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New Horizons

Lessons from the Mission Field

Philip T. Proctor

Two years ago, our family left Uganda and returned to the United States. I transitioned from an intensely cross-cultural ministry to a suburban pastorate. My wife, Meredith, transitioned from a stay-at-home mom, homeschooler, and bed-and-breakfast operator to a working mom trying to juggle a new set of challenges. Our four children transitioned from a wild freedom—motorcycle taxis into town to hang out with best friends with four different hues of skin and languages—to the more tame, structured lifestyle of suburbia.

I’ve thought a fair amount over the past couple of years about writing an article, detailing my thoughts about the lessons learned about life on the foreign-mission field—the similarities and differences, compared with life in America. How do you boil down a lifetime into a couple of pages? What is the essence, and how is it best communicated? Here’s my stab at it.

Three people stand out as examples of the people to whom we ministered. One was a woman who had been repeatedly abused—used as a plaything—by every man in the village. Whenever we visited the church in her area, she made a complete spectacle of herself—wandering in and screaming in the middle of the aisle, loudly weeping at various points in the service. Another was a young woman who could have run for the “Miss Uganda” beauty pageant, but by the time I met her, she was so ravaged by AIDS that she and her infant son were at death’s door. Another was a Muslim woman who knew that she would find compassion from the Christian community in her financial hardship. These three were very real individuals, and yet they were representative of dozens—hundreds—of other people just like them whom we encountered on a daily basis. The abused psychotic, the dying prostitute, and the Muslim came into our life. We knelt together and cried out to Christ, we encouraged the Ugandan brothers and sisters to share in their lives as they were able, and we witnessed Christ Jesus continuing to build his church.

My Ugandan brothers and sisters were often embarrassed. It felt awkward. When the abused psychotic made a spectacle of herself, the church leaders would stare straight ahead—frozen—cringing and wishing this would all go away. Meredith would sit beside her and gently hold her or pat her back. When the prostitute needed help, she knew that she needed to go to the home of the “mzungu” (white person) to find someone who would listen to her plight.

Christians and Muslims regularly sat in the same row in taxi-vans without lovingly and honestly speaking to one another about the differences in their faith. My alienness—the color of my skin, my language—made me stand out from the crowd and marked me as the “pastor.” Whatever presuppositions people had, whatever they expected from Jesus Christ, they came to me and together we knelt and sought Christ’s face. It was intensely uncomfortable for me, yet it was the price to pay for being a stranger in a strange land. It was intensely uncomfortable for my Ugandan brothers and sisters and was often avoided (“Let the missionary deal with this”). But it was also often awkwardly engaged in—for which I have enormous respect for my Ugandan brothers and sisters.

Two years in suburbia have taught me that there is no significant difference between the US and Uganda. Sure, there are all the window dressings, but the root issues are the same. The abused, the broken sinners, and the pagans are all around us, and yet it seems easier to let the “outside professional” handle things, rather than for us to engage in the awkwardness and uncomfortableness of someone who disrupts our worship service, of someone from whom we might catch a deadly disease, or of someone who might turn a conversation into a shouting match and spoil what was supposed to be a simple trip to the grocery store.

In the affluent community in which I live, there are bitter divorces, financial ruin, and children in vicious, life-destroying rebellion. I turn on the television and am disgusted by the mockery of “reality” shows. I sit in the driveway in front of my house and speak to passing neighbors—and slowly discover that maybe the vileness of reality TV is actually not so far outside the envelope of American experience. The only difference is my interaction: do I laugh and eat popcorn, or do I weep and offer to pray?

So what is the real difference between ministry in Uganda and ministry in suburbia? The more I think about it, none at all. The situations were identical: broken sinners in need of the healing power of the gospel. The responses were identical: awkwardness, yet a stumbling, start-and-stop attempt by Christian brothers and sisters to engage. The catalyst was a little different: I was an obvious stranger in a culture in which people inferred from my skin color that I was a Christian missionary, whereas in suburbia I am just a guy who looks like everyone else. The catalyst had more to do with forces outside myself and far too little to do with my own intentionality. Sure, I made an intentional decision to get on a British Air flight and move to Africa, but after that, I just had to “roll with it” as ministry came to me.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenges of missionary life. Snakes, huge spiders, malaria, death threats, loneliness, and separation from stateside family are very real, and missionaries need prayer. But just like my own differences from my Ugandan brothers and sisters, these are “window dressing” issues. The reality is that all those you encounter are the children of the first Adam, have the law written on their hearts, are in rebellion, and need to be united to the second Adam. Reality is that every man, woman, boy, and girl is either a sinner saved by grace or a sinner who needs to be saved by grace.

The central lesson that needs to be learned—by me and by my brothers and sisters, both Ugandan and American—is that we are all strangers and aliens. My life in suburbia needs to be framed by an intentional alienness in a way that my life in Uganda was unintentionally alien. Our view of the church and fellow humanity needs to be “dumbed down” with the same broad brush strokes that we often apply to people in the developing world. We must see ourselves as sinners saved by grace and reach out to those who need to be saved by grace. It is uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous—whether here or in Africa. It’s a glorious privilege, both here and in Africa. I wouldn’t trade my experience in Uganda for anything—it was one of the most enriching journeys of my life. I wouldn’t trade my experience here in suburbia for anything, either—it is one of the most enjoyable challenges I have ever undertaken. I pray that all of us will be powerful witnesses for Jesus and joyfully seek our opportunities in Judea and Samaria as faithfully as we seek our opportunities in the uttermost parts of the world.

The author is the pastor of Sterling OPC in Sterling, Va. New Horizons, August-September 2013.

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