Editor’s Note: This article is a creative non-fiction piece, and details one person’s journey in understanding young missionaries. The sources, therefore, are her friends- her brother and TBG all-star and Associate Editor Mallory Hines. Please direct any questions toward firstname.lastname@example.org.
A missionary looks like a straight-laced kid. Neatly-pressed khakis, tucked in collared shirt, hair perfectly in place. A missionary lives for God and nothing else. They sell religion onto those in countries in need, where they can find people the most vulnerable. It’s their goal to convert as many as possible to a religion these people may not understand. They’re uptight and make others uncomfortable.
This is the vision of a missionary that we’re all raised to believe, and you’ll find this true in every generation. You hear someone say they’re a missionary, and you roll your eyes, just like I’ve done. You picture them in a small village, going house to house and converting people with no sincerity.
A missionary isn’t focused on numbers, and they’re not a victim of brainwashing. However, as hard as it is to realize that this stereotype is false, you cannot move past it.
Now, I wouldn’t consider myself religious. I do believe in God, but after attending a Catholic school and being forced to study religion and attend mass, I have no intention of ever becoming a church-goer. However, it bothers me that this stereotype is still so solid. Everyone that goes door-to-door is lumped into the same group, one to witness behind locked doors.
“(Christians) are not looked at as genuine,” said Mallory Hines, an MSU journalism senior. “Being a missionary is like being super Christian. Like, I want to go and change everyone’s mind and brainwashing people into believing the Bible. But really it’s just about being a representative of God and just serving people.”
Modern missionaries tend to immerse themselves in the culture that surrounds them. Trips, if you can call them that, are spent in generally-poor or dangerous countries. Whether it’s helping villages scarred by war or illness, or trying to save victims in an illegal business, missionaries give their heart to those they’re helping. Natives aren’t a number, but humans that others have no concern for.
“It’s really hard work, I mean, it’s really hard work. I went to Sudan for (my first trip), and you definitely leave your heart there,” said Nick Kolenda, a 20-year-old missionary and Grand Rapids native. “The whole foundation of what people think of as missions is really false. When people think of Christians, they think it’s people that go to church on Sundays and don’t do anything bad. People will say that they hate Christianity, that they hate religion. But you know what, I hate it too, because that’s not what I follow.”
Kolenda is a part of the organization Youth With a Mission. Everyone involved in YWAM receives no salary, a value the founder also follows, and each missionary is trained for a three-month period before leaving base and going into outreach. The three-month training allows the students to take appropriate classes and learn about the countries they will be traveling to in terms of history, current events and issues.
Hines, who leaves in September for training in Chile with YWAM, will be living in dorm-like rooms with bunk beds. Because this particular base is in Chile, everything will be in Spanish and she is only one of two Americas to be based at YWAM Chile.
YWAM operates in more than 1,000 locations in 149 countries and have more than 16,000 people on staff. Though there are many mission organizations throughout the world, YWAM is one that focuses on bringing change to those in the 10/40 parallel window, a place in the world where people are least-reached and where only 5 percent of the world’s missionaries work.
Though missionaries are stereotyped to work in strictly evangelistic ministries, YWAM provides outreaches in other areas including medical, performing arts, construction and sports. This year alone, YWAM has 400 scheduled outreach trips to countries such as Africa, India, Korea and the Netherlands.
Kolenda recently left for his second mission trip to Cambodia and Thailand, where he will be working with victims of sex trafficking.
“Thailand is the sex capital of the world, and you know, 60 percent of the men that fly into the Thailand National Airport are there for sex tourism. You have little girls sold into sex slavery for many reasons; it could be because they were kidnapped, or often their families sell them for money,” said Kolenda, who added that their mission focus is seeing these girls set free from the restraints they’ve grown up in.
After her training in Chile, Hines will be traveling throughout Brazil and India.
“I’m very excited because I’ve never been to those places and they’re places I’ve always wanted to visit. I’m excited to be able to make a difference and have it be noticeable. I like going on adventures and that’s exactly what this is. It’s cool to be able just to focus on Jesus,” Hines said.
Though many believe that missionaries are intruding by traveling to other countries and that they are not welcome, many have found their experience to be the opposite. Villages in pain welcome outsiders and give everything they have to show their gratitude. Children flock to these visitors and crave a love that’s not often shown to them.
While Kolenda traveled Sudan, his group leader revealed to the guards at a checkpoint that they were missionaries. Because the group was told to never share this information, they were surprised when the guard responded with “you’re welcome,” which in Sudan, means that you are welcome into the country with open arms.
“Sudan has had the longest civil war in history. They need change and they want change,” Kolenda said. “They have realized over the last two decades that things aren’t really going to cut it anymore.”
The hope of Kolenda’s group in Sudan was to help its people see the change they want to make, and with the help of the missionaries, see that change and be able to make it on their own.
When Hines traveled to Mexico with Back2 Back Ministries, the group focused a lot of their attention on local orphanages. It’s there where the smallest things to Americans can mean so much to others.
“Just giving a kid a piece of candy, they’re so excited. We went to this village and I had my camera, and they’d never seen a camera, and they were just in awe,” Hines said. “Seeing people thankful for the smallest things is so rewarding.”
When describing the kindness of Africans on his trip, Kolenda related it to southern hospitality. In a country that lives without so much, its people would give everything to meet the needs of a foreigner. While visiting a Congolese refugee camp, a woman was always there to boil water just so the missionaries could enjoy a hot shower.
“They say southern hospitality is great, but southern hospitality is nothing compared to going into another country where they give you everything and have nothing at all,” Kolenda said.
In Harm’s Way
While the stereotype of a missionary focuses on what they do overseas, there is little knowledge of just how challenging an outreach mission is on the group. In countries like Sudan, where there is no religious freedom, missionaries must conceal the reason they are in the country, or face persecution from officials. It is then that missionaries must ask themselves if God’s really worth it, if it’s worth it to risk your life to spread Christianity.
Though Kolenda rarely felt concern for his safety while traveling throughout Africa, the dangers were clear. Whether it was the gun shots acting as alarm clocks, or having your bus stopped because of land mines in the road, Africa made it difficult for the missionaries.
There were the men that would make cruel remarks to the mission group as they walked by, or fear of running into the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA is well-known throughout Africa as a resistance group that attacks villages and marketplaces. They do unspeakable harm to these natives and often kidnap young children for the purpose of forcing them into the rebellious army.
“From where we were staying (in Sudan), the LRA camp wasn’t even 30 miles away. And to wake up in the morning, hear gunshots and know that the LRA is within 30 miles and that they’ve just beaten up a woman and child (at a local market), and you’re walking their way, that makes you uneasy,” Kolenda said.
In the End
It may be evident to anyone who knows a missionary that the stereotype, as by definition, is completely false. However, we cannot change this way of thinking when children are still raised to believe that missionaries are intruders with no concern for those they interact with.
YWAM is a missionary organization that reaches out to the least-reached. It’s showing love to those who’ve never experienced it. It’s not by saying God’s word but showing his word that Christianity is spread, and you cannot spread a religion and hope for it to survive if you don’t reach out to people and pour your soul out for them.
It’s not about numbers, but putting yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s going to a country with dirt roads and no transportation. It is falling so deeply in love with an AIDs-ridden orphan, that after word of his death reaches you, you mark your chest with a tattoo of remembrance.
Missionaries are human beings with concern for the world. They don’t become a missionary to spread a religion, but spread a name. And no matter how much is said to refute the stereotype held over these dedicated people, they will always be looked at with judgmental eyes.
“It’s just giving people the opportunity to se Christ in you and the way you live your life and your actions. They need to see Christ’s love and Christ living in you,” Kolenda said. “He gave his life for us when we didn’t deserve it. He gave his life for us when we turned our back on him. We’re awful people.”
Missionaries have done life-changing work in countries no one knows or cares about. Yet, the mission of these men and women is lost because of the strength of this stereotype.