I don’t eat bugs or snakes or live in a grass hut, but I am a missionary.
People have asked me, “What’s it like to be a missionary? What are the challenges you face on a regular basis?” In an earlier post, I talked a little about day to day challenges of life in Ukraine. In this post, I want to go a bit broader and share about some realities that may be less Ukraine-orientaed and more generally foreign missionary (some even simply expatriate) oriented.
Please know that missionaries throughout the world have such varied lifestyles, including advantages and challenges. Our missionary experience of church planting and outreach in Ukraine surely differs significantly from a pastor in Africa, a missionary starting a theological school in Germany, someone teaching English in China, or a person doing anti-human trafficking work in Thailand (just for a few examples!). The challenges I share here are not exhaustive, by any means, but I imagine that some of them are pretty common experiences for missionaries worldwide these days.
We’re not all in the third-world anymore.
My heroes growing up were famous missionaries like Hudson Taylor, William Carey, Gladys Aylward, and Ann Judson – men and women who sacrificed more than I can even imagine – their health, their spouses, their children, and more – to the mission field. In their days, when you left all and took to the field, you truly did not know if you would ever see your native land or loved ones again. No email, no Internet – letters came by boat – if they came at all. Conditions on the field were often horrific – disease, no sanitation, no healthcare to speak of.
Images by Joshua Newton via Unsplash
Nowadays, missionary life may look like that for some, but we’re not all in third-world countries anymore. Even in the last twenty years, it’s changed dramatically. When I was a missionary kid in post-Soviet Ukraine in the mid 90s, the stores were fairly empty, healthcare was pretty scary, and we couldn’t get much in the way of American products. When you did find some sort of imported food, it was like finding hidden treasure! There was a sort of unspoken rule among the missionaries that if you found something, you bought it all up and shared among the other missionaries. Even the Internet was a new phenomenon – I distinctly remember telling my friends when we moved, “You need to get email so we can stay in touch!” and their doubtful responses of, “mmmm…I’m not sure about that.”
Today, living in L’viv, Ukraine, we’re five minutes away from a giant superstore, much like a Costco or Sam’s Club. It’s one of many major grocery stores. We can even find some favorite American types of food products, like peanut butter and tortilla chips (sometimes). There are three different shopping centers, like American malls, in the city. L’viv boasts dozens of quaint little coffee shops all around town, even some serving all the popular alternative brews. In the house we rent, we have a washing machine and a microwave (granted, not all people here do, but both are common now). We have high speed Internet and are able to stay in touch with people via email, work online, and stay on social media.
All of these things are such a tremendous blessing – they make missionary life a lot easier than it used to be here, and we’re so thankful. But, interestingly enough, even that in itself is a challenge. We’ve found that sometimes people have an idea of us living in those third-world circumstances, needing toothpaste and toilet paper, when the difficulties today are simply different. People want to help, they want to lighten the burden, which is amazing and such a blessing! But it can be difficult as a missionary to know how to share what our needs actually are, if they’re not those physical goods or conveniences.
Healthcare – Better, But Still Scary at Times
Healthcare is still a big challenge, although it’s much better than twenty years ago here. We actually take our kids to a private clinic, which has much better standards of sanitation and patient care than the public “polyclinics” or hospitals generally offer. As a mama, the service I’m most thankful for at that clinic is a 24/7 patient phone line, which is the first one I’ve heard of in Ukraine. Until now, if our child spiked a fever in the middle of the night or developed some symptoms we weren’t sure about, the only option was to rush to the emergency room. Now – praise God – I can actually call and talk to a doctor to get their recommendation on whether or not an ER trip is warranted.
But, in the event of an emergency, operation, or any hospitalization, we have public hospitals only. I’ve personally been admitted three times to the hospital in L’viv. I will say this – my doctors and nurses here have been infinitely more pleasant than the grumpy, mean medical professionals I encountered living in Dnipro (central-eastern Ukraine). Also, the rooms where I’ve stayed have been mostly clean.
However, there are still disadvantages. Private hospital rooms are not the norm. As I’ve mentioned before, when I had our son, Titus, the recovery room I stayed in for four days was for six women and their newborns, plus caregivers, and it was adjoined to another room, which also had six women, their babies and caregivers. Rooms typically do not have their own toilets, and running water is usually cold only. The patient is responsible to buy all their own medicine and medical supplies. Medical equipment is hit or miss – sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s pretty outdated.
One of my fears is that we’ll have an emergency with Nora or Titus and have to call an ambulance. I’ve been told that there are no private ambulances in L’viv, and you just don’t know what you’re going to get when you call. Sometimes they are nice and modern looking. But other times, the ambulance looks like something straight out of an old movie. The area where we live is often hard for people and drivers to find, so I also have a fear that we would call an ambulance, and they wouldn’t find us in time.
Isolation and Staying Connected in a Busy World
We all know the saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” Missionaries definitely feel the truth behind that one. We all have busy lives, and it’s just plain hard for people to stay connected, ourselves included. It’s interesting that in a day when social media is exploding and it seems easier than ever to stay in touch with people long-distance, somehow the very existence of social media tends to busy our days and our minds to the point of distraction. With hundreds of friends on Facebook, my newsfeed shows me: hey, that person I haven’t talked with since high school just got a dog – but my cousin’s graduation from college didn’t get a chance to make an appearance. It’s so easy to miss things and to lose track of people.
With social media booming, it’s also challenging to get news out there about what you’re doing and what needs you have. How many newsletters, or articles, or blog posts do you skim through, because – let’s face it – no one has time to read it all! There is SO much out there these days! It’s easy for a missionary’s updates to get added to the pile of “I’ll read that later.” No judgement here – it happens to me, too. But, still, it’s easy to feel forgotten.
Life Goes On – Both Here and There
A major challenge I’m noticing as an adult missionary versus a missionary kid is missing out on important life events or being unable to support loved ones in times of grief. While living overseas, friends are getting married, having babies, celebrating accomplishments in education or work. Family reunions are going on without us. My kids don’t get to grow up with their cousins, like I did for the first twelve years of my life. Since moving here two and a half years ago, we’ve lost several dear friends and family members, and we couldn’t be there to support our loved ones.
Furloughs – trips back to our native country – are both a blessing and a challenge. We miss loved ones and friends, so it’s awesome to be able to visit people and catch up. We are currently planning our first furlough since moving to L’viv. I’m thrilled that our kids get to see or meet family, and I can’t wait to hold little ones that have been born to our relatives since we left! The reunions are SO sweet. And, to be honest, it’s fun to eat foods we’ve missed, shop at stores we don’t have here, and take our kids to places like the zoo and children’s museum.
But, while we are enjoying those reunions Stateside, life goes on here in L’viv, which is really home now. People’s lives here change, the church changes, and we miss out on things here, too. So, it’s bittersweet. And, of course, there is the travel and the jet lag. Before becoming a parent of small children, these things were unpleasant inconveniences, a necessary evil involved in traveling and in living overseas. Nowadays, with an almost four year old and almost one year old – I’m convinced that jet lag and long plain rides are the devil’s methods of torture for parents!
In general, life on the mission field is wonderful, an awesome honor that we feel privileged to experience. But, it is lonely. We miss friends and loved ones. As a parent, it’s hard to know that our kids will lack some stability of living in one place, going to the same school, growing up with the same friends. I watch our social little Nora, who loves to play with other kids and always wants someone to come over to our house…and it breaks my heart to think that she will have to say lots of goodbyes in her childhood.
Other challenges are language and cultural barriers, losing electricity or water, losing Internet a lot, lack of conveniences that we’d have in the States… As I said before, this is not an exhaustive list, even of our regular challenges.
How about in your life?
I’m sure it’s no different for you – you can list plenty of life challenges when you stop to think about them. What are some unique difficulties you face on a regular basis? How do you deal with them?
In our situation – we try to laugh. Josh is honestly much better at that than I am, but we try to find humor in the ridiculous situations in which we find ourselves, those “you know you’re a missionary when” moments.
So, will you share with me your “you know you’re a ________ when” moments and tell me how you cope?