I grew up across the street from the missionary house. Every summer I had a new set of best friends…except for the silly rift and summer-long rivalry that happened between us and a set of brothers one summer. I think one of them beat us in a footrace or bragged about something that ticked us off; we were petty enough to hold it against him during his entire furlough.
The Baptist Church between our house and the missionary house was our common ground. Our bikes, whether shiny and new from Christmas or hand-me-downs from the church families all rode the same in that parking lot. Riding and launching ourselves over the speed bumps provided countless day and hours of entertainment no matter the differences in our ages. So did running on the grates behind the bushes–we loved the pounding sound our feet made on those grates as we ran back and forth until an office lady or pastor came out and gently versed us in the necessity of a quiet workplace for those doing the Lord’s work.
The missionary house was mysterious and intriguing–almost scary. Depending on who was living there it would be decorated differently with artifacts from the country where the family was ministering. The drab cream-colored walls would be draped with flowy, colorful curtains and ethnic cloth, brilliant fans or strange, dark artifacts from far away lands, beads and trinkets to remind them of their “home” while they were temporarily in the states making the rounds to churches giving their slideshow over and over in order to garner support that would get them back to the field for 4 more years.
I loved being invited over for dinner, always wondering if I would be served a snake or some other exotic food. Sometimes it was disappointingly Rice Krispies and bananas, but other times there would be a delightful mix of rice and strange vegetables–other than the canned corn I was used to– drenched in a mysterious brown sauce. On a “big” night, there might be wonderfully crunchy and strange shaped tidbits from an overly crinkly plastic bag they had smuggled back with them, sparingly shared, or my favorite–colorful shreds of this or that rolled up in some sort of weird and wonderful dough packet.
I tasted these new foods fearlessly, my world expanding a million times farther than the street I had just crossed for the visit. Often they spoke in the language of the country they were ministering in and used native names for each other. I called them by the names they carefully enunciated for me a few times over until I was able to get the correct nuance and flow to roll off my tongue. I think it was music to their ears to hear words from “home” while living in the Baptist Church’s backyard.
I think back now and realize that these families, comfortable with their being different and okay with wearing secondhand clothes and having “old” haircuts were years ahead of me in loving God and loving people. They were on a mission, even when they were off the mission field. Nothing mattered but getting back, picking up where they left off, hoping things hadn’t fallen apart while they were gone raising money to return and advance their influence and work.
I’ve been enjoying the memories I hold dear from my encounters with missions as a child–from the oversized spiral bound missionary stories to the postcards tacked onto a map in the church narthex, to walking the sheet a missionary cut out to show us the size of the houseboat his family of 6 lived on in Peru. I feel at the same time so lucky at my rich experiences and sad that my own children may never get to talk to their best friend on the other side of the world via ham radio and have to say “over” after every sentence or giggle. I got to experience missions and missionaries in a surreal way back in the ’80’s, and because of them there is something in me that has always taken missions seriously.
Being confronted with a new world and a new way to do missions has stretched me, and while I’m sad that the “old days” are gone, I’m excited that the new wave of missiology is leveraging influence over current resources and connections in order to multiply the efforts of the faithful that have gone before and paved the way for many across the globe to know the Savior in a real and relevant way.
I have to be okay with the fact that I’ll probably never help my child hand-write a letter to a missionary and wait months and months to see if they write back, study the foreign stamp on the strange-colored envelope, and watch their faces light up in wonder as the letter tells about an intriguing trinket the missionary included or taste and gag over a disgusting packet of dried sea weed they sent for us to taste and experience their culture.