Well, we are down to less than a week before we fly out of Burundi. As I (Carley) sit here thinking over all that has happened over the last two years, the lessons learned, the mistakes made, and the fruit we have seen, I cannot help but retreat into a reflective and introspective mood. As our final newsletter written on the ground, I thought I would outline some of the biggest lessons learned that I would share with all future missionaries and supporters.
1. Being a missionary has nothing to do with location.
I find that people think that just because I live abroad and serve Jesus, that somehow that makes me a “missionary.” This is not true. Jesus calls all of his followers to be missionaries. We are all to be on mission for him. What makes a missionary a missionary is the heart to share the Good News with others, and that should be happening everywhere. Sometimes God calls us to be a missionary in Africa, other times at our jobs, and maybe other times to our own families. There is nothing innately “saintly” about being a missionary abroad. It is an honor in the same way it is an honor to share Christ at the local coffee shop. If you want to be a missionary, make sure you are living it out where you are before you take it global.
2. There are so many beautiful things about the host culture, but they are not perfect.
Too many times I have seen missionaries come to Burundi and hold the culture here on a romanticized pedestal, and in turn, feel obligated to reject their own culture seeing it as disdainful and flawed. They leave ready to chuck everything about their culture out the window because this host culture seems to be “perfect” in all the ways that their culture is not. Generally this comes from people who are here for under six months; even I shared this mindset when I first came. There are good things and bad things in every culture. I do not hate America after living abroad, on the contrary, I am more proud to be an American than almost ever before. Burundi’s culture is beautiful, and there are many things I have learned from the people here, but it is by no means perfect. It is good to have an attitude of celebrating the good things in both cultures with realistic views on the flaws. This way, you avoid the crashing let down when exposed to the deep faults in a culture and are able to have grace.
3. Very little will go as planned; hold everything loosely.
As a planner, I struggle sometimes with wanting everything to go the way I planned it to go. However, living in a culture where nearly everything is unpredictable, I have had to learn to hold plans and visions and opinions loosely. Many missionaries come here, including us, expecting to do one thing and end up doing something totally different. Honestly, it is rare that a day ends in the way I thought it would. After trying to fight against this for a long time, I began to see the beauty and freedom in the spontaneous. We may plan, but God determines the outcome. A plan is still necessary and key to success, but that plan has to be flexible. We must be cautious of clinging to our plan instead of Jesus.
4. Missionaries do not need to forfeit their wealth or status in the West in order to be effective, in fact it might be one of their most important assets.
I have seen the detrimental effects of Prosperity Gospel – the teaching that if you follow Jesus, you will be rich and healthy and prosperous – especially in Burundi. However, I have also seen the detrimental effect of Poverty Gospel – the idea that if you are going to follow Jesus, you must be poor and suffer. More specifically, if you are going to be a missionary, you must be poor and suffer. Many people think that in order to be an effective missionary, the missionary must live in a dirt hut, eat one meal a day, have no electricity or running water, only speak the local dialect, have no Western friends and dress like they are Amish every time they leave the house. Maybe this is true in some places, but it is by no means a standard for missionaries everywhere. In order to be effective in Burundi, it has been essential for us to have a decent house, running water, electricity, good internet, and Western friends. We are blessed with wealth, and the poor culture we are in know it. Trying to be poor like them is an insult, as they have told us many times before. Instead, we can be thankful for what God has given us and use it to bless them in the right ways. Since embracing the fact that we have been blessed with material and relational wealth, that tool has been able to accomplish so much more for the Kingdom of God than if we had seen it as a roadblock to being effective. Sometimes God does ask you to give up those things, so we do not worship them, but giving them up it is not requirement.
5. Know what you are getting into before you buy the plane ticket.
Like us, there are so many people that have no idea what they are getting into before they hit “confirm” on Expedia. It is beyond beneficial to know the culture, the dress code, your contacts, the leaders, the organization’s expectations, the politics, the dangers, and the detailed vision of what is expected in some capacity before you hit the ground for the first time. Talk to people who have been there. Talk to locals. Talk to long-term missionaries. Read books. Avoid taking advice about where you are going very seriously from someone who has never been to the country you are going to without confirming what they have said by people who live there. Of course there is general advice that is very helpful, but you need to be aware of the specifics of the country you are going to. Too many missionaries get here with so many misconceptions planted in their minds that they either fall apart completely and are totally ineffective and a burden on others or they waste a serious amount of time and money trying to recalibrate what is actually going on before they can do anything effective. Take the time to talk to people on the ground, and if you are going long term, spend the money and go there on a vision trip and figure it out before you move there. I promise you, you will save so much headache!
Being here has been the most humbling experience of my life, and the beauty of God in this place has impacted my life in unexplainable ways, despite all the mistakes and errors made. I hope that as other missionaries go out into the world (or their own city!), we are able to bless you and help you and pray for you. Likewise, I pray that we can join those that supported us so beautifully in training up others to love and support their missionaries in the most helpful ways.
See you Stateside!