Lately I’ve been reading the 19th and early 20th century traveler’s accounts of what is now known as the Western Rift Valley and the Ituri Forest, Congo. Some are written by the famous ‘explorers’ such as H.M. Stanley, others written by scientists on expeditions in the area, and still others by missionaries. Reading these accounts puts me in mind of my own experiences, as a scientist working in that same area, with the missionaries that live and work, or sometimes just visit, there.
So, a few missionary stories are in order.
There were several different ‘kinds’ of missionaries working on eastern Zaire back in the 1980s and early 1990s, but broadly two types: Catholics and other Christians. The Catholics were permanent residents, and like my own aunts and uncle who were Franciscan Catholic missionaries for decades in Latin America, the Pacific, and briefly, Canada, they left their mission stations only briefly now and then. The other Christians were evangelicals of various stripes, but almost all were from the US, Australia, or Great Britain. These folks lived for anywhere from a few weeks or months to a few years at their stations, and some were simply passing through.
All of them made me mad, made me laugh, and made me scared, each in their own way. Some were impressive individuals who wanted to, and were able to do, good things. Most of them should have been replaced with secular services and removed from the country a long time ago.
In this and the following stories about missionaries, the names have been changed to protect the innocent, and I will deny saying any of this if questioned by any authorities. Don’t tell anyone where you heard this.
Story 1: “Why I am a missionary”
Among the many missionaries I came to know, there was a family consisting of dad, mom, and a couple of kids, who were stationed in a city I would occasionally visit. It was routine for me and my colleagues to stay in their home, which was nice of them. We had an arrangement. We would stay in their home and stuff, and in return we would provide medicines (which we would buy from the mission station) and medical help to the people of our project area. Why this arrangement worked at all requires a lengthy explanation I’ll provide later. (See “Forget the Maginot Line, What About the Beer Line?” to be published later.)
Since I have a number of stories to tell about these particular, very hospitable folk, I’ll name them for you: They were Joseph and Mary and the children were Joe Junior and Little Mary.
So one day we were at Joseph and Mary’s home, and by “we” I mean my colleague, Rich Grinker and myself. This was early on in the course of getting to know Joe and Mar, so we were talking about those things people talk about when they are first getting to know each other, like what religion are you, and would you not be interested in converting to my religion, and how Jesus first came into my life, and how Jesus saved me, and so on and so forth. Well, mostly, I was sitting quietly watching the servants and wondering if I could get some time alone with them and Rich was wide eyed and astonished at what I think was his first exposure to really really serious Christians.
So I wasn’t paying much attention to the conversation, when I heard Joseph say this: “God told me to be a missionary. Through prayer. I prayed to know what I was to do and he answered me while I prayed.”
Nothing unusual there, for a missionary.
“But when it came to where I should serve as a missionary, I did not know for a long time. The whole time I was at Oral Roberts (the University) I kept asking God where I should go.”
I would have thought this sort of thing was organized by some administrative body, but if God handles that kind of details, well then, fine…
“Then He sent me a sign.”
“A sign?” asked Rich.
I was starting to get interested. Signs from god are always interesting. For one thing, the nature of the sign often depends on the kind of Christian getting the sign. My Catholic missionary relatives got signs consisting of things like the burned image of a hand on a handkerchief neatly folded in the top drawer of the bureau. Protestants received signs as voices in their heads more often, in my experience. So I wondered … what kind of sign?
“Yes,” I added. “What was the sign, Joe?”
“A bumper sticker,” he said without skipping a beat.
“I had been praying and walking around, and I was a bit frustrated. So I just looked at the sky and said out loud ‘Lord Jesus, where am I to serve?’ … and a car came around the corner just at that moment, and the name of the country I was to serve in, this country we are sitting in right now, was printed as plain as day on a bumper sticker on the back of the car.”
Rich and I looked at each other. We both had the same set of thoughts. These were the thoughts:
In our neighborhood in Massachusetts was a discount department store that gave out bumper stickers kind of like those “Where Is Wall Drugs” bumper stickers, but with the name of the store on it. This store was not to be found in Texas or Oklahoma, our missionary friend’s home sate and location of his college. So the car was probably from the east coast, midwest, or southeast somewhere, and had one of the these bumper stickers on it.
So up in Cambridge Mass, at the very moment that we were sitting there in a living room of a modest home in a remote city in the country of Zaire, over in Cambridge at the local Zayre’s Department Store, was God. Waiting. Waiting for Joseph to show up. After all, a sign had been sent.
Rich and I both were thinking … “Right. Zayres. And you’re here. In Zaire. God is probably really pissed off.”
“I’m on a mission from god… to pick up some laundry detergent, toilet paper, and something else, can’t remember…. lord help me remember what I was supposed to get at the store..”
Funny. If you look up Zayre’s department store in Wikipedia, you find this:
Not to be confused with: Zaire, the African country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.