Vietnamese Takeout

Despite the fact that people are always telling me that history is important, I’ve never really been a history buff. In fact, I learned nearly everything I know about history by watching Hollywood movies. I didn’t even know about the Apollo 13 thing until, well, Apollo 13. Forest Gump taught me about three Presidents, Elvis Presley, and the Black Panthers. Saving Private Ryan exposed me to the horrors of World War II… okay, so maybe Tom Hanks taught me all the history I know.

Anyway, I read something the other day about how a large percentage of the homeless population in the U.S. are veterans of the war in Vietnam. Many of them came home after the war and were never able to integrate back in to American life and culture; at least not enough to hold down a job and support a family. I guess it would really change a person to be recruited by his country (or worse still, drafted) into the military, trained to kill people and blow things up, and sent off to fight Asian Communists. I can’t imagine how war must affect a person. But I don’t think that war is the only reason we can still find veterans walking down the middle of the street talking to themselves in obscenities at three o’clock in the morning. I think it’s America’s fault.

I think that Americans weren’t really all that into the fight against communism in the first place, and when President Johnson sent all those boys to Vietnam, the country was indifferent. While they were gone, Americans decided they were against this unwinnable war, and began to resent it. They protested against it. And when the boys came back they weren’t welcomed with the ticker-tape parades like the heroes of WWII. No, they were showered with shouts of “Baby Killer!” and other mean things. No wonder the soldiers didn’t fit in when they got back. They did exactly what they were trained and sent to do, and when they got home, we blamed them.

Sometimes it seems like that same sort of thing happens to missionaries.

Now I would never even consider comparing the experience of a soldier fighting in a physical war to what we go through on the field. Especially not those of us in Western Europe. The comparison I’m making is not to the effects of the battle, but to the necessity of support from those who sent us, and the profound effects of anything less than total support.

My recruitment to work for the IMB began when I was four years old. It was a denominational program called “Mission Friends,” and we were taught about brave IMB missionaries who left their homes and went to live among the primitive tribes of Guatemala or wherever. My missions education continued throughout my life: Royal Ambassadors, Sojourners, Centrifuge. They told me what missions was, and how it was done.

So I “enlisted.” I felt God’s calling and made the decision to enter “full-time ministry,” whatever that meant. I went to a Baptist University for training, and then on to Seminary. Both trained me well in the ways of church planting, Bible scholarship, and cross-cultural communication. The IMB put me through a crash-course orientation, and I was off to the “Foreign Field.”

We hit the ground running. We sought out Persons of Peace and worked to learn the language and engage the culture. We started groups and shared our faith. And it affected us. We worked to live out our faith in this foreign context, and it changed us. Doing what we were sent to do had the side effect of allowing us to see ourselves from another perspective. We found it harder and harder to relate to the fat, lazy American Christians and their fat, lazy American Christianity; so full of themselves and their politics and their megabuildings. We began to resent being sent by religious people that wanted us to set up American franchise churches and who threw money at us to “just do our jobs.” We grew frustrated with the increasingly restrictive rules that they imposed without any regard for the impact those rules might have on our ministries. We are becoming jaded.

It wasn’t until the first time I returned to the States on vacation that I realized that the churches, those same people that cheered us on and prayed over us at our appointment, had changed, too. New missions trends, theories, and ideas had swept through the Christian subculture, and the focus had moved on to different unreached people groups. Missions-minded churches were still sending volunteers, but they craved something more “extreme.” Some churches focused only on local “missions,” buying into the idea that overseas ministry is only for rich megachurches. The majority seems to think that by getting involved in IMB politics and trustee antics they are somehow supporting us and furthering the kingdom work. The churches sent us, and then for whatever reason, forgot us.

Now missionaries compete with other missionaries for support. We talk up our flashy new programs to try to get volunteers to come to us and not to Central Asia. We tell stories of how hard it is here to legitimize our work, to prove to you that we, too, are doing real missions. We print up professional-quality prayer cards to attract your attention to our photo on your refrigerator.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.