As a RCA missionary on home assignment, I’m always pleased when I can do Q & A at a church after my regular presentation. It’s useful to know what aspects of my work resonated with the members and what parts of missionary life pique their curiosity. Inevitably—usually as one of the last questions—someone will ask, “What do you miss most while living in Niger?”
I do understand the “why” behind that inquiry. Niger is a harsh place to live and work, with few amenities or Western goods—and it’s a long ways from home. People are probably asking themselves “Could I do that?” in terms of coping with life in a non-Western world when they pose that question. Also, they're naturally curious as to what a missionary may be nostalgic for while overseas.
I usually respond that with cell phones and the internet, we can keep in close contact with family and friends these days. After 10 years on the mission field, I’m pretty well-versed in how to navigate life in Niger and its limitations. However, I admit that when given the chance to receive a Western item, I usually ask for boxed pepperoni, as it isn’t available, it’s relatively cheap and easy to transport and all the family loves that treat. This usually generates smiles and nodding heads in the audience.
If I’m particularly feeling reflective, though, I might respond about how I miss interacting with Americans who are particularly talented and knowledgeable in their field and who can help me learn something new or deal with a problem that’s beyond my competency. In comparison, life is pretty simple in the African bush and most of the people I encounter have very little training or education, though they typically have other gifts and skills.
Yet, at another level, I have trouble relating to the question. First and foremost, I went to the mission field to serve Christ because I was called to do so (and for me full-time mission work had never been a life-long dream). Simply put, I wouldn’t be suitable for cross-cultural ministry if my life was defined by desiring the American dream. Jesus alluded to this reality in Luke 9:62 when he said "Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God." (ESV). Those who constantly long for a life they left behind often don’t stay long on the mission field or they unconsciously try to make their new world into a version of their previous home with poor contextual witness being the result.
The larger concern may be, “Are we letting our possessions and preferences define us OVER who we are in Christ?" Similarly, should our personal plans and needs take priority over what God wants for our lives? I recently saw a seminarian (perhaps in jest) write that he wanted to be pastor in a community that had an organic food market and a gourmet coffee shop*. Would this person refuse a call to a poor inner-city church or to pastor a small Midwest farming town that has a growing population of Mexican immigrants—but no Starbucks ? How do you follow Christ in life when you already know where you’re going and what you need? Whatever happened to “my grace is sufficient for you”? (2 Cor 12:19).
I don’t consider myself an ascetic (especially with my ample belly). Being a missionary in Niger, though, has profoundly changed me. I’ve buried in Niger many dreams, tastes and even skills that I once considered integral to how I saw myself. There are times when I miss the “old” me and days when I’m not sure I appreciate the “new” me, but I have no regrets in going where Christ has led me. He has always provided for me and my family. More and more, I want what He wants for me. Anything additional is a blessing!
*This example has been slightly modified.