Sometimes the view we have of missionaries is a 1908 view, of Harmon Schmelzenbach piloting his covered wagon across swollen streams and rugged hills, taking the Gospel message to the Swazi people. Tied up with that picture is a rural view, of being far away from so-called “civilization” and enduring the hardships of missionary life.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still missionaries who live far away from population centers, but more and more missionaries are going where the people are going, and that is to the cities. Rapid urbanization is one of the amazing facts of life on planet earth at the beginning of the 21st century, as this montage so graphically depicts.
One would be tempted to think that the migration to the cities means an easier way of life for most people, that electricity would be readily available, fresh drinking water abundant and good sanitation a given. This is simply not the case. In Nairobi, Kenya, a city of roughly 3.1 million people, many residents only have a couple hours of electricity per day. Others must walk a good distance carrying plastic containers to draw clean water from a distant tap or bore hole, enough for the day’s drinking, cooking and washing.
How can we privileged Westerners who rarely face such a grind of daily living identify with those for whom life is much tougher?
A few years ago, I taught an “Intro to Missions” course at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma. The class was packed with 40 students, most of them eager to learn how they could engage the Missio Dei, God’s mission in our world. I wondered how I could make the realities of life for most Africans live for them. Together with my wife, Amy, we came up with a list of challenges. Each student was to complete three challenges from the list then write up a journal with their reflections on the experience.
For my readers of “Theology in Overalls,” here’s the list. You’re not in my missions class, but you might want to try three of them and see how God will move you outside of your North American comfort zone.
Grace and peace,
P.S. — For those who are wondering…Even here in Nairobi, I have a bed, a pillow, electricity (thanks to a generator) and clean water out of a tap. I truly am blessed. Only occasionally when teaching “remote” have I had to go without these things that are missing far more often for many less fortunate than I.
Take the “roughing it” missions challenge!
1. Sleep on the floor with no pillow for three consecutive nights.
2. If you are medically able, fast for 72 hours, eating no food, but drinking juice or water. Find 15 minutes during each of those days to pray.
3. Turn off your cell phone and MP3 player for one week. Also, no television or internet usage is permitted except for academic purposes — no FaceBook or other social networks, news or sports sites. You may listen to the radio or read the written word (newspapers, magazines, hard copy novels). The point of the exercise is to approximate what life would be like for a missionary living in a place where these are unavailable.
4. Give up using motor vehicles for one week. Walk or ride your bike everywhere. No rollerblades, skateboards or scooters!
5. Attend a worship service at a church where English (or your mother tongue) is not spoken. For example, if you know Spanish, don’t go to a Spanish-speaking church, but to another language group, such as Korean or Vietnamese.
6. For 5 days, eat the same simple meal for each of your three daily meals.
(ex) breakfast — a banana and some juice
lunch — bowl of tomato soup & milk
dinner — sandwich
Maximum caloric intake daily: 1,200 calories
No between meal snacks or red meat allowed, only fish and chicken, since most of the world cannot afford these luxuries. The point is not to dictate the content of your diet but to insist on monotony and small quantity, everyday realities for most people.
7. For a 10 day period, men must shake hands with others when entering and leaving a room, even in the dorm. As for women, you must wear a scarf over your head when in the presence of males for the same time period.
8. Keep a prayer journal for 14 days. Find somewhere secret to pray, like Christians who are being persecuted might have to do.
9. Wear the same clothes (and only one pair of sneakers or shoes) for a period of one week. Extra deodorant, cologne or perfume is allowed. You may have one bucket bath during that time, but only with cold water. Further, the water may not be gotten from the bathroom tap but must come from a more distant source, such as a faucet outside your dorm or apartment. This is a reminder of water’s scarcity in much of the world and how warm water for bathing is often a luxury only for the rich.
10. Volunteer one morning or afternoon at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen.