Life in an Uncertain World – Serving Our Overseas Gospel Workers in Perilous Times

by | Oct 28, 2021 | Uncategorized | 1 comment

By now, we are all aware that there are seventeen missionaries and their family members being held for ransom in Haiti, a country that has been devastated by both civil unrest with the assassination of their president, Jovenel Moïse in July and an earthquake that occurred on August 14 that resulted in the death of more than 2200 people and untold thousands of Haitians homeless. More than 75% of the people who live in the area of the quake live at or below the poverty level. The kidnapping occurred on October 16 and among those held are five children including an eight-month-old infant. All were connected with Christian Aid Ministries of Berlin, Ohio. The group had been visiting an orphanage at the time of their abduction. Haiti is in such disarray from these situations that gangs roam the streets and foreigners, in this case Americans and a Canadian, become easy targets for kidnapping. The gang is demanding a ransom of a million dollars for each of their captives. The kidnapping of Americans is nothing new and Christians are especially susceptible to hostilities as they are more vulnerable than other foreigners who travel often with armed security teams as protection in dangerous regions. Martin and Gracia Burnham were kidnapped in the Philippines by Abu Sayyef in May 2001 and were held in the jungle for over a year until a military rescue effort led to the freedom of Gracia but the death of Martin who was shot in an exchange of gunfire with the guerillas. Check out this essay on the kidnapped missionaries which dropped after my essay was written.

Unrelated and half a world away, word came out of Sudan this week that the uneasy truce that had been in effect in that country since 2019 when President Omar al-Bashir was deposed by a military coup after thirty years of dictatorship has been suspended by the current military leaders. Concern now is that those in control of Sudan will remain in control rather than turning the country over to civilian leadership in mid-November as had been anticipated. This sort of civil unrest is sure to have a debilitating effect on evangelistic efforts in that country which had been opening up recently. One of my former students from my teaching in Africa is from the Sudan and will likely be impacted by this instability.

Speaking of Africa and on top of these stories, my son and his family experienced a robbery a week ago, while the family was at church. Thieves who must have been watching their coming and going, seized the opportunity to enter their property when they left for church and stole cash and technology, including some funds they were saving to be disbursed for an ongoing house renovation project. Thankfully, they recovered some of the personal documents that were taken the next day when the family discovered a bag had been tossed over their wall with the documents inside. But the event was unsettling to say the least.

All of these incidents point to the real uncertainty that Christian workers face around the world nearly every day. While North American Christians argue over vaccines and masks, social justice, worship, and a host of other issues, Christians around the world continue to work for gospel advance in places that are less than stable. Many countries in Africa and Asia have experienced increased poverty due to the uncertainties of the pandemic, making things like kidnapping and burglary greater possible threats to outsiders. Political unrest is ever present in this world from Afghanistan to Sudan to the very steps of the US Capitol making life increasingly dangerous, especially for Christians. None of these incidents specifically targeted believers, but Christians live in and around these places and seek to bear witness for the Lord Jesus despite the instability that is ever present. Christians experience the same instabilities that these events bring to the general population.

How should the church respond to the world and our gospel workers during these perilous times? First, we need to be aware that these co-laborers have left their homelands to take the good news of Jesus Christ to difficult places knowing full well that these decisions come with a certain amount of risk. Many of these places have diseases that the workers are unaccustomed to. They have to learn to live in environments where disease and pestilence are real possibilities. Prayer is the most urgent thing we can do for our overseas partners. Certainly, one thing that Christians should pray for regularly is for the personal safety of these gospel workers in their difficult environs. When political unrest or natural calamity adds additional burdens to the daily life of these gospel workers, greater prayer needs arise. Additionally, our gospel workers need wisdom, wisdom to know just how to respond in these difficult times. Each situation is unique and there is not a one size fits all approach to these problems. Gospel workers need divine guidance through God’s word and good counsel to determine how to best operate under these unique situations. Finally, prayer needs to be offered for the trauma that gospel workers experience during times of increased safety concerns. Gospel workers may be devastated over certain calamitous events. Likely the experience of the seventeen workers in Haiti has sent chills down the back of many gospel workers worldwide. Many labor in places where security is a genuine concern. Will they be the next to face such a threat? Should they stay and minister or leave and seek safety? There are no easy answers. Husbands are concerned for their wives and wives for their husbands especially if they travel in difficult areas. Parents are concerned for their children and children for their parents. The anxiety that these gospel workers may face is enormous and our prayer can help them carry the burden by lifting them up to the Lord. There is something comforting knowing that the church is praying for you back home.

This is part of the “holding the ropes” burden that we assume when we commission foreign workers. Financing them to get to the field is only a small part of our overall ministry to these servants. Encouraging them while they are on the field is our great privilege and burden. When my wife and I first went to serve as gospel workers in Canada, among the Ojibwe, our connectivity with those “back home” was limited to expensive telephone calls and slow mail service. Today, churches can stay in regular contact with their gospel workers through email and any number of internet-calling services. Just before I began this essay, I called my son in Zambia, via Facetime, to get his permission to tell part of his story in this essay. We talked and saw each other through this wonderful technology! What a boon for gospel advance. We just need to use this regularly to appreciate its full potential. I am aware of a missionary who visits with his sending church pastor weekly via this technology. There is just no reason not to know what is happening on the field in almost real time.

Being aware of the needs is only part of the burden we bear with our gospel workers. Looking for unique and specific ways we can increase our commitment to these workers during these specific times of need is also important. In my son’s case, churches and individuals have risen to the occasion to make up the losses experienced, including one church who specifically helped my son fix his security breach with the hopes of prohibiting this from happening in the future. Christians back home need to be aware of occasional expanding needs of their workers on the field, praying fervently for God’s grace on their lives and being prepared to offer what additional assistance may be needed in a temporary or long-term situation. I am grateful, for example, that some churches and individuals have stepped up to provide additional financial support for my son and his family during their crisis.

We live in uncertain times. Is the pandemic nearing an end? Will things get back to normal, whatever normal is? Our gospel workers need rope holders to help them carry their burdens. In recent days, those burdens have become heavier to overseas laborers I know. Let us remember to pray for our gospel workers. They need our help!

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. In 1990, the Lord gave Jeff and his wife a wonderful son who has special needs. Due to issues related to the pandemic, Jeff has had to curtail his travel plans to concentrate his energies on loving his wife and son. When things change, Jeff hopes to again travel internationally to train Christian leaders. He continues to publish in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, and freemasonry as well as Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; as well as Zambia and Kenya in Africa. He also speaks in US churches as the opportunities arise.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Walker

    Good thoughts, Jeff. Thank you.

    Reply

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