You’re Not From Around These Parts
By Andrew Sharp
They are scattered in countries all around the globe. They struggle with new words, resolutely chew strange items labeled as food, and amuse the locals by waving hello with the wrong hand. They are ambassadors of the Christian faith—missionaries. Like bananas in a Minnesota supermarket, they are a long way from home.
Why? Sure, Jesus told the church to go to the ends of the earth with the faith, but why did these people in particular choose to be the ones who went to the “ends”? I asked several missionaries connected with Rosedale Mennonite Missions about this.
To avoid confusion, I should clarify the terminology in this article. One missions worker I talked to told me all Christians are missionaries, commissioned to share their faith with those around them wherever they are. He is certainly not alone in that conclusion in missions circles. Others would define a missionary as someone who goes to a Developing Country to do nice things. For the purposes of this article, however, I use the term “missionary” to specifically refer to those who leave their own home and culture and go to another one to share their faith, leaving a discussion of the broader definition for another day.
All the current or former missionaries I talked to spoke of a sense of calling. Aha—the famous “call to missions.” What does it sound like? Turns out, none of them talked about a dramatic moment when they saw a vision of people crying out for help and knew they had to go buy a plane ticket, or a crisis experience when they rushed forward at a missions conference to pledge their service. For these missionaries at least, it was a slower process, often a gradual arrival over time to the conclusion that missions work was the right task for them.
That’s how it was for Art and Paula Shore (the names are changed because they work in a sensitive location in the Middle East). “If a person has that desire in their heart—and I believe it’s God that puts that in people’s hearts—it’s been my experience that I don’t always know what my next step is going to be,” Art said. “God opens one more door and shows us a little more direction … so yes, I believe we need that call, but that call, in my experience, may not be totally unveiled to us at the beginning of this process.”
Art said in the church he grew up in, some kind of short-term missions or voluntary service was normal, almost expected. So he got involved in short-term missions service in Germany and Africa. Through those kinds of experiences and exposure to the need for missions workers, he began to feel that God wanted him to continue in missions work.
Paula said she had been involved in missions in Canada and helped with leadership of an outreach to homeless children overseas. Through getting to know Art, however, she became aware of the need in the Muslim world. “A wife can’t go on her husband’s call, she has to feel that very personally, and with time God did that in my own heart,” she said. “I think the value of going and just living among them was impressed upon me when I saw all the overwhelming needs.”
A position opened up in Puerto Rico for two years, one that matched their talents exactly—a children’s home needed a couple with farming experience and teaching experience. It was while they were there, Elmer said, that they began to feel God wanted them in missions long term. They came back home and Elmer went to college to prepare. After he graduated, they ended up in Costa Rica, where they worked at church planting for more than 20 years.
Leon Zimmerman served as president of Rosedale Bible College before he and his wife Naomi and their children went to Albania for several years, to help transition a church there from missionary leadership to local leadership. He said when he and Naomi were dating, they both thought they would like to do missions work sometime. But after they got married, life got busy and children came along. Their call to missions was not necessarily a strong sense of God’s command—Leon referred to it as a “kind of an inner sense of call to some degree.”
“I would say [it was] just a sense for both of us that in our maturing years that this is something we would like to do that would fit us. I think we encouraged each other with the idea.”
That sense of being in the right place, along with a commitment to stay in the right place, was a big part of what kept these workers going when discouragements came up. “We couldn’t throw in the towel and quit because we had a strong sense [of] God’s call in our lives to be involved in missions,” Elmer said.
“I think it’s that call, that confirmation that we’re in the right place regardless of external appearances, how well it goes or how well it doesn’t go,” Art said. “We may have just a small part in bringing the gospel to a region, but we can be faithful … there will be opposition, there will be suffering. That’s a normal part of the Christian life.”
It would be a mischaracterization, however, to portray these workers as wishing they could go back to their own cultures and only staying because of a sense of calling. Instead, they spoke of rewarding experiences that helped keep them going.
Elmer said it was sometimes difficult to be away from family, like at Christmas time, but they soon grew close to the believers there. “They were our family, and we had good times with them … we really plugged in with families from our church and really had some very good Christmases overseas.”
The Lehmans have been able to see the dividends from their life’s investment. After three years, the church in Costa Rica had just four baptized believers. But as the new believers started reaching out to their families, the church expanded rapidly. A few years ago Elmer and Eileen returned to Costa Rica for a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the work, where the church there honored them for coming to share about Jesus. They were able to meet with a number of the original believers. “Just to see them … continue on in their Christian walk, that was really a highlight,” Elmer said.
Dan talked about how even when things are difficult, he sees God working and people coming to faith who are excited about sharing with others. “Those are the kind of things that really are rewards and joys and keep us working here on the field,” he said.