through the window and goes through all my teddy bears, will it still kill me?”

That’s when it hit me. We were living in a dangerous location!

Restricted Access Countries
This missionary family is not the only one who live and work and raise their families in perilous places. Many mission agencies, including Wycliffe and its field partner organizations, have workers in what are called restricted access countries.

Although they are legal residents of the country with full authority from the government to do their work, there are terrorist groups that would kill them if they knew what they were doing. So they live under assumed names, can’t have a website, a blog, or a Facebook page. They can’t even tell their supporting partners the name of the country in which they live and work.

A Closing Story
In the last century a missionary named James Calvert led a group to work among the cannibals of the Fiji Islands. The ship captain tried to turn him back, saying,

“You will lose your life, and the lives of those with you, if you go among such savages.”

“We died before we came here,” James responded.

That’s the very attitude today’s missionaries have when they travel to live and work in these dangerous situations.

In Praise of Single Women Missionaries

Because this Sunday is International Women’s Day, my first impulse was to write a long and personally satisfying blog post on the missionary woman who was most important to the Canela Bible translation program: my sweet wife, Jo. But since I reserve my Valentine’s day blog posts for eulogizing her, I will write this one instead:

In Praise of Single Women Missionaries

“We believe you would be a superb missionary, and we would be happy to send you out to represent our denomination on the mission field in Africa, except for two things: you are a woman, and you are not married.”

Johanna, a godly and capable woman who passionately loved her Lord and wanted to advance His Kingdom in the needy places of the world, was disappointed at the board’s decision.

Fortunately for her, for the Kingdom of God, and for tens of thousands of souls in Sudan and Nigeria, a number of individuals in her local church sponsored her ministry privately. They prayed, sent funds, and encouraged her during her years of ministry in Africa. The churches she planted continued to grow so much in strength and number that, seven years after her death in Africa, the denomination’s mission board formally adopted Nigeria as one of their mission fields.

The history of worldwide missions is replete with stories of how God used single women in astonishing ways to grow His Kingdom. Gladys, for instance, evangelized in China and cared for hundreds of orphans before and during the Second World War. Her book, The Little Woman was also made into a movie, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

A generation before, Mary lived and worked in Africa. Her story is the subject of two books; one of which is titled The White Queen of the Cannibals. She astounded Christians back home with matter-of-fact accounts of her death-defying dealings with native peoples.

My wife Jo and I hold single women missionaries in high respect. I remember with joy the gifted single women, though relatively anonymous, who helped us succeed in our linguistic and translation work. We absolutely could not have done it without them.

Patricia, a translator in a related language, calmed our fears that we had made a mistake in identifying seventeen phonemic vowels in the Canela language—there seemed to be far too many. She explained that the language she worked in had sixteen. She helped us to choose letters for the Canela alphabet and write up a clear description of each letter’s sound.

Eunice patiently walked me through the process of sorting out, and writing down, all the knowledge of the Canela grammar system I had swirling around in my head to make it understandable to others linguists.

Margery, after completing her own Bible translation project, painstakingly checked all our translation work, and happily reported that, although she tried, she had not been able to find a single nasty “collocational clash” in Acts. That was twenty-five years ago and although I have now forgotten what a “collocational clash” is, at the time I was enormously encouraged to hear that we did not have any.

Eight year-old Cheryl coaching a Canela adult through the learn-to-read booklet.

Eight year-old Cheryl coaching a Canela adult through the learn-to-read booklet.

Gloria’s knowledge and experience in developing “self-teaching” learn-to-read booklets was invaluable. With her help we made up highly effective illustrated reading primers. Students needed teaching only for the first dozen pages, then they picked up clues about the meaning of the new words and the shape of the new letters from the illustrations to finish the rest of the lessons practically without further help.

Isobel’s enthusiasm and encouragement helped us to produce a series of reading booklets of ever increasing complexity that prepared new readers to read the Scriptures.

Ruth’s commitment to the people group with whom she worked, and her willingness to live with them for months out in the bush without even a hut to call home, rebuked my love of comfort and challenged me to greater personal sacrifice.

Jane tripled my effectiveness when I suddenly found myself as the temporary executive director of the linguistic and translation organization in Brazil. She knew where to get the information I needed to make good decisions. She knew everything and everyone and had the experience I lacked.

A single woman’s life in a foreign land and culture is not easy. Indigenous societies often look down on single women. Naturally, many young women would prefer to marry and have a family. And yet, although they know that it is highly unlikely that they will find a suitable marriage partner on the mission field, they go, impelled by love for God and for His Kingdom.

I praise these women. So does God.