As I prepare to go to the Philippines to preach a Missions Conference for Missionary Mike Reap, my mind frequently wanders to previous trips I’ve taken to far-off lands and to the adventures I have encountered. While it doesn’t deal directly with being a sending church, it should serve as a challenge to sending churches to always be mindful that their missionaries often face a different set of challenges than we do. Four scenes are etched in my mind as reminders of the challenge of foreign missions.
Before recounting these scenes, it is wise to make the point that ministry is difficult everywhere eventually. The greatest battles fought by foreign missionaries, domestic church-planters, pastors, and Bible College students in training are often within themselves. The reason it can be as hard in Stillwater, Oklahoma, as it is in Chathannoor, India, is because God is trying to grow Wayne Hardy. Sometimes, Wayne Hardy doesn’t want to grow in that area…and the tension begins. The mistake made by many in ministry is that they don’t realize the reason it is hard is because the challenge is between them and God. They end up moving to some other ministry, where—guess what—the challenge is there, too, because God is still pursuing them to form them into His image. There are no shortcuts or steps skipped in God’s process of growing us. People may change the backdrop as many times as they want, but the story will remain the same.
Still, these four scenes simply illustrate the nature of challenges that often confront foreign missionaries. These are as accurate as my memory will support since some of them are from years ago.
Scene #1: Helplessness at a Bus Tragedy
We had landed in Manila, Philippines, just hours before and, as a senior in high school, this was my first foray into such a foreign country. I was there with my parents and a wonderful young lady I had convinced my parents to bring along. Admittedly, my motives were selfish. We had just been released from the snarl of city traffic and had reached some welcome countryside when we encountered another traffic jam. This seemed unusual, considering we were no longer in a metro area. We didn’t have to wait for an answer because some Filipinos came running back yelling, “There’s been an accident!” As we wove through a web of jeepneys, cars, and motorcycles, we eventually came upon an awful scene. A large 18-wheel style truck carrying popcorn oil had collided head-on with a passenger bus. The wounded were lying alongside the road, some almost certainly deceased. A few men were trying diligently to free the driver from behind the steering wheel as he screamed in pain with every push on the pry bar. The missionary explained that in the Philippines whoever brought the victims to a facility for medical care would be responsible for their bills. I watched his face as he tried to make sense of his own decision concerning whether he should justify continuing on or stop to help. It was not an easy decision.
Scene #2: Avoiding Execution Under Martial Law
We had almost made it to the missionary’s home, still processing the carnage of the bus accident, when we encountered another, smaller traffic jam and, once again, several Filipinos came running, this time to inform everyone that there was shooting up ahead. The missionary drove back a distance to check that his children were okay at home. The traffic had mostly cleared by the time we were coming back through. We could see a couple of official cars with flashing lights up ahead and knew we were about to learn what the shooting was about. We would rather not have known.
A small red car on the side of the road was clearly the center of attention. We peered into it as we passed by. Inside were the bullet-riddled bodies of three men. They had been executed in a crossfire by Filipino military personnel who were operating under President Marcos’ martial laws. We wouldn’t know the whole story until the next day when we saw the car in the town square, parked there to serve as a warning to all. A small red car had been stolen in Manila and was thought to be heading toward the missionary’s town. When it was stopped at the checkpoint, the military police had decided that was the car and executed the men on the spot. I recall there was no certainty about whether this was the right car or not. It was red. It was small. It had three men in it. That’s all they needed to know. No questions asked. I was never so thankful to be riding in a white truck.
Scene #3: A Generational Destroyer
We visited a coastal American military base a few hours from Manila, and I was intrigued by an old rusting destroyer. It looked like an American-style ship but had Filipino markings. It had run aground and was leaning heavily to one side. As I stared at the ship, I was surprised to notice people walking around on it. Were those truly barefoot children I saw running along the deck? I walked a little closer and noticed an elderly lady appearing to transfer her clothes from the basket on her hip to a rope strung between two gun turrets. Staring a little longer, I observed a number of people, both adults and children, going about business that was clearly domestic as opposed to military. I found the missionary and asked if he knew who they were. What he explained was something that would not happen in America. Shortly after obtaining that destroyer from America, the Filipino crew had run it aground, rendering it useless. As punishment, President Marcos had banished the entire family of each officer to live on the ship, even raising their children there. That’s all their next generation would know.
Scene #4: The God Who Got it Backwards
Years later, it was our last night in India before heading back to Stillwater. Missionary Sam Thomas and his wife, Blessy, had been wonderful hosts. My wife, Lisa, and our associate, Jason Jett, and his wife, Erin, were returning from a day of sightseeing, having finished all the preaching and meetings through the prior week. As we rounded a corner, we came across what appeared to be a parade. However, it was like no parade we had ever seen. Something looked horribly wrong. I asked Bro. Thomas if we could stop and take a look, to which he reluctantly agreed, having some concern for our safety. I grabbed my Canon 7D with 70-200 lens and Bro. Jett took the HD video camera as we went to discover if we really were seeing what we thought we were. Unfortunately, we were.
The procession was led by two elephants with costumed men sitting on them. Behind them was a long flatbed truck with two telephone poles extending from the back of the bed and reaching high over the cab. From each pole hung six large hooks in pairs. Hanging on those hooks were two men. The hooks had been placed through their shoulders, lower back, and upper thighs. They seemed to be oblivious to the jarring from the rough roads. Attempting to document what we were seeing, Bro. Jett and I started weaving our way in and out of the crowd, too shocked to realize the danger in which we were placing ourselves, as foreigners. Behind the truck came men walking with dozens of rods piercing through their bodies. Drummers beat out a cadence that seemed designed to keep them in a trance. Worst of all to behold were the boys, maybe 10 years old and almost certainly the sons, walking in their fathers’ footsteps with their own rods stuck through their faces. Bro. Thomas explained that this was a tribute to one of a million gods served by Indians. Reliving that scene always reminds me how thankful I am that, while their god demanded that they pierce themselves to please him, my God pierced Himself to save me.
Not every missionary deals with these particular scenes. But remember, it’s hard everywhere, at some time or another. The scenes change, but the story stays the same. Let this serve as a reminder to pray fervently for those missionaries and church planters you support and, especially, for those your church has sent out. No one should pray for them more than their sending church.