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You’re Not From Around These Parts

By Andrew Sharp
Staff Writer

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.”

Elmer & Eileen Lehman
In 1961, Elmer and Eileen Lehman were among RMM’s first mission workers to go to Latin America, where they were pioneer church planters in Costa Rica. Elmer said when he was a child, there were two missionary couples from Canada that worked in Argentina, and he was always fascinated to hear them speak when they visited his home community. As he grew older, he sensed that he would be involved in some kind of ministry, although at the time he thought it would be on his church’s pastoral team. When he and Eileen got married, they both had a strong interest in doing voluntary service. Then four months after they got married, the trailer they were living in caught fire. “We said, ‘Well, what do we have here to take care of, we’ve lost almost everything we own,’” Eileen said. “It seemed to be an invitation.”

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.

Dan Byler
Dan Byler, who spent years with RMM in Nicaragua and South Asia, is currently working in Bangkok, Thailand. His entrance into a life of missions was also gradual. When he was a student at Goshen College in Indiana, he was planning to go into teaching, but wanted to do some voluntary service time first. He went to Nicaragua as part of a study term with the college, and liked it, so he contacted RMM about joining their VS program in the country. After three years there, he went back to the U.S. to start his teaching career. At that time it was hard to get a teaching job, and while he was looking for one he heard a speaker talk about the importance of missions. “I thought, there is a need for more mission workers, and there isn’t a need for more teachers, so I looked at that as a call from God to return to Nicaragua,” he said. When he went back, the work went well and new opportunities kept opening up. “I gradually sensed that this was something God was calling me to,” he said, and he never went back to the States.

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.”

Leon Zimmerman Family
When Leon took a sabbatical from his work at RBC, they decided to take the chance to spend time with some missionaries. They made good contacts, and Leon said “The doors opened well and quickly.” When the opportunity to go to Albania came up, they prayed about it and got a clear sense it was something they should do.

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.