Two Great Resources for All Things Member Care and Missions

2164279407_666969752a_tMissionary Member Care
I recently found out about an ebook by Ronald L. Koteskey, Missionary Member Care: An Introduction. Koteskey and his wife, Bonnie, have served in member care for over 16 years and share this and other “resources for missions and mental health” at the website Missionary Care.

There is a wealth of useful information in Missionary Member Care‘s 169 pages, but the parts that interested me the most were

  • An overview of the trials faced by the “father of modern missions,” William Carey, and his family. (I’d read about some of what they went through, but hadn’t known the full extent of it.)
  • The writings of other early missionaries, revealing their struggles and their need for member care.
  • Numerous books and websites dealing with member care.
  • Information on a number of member-care organizations.
  • A list of conferences for member-care givers.

And the second great resource? That’s where I heard about Missionary Member Care. In case you’ve never seen it, it’s Brigada, a weekly “web journal offering resources, strategy tips, tools and ‘hacks’ to Great Commission Christians.”

There are a couple ways to read Brigada, edited by Doug Lucas, founder and director of Team Expansion. One is to go to the website, where the newest issues are displayed, as well as a link to the archives, with issues dating back to 1994. The other way is to join thousands of other subscribers by signing up for weekly updates.

Brigada‘s information comes from a myriad of sources, and if you’d like to submit your own items for publication, you can do that, as well.

[photos: “Number One,” by John Ayo, used under a Creative Commons license, and “Copper Number 2,” by Leo Reynolds, used under a Creative Commons license]



These Newsletters Aren’t Sent Either

3742918775_f3b2aee5be_mRuth E. Van Reken’s honest revelations in Letter’s Never Sent has me thinking about all the missionary newsletters I’ve written and read. Missionaries are a good group for emphasizing the positives and putting a good spin on the negatives. Newsletters just aren’t a safe place to share deep struggles, especially when many of the readers are current or potential donors.

I’m not saying that every newsletter should be filled with pain. I’m not even saying that every missionary has enough pain to fill a newsletter. What I am saying is that if the only things you know about missionaries come from newsletters, presentations, and answer-the-routine-questions conversations, then you don’t know the whole story. And what I am saying is that if you are a missionary who is hurting, you are not alone in what you’re going through.

In fact, if you’re any kind of cross-cultural worker or a Third Culture Kid or a trailing spouse or an expat or a repat or a soldier overseas or a family member left behind, and if, at one time or another, any of the following could serve as a heading for your next newsletter or blog or prayer update . . . believe me, you are not alone.

Nobody cares.
God has been silent for a long time.
This was a mistake.
I’ve changed, and I don’t like who I’ve become.
I feel betrayed.
I’m overwhelmed.
I don’t care anymore.
I think I’m going crazy.
Where is my joy?
I wish I could die.
I feel like a failure.
I’m afraid.
I’m lonely.
I’m angry.
I’m disappointed in myself, and I think God is, too.
I don’t belong.

Let me say it one more time: If this is where you’re at or where you’ve been, You are not alone.

And I hope you’re never, ever left to feel as if you are.

[photo: “Creativity,” by Mark van Laere, used under a Creative Commons license]

“Letters Never Sent” but, Thankfully, Published Instead

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken125933835_e355fbcad2_m first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

Following her experiences as a Third Culture Kid, born to missionary parents in Nigeria, and later as a missionary to Africa herself, Van Reken wrote a series of “letters,” to her mother and father, and to God, expressing feelings that earlier she wasn’t able to fully share.

While it would be easy to assume that the details of Van Reken’s story are dated—the book begins with her trip to boarding school in 1951—her expressions of honest emotions cut through the years and show the wonderings and pleadings of a heart that beats in many missionaries and their children today. But it is a heart that is all too often hidden and quieted.

One of the feelings voiced by the young Ruth Ellen is guilt . . . guilt that her inner thoughts are a betrayal of her parents’ calling. During her high-school years, she and her sister stayed in the States, while their parents returned to their work in Nigeria. As her mother and father’s departure nears, Ruth Ellen fights with her emotions, writing in a “never sent” letter:

If I throw myself into your arms and sob my heart out, it might keep you from going. And even though that’s what I want, how could I ever bear the guilt of being the one who kept you from doing God’s work? I’ve always vowed I wouldn’t be one of “those kids,” the kind that other missionaries talk about in whispers, with a sad shake of their heads. “So-and-so couldn’t come back to the field because of their children.” They must be pretty bad kids, I’ve always figured. I don’t want anyone to say that about me or our family.

And I can’t very well come to God with this because, in a way I feel like it’s all His fault.

Years later, as Ruth Ellen ponders her approaching wedding to David Van Reken, she expresses a distrust of God, developed from many years of having, as a TCK, to let go of what is dear to her:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

Ruth does get to keep David, and the two are soon joined by a baby daughter. But depression comes to Ruth, seeming to be at odds with the spirituality that she longs to possess. “How many hundreds of testimonies have I heard about the joy that Jesus gives?” she writes. “He surely isn’t giving it to me right now—or maybe I just don’t know how to receive it.”

Her depression becomes deep enough that she thinks about suicide:

I’ve actually wondered what it would be like to take pills and never wake up. But in my heart I know that wouldn’t solve anything. I have a child I’m responsible for, and I want to see her grow up. And I want to live, if I can be the person that I’ve always thought I had the potential to be. But right now that seems like a hopeless dream.

Then, using words that are reminiscent of those penned by the Psalmist in Psalm 13, she writes,

The thread I’m hanging on to is an intellectual belief that God still has a purpose for my life. I can’t imagine how He can ever put all the pieces back together and make me whole, but it’s my only hope. I told Him today that He could forget helping me to do better—there’s nothing left of me to help. If He doesn’t do something new, I’m finished.

But there is hope. There is help for her to do better. And it comes in the form of a new friend, Linda, who opens a path for Ruth by sharing her own personal struggles in a Sunday school class. This is something that Ruth hasn’t experienced before, and it gives her courage. This leads to many conversations with Linda, in which Ruth shares her pain, and Linda listens without judgment.

Within a few years, the Van Rekens are preparing for their own missionary work in Africa, and Ruth continues to learn how to function without hiding behind masks. Sometimes the masks come off gently, as with Linda, but at other times, they are pulled off forcefully, as when a pastor shares from the pulpit about some of her struggles. But to her amazement, she writes, when “[t]he awful, naked ugliness of my soul was exposed, . . . I was still accepted!”

Healing also comes through forgiveness: forgiving her parents for her many separations from them and forgiving “all those who locked me up with pat answers or quick words of encouragement, when what I needed was understanding and a hug.” Following the death of her uncle, Ruth gets a different kind of response from Jesus: “He held me and understood. He acknowledge my pain. He didn’t try to talk me out of my hurt. . . . I’m learning about God as the Comforter and binder of broken hearts.”

But in letters dated less than two years later, as she and David are serving in Liberia, Ruth writes that the depression has returned. She tells God, barring a change in the next month, to let her die. In her conversations with God that follow, she learns that she has not addressed all of the anger that is leading to her depressed feelings. She still needs to “forgive” God.

“Why don’t you leave me alone?” she hears herself say. “Ever since I came to Liberia to serve you, You’ve done nothing but bad things to me. I’m sick and tired of it.” And she hears God say to her that he isn’t at all shocked by her anger. He can handle it. “You can love someone and still be angry at him,” God tells her. Acknowledging this anger is an important step for Ruth, a step that leads to more healing.

One of the final letters penned by Ruth is dated 1984. That’s 24 years after Ruth Ellen had voiced her struggle with guilt because she wasn’t the perfect missionary child. In it, she says, after reading through all of her previous letters, that there still was one more person to forgive:

I can forgive the little girl I was, for not being all she thought she was supposed to be. The greatest joy has been to understand for the first time in my life that God is the “God of all Comfort.” I could not understand that until I recognized how much I needed His comfort.

Ruth’s story is one of faith and anger and hope and fear and sadness and peace, all flowing one into another. It is a story beautifully and sincerely told. It is a story that can speak to generations of TCKs and cross-cultural workers and to those who want to understand them. And it’s a story that continues. Last year, Van Reken published a newly revised edition of Letters Never Sent, containing 30 additional pages, with photos and an epilogue addressing her later life, including a bout with cancer.

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

The above quotations are taken from the 1988 edition of Letters Never Sent. The book was first printed in the US in 1987 under the title Letters I Never Wrote.

[photo: “unreachable,” by Daniel Zimmel, used under a Creative Commons license]

200 Years of American Missions: Names and Numbers

On February 6, 1812, Gordon Hall, Adoniram Judson, Samuel Newell, Samuel Nott, and Luther Rice became the first North Americans commissioned as missionaries, set apart by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions at the Tabernacle Church in Salem, Massachusetts. A few days later,  Judson—along with his wife, Nancy—and Newell—with his wife, Harriett—set sail for India, arriving there in June. Samuel and Roxanna Nott, Hall, and Rice joined them there two months later.

On the occasion of this 200-year anniversary Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, announced that since that time, by 2010, the number of Christian missionaries sent from the US had grown to 127,000, or 32% of the 400,000 missionaries worldwide. The US is top on the list, while in 2010 Brazil sent the second-most number of missionaries at 34,000.

So if the US sends the most missionaries, who receives the most? Well, that would the US as well, with 32,400 missionaries arriving from other countries (again, using 2010 numbers). Turns out that many of the Brazilian missionaries are sent to work among Brazilian communities in states in the Northeast.

There’s also another person who is sometimes mentioned along with Adoniram Judson and his group when the first missionaries are listed, not because he went out with them, but because he went out before them. He was George Liele, an African-American former slave in Savannah, Georgia. He gained his freedom before the Civil War, and then he and his family escaped re-enslavement by sailing to Jamaica with a British colonel (sometime around 1782 to 1784). In Jamaica, Liele planted a Baptist church, reporting in 1791, “I have baptized 400 in Jamaica. . . . We have nigh three hundred and fifty members; a few white people among them.”

So who was the first American missionary? That depends on our definitions. The first American “citizens” “commissioned” and “sent,” those would be the ones from Salem. The first ones born in America to travel to another country and make disciples, that would be Liele and his family. My guess is that there would not have been a lot of jealous arguing about “firsts” coming from either group. And who knows? Maybe someone had already gone out earlier, someone now unnamed, someone unremembered, someone who simply went, without fanfare, spreading the hope of the gospel.

(Daniel Lovering, “In 200-Year Tradition, Most Christian Missionaries Are American,” Reuters, February 20, 2012; “People and Events: George Liele,” PBS; Billy Hall, “George Liele: Should Be a National Hero,” Jamaica Gleaner, April 8, 2003)

[photo: “Vintage Globes,” by The Shopping Sherpa, used under a Creative Commons license]