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Wild Indians…and Other Common Misconceptions

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Going Tribal Isn't What You Think

By Carol Martin – What kind of person does God call to the mission field?  Is mission work reserved for the super-spiritual, people who effortlessly forsake the luxuries of "civilization?" 

In her new book, Wild Indians…and Other Common Misconceptions: A Real Life on the Mission Field, author Carol Martin recounts the true story of her life as a missionary to the Guayabero, a tribe native to the Colombian jungle. The joys, hardships, hilarious moments, and tragedies her family experienced give a genuine impression of what happens when regular people answer God’s call to “go into all the world and make disciples.”

When Jack Keels married Carol, he knew she was not a Christian, and he breathed a sigh of relief.  For several years he had been evading a call to the mission field, rationalizing that he would send money instead—unless God gave him a wife who also felt called to missions.  But God had great plans for Carol’s life.  Only one day after becoming a believer in Jesus Christ, Carol announced to her husband, “I’m going to be a missionary.  I hope you’ll come.”

The Keels decided to work with Wycliffe Bible Translators.  With their two young daughters still in diapers, they packed up their few remaining belongings and headed for the jungle.  The couple had big plans for the conversion of the tribe.  “I had the common misconception that missionaries were the happiest people on earth, and that once we became missionaries, we would live happily ever after,” Carol remembers.  “And God’s timeline is not always one that we would choose.”

Jack and Carol served the Lord gladly, braving the illnesses and adjusting to the primitive living conditions, the isolation, and the constant mockery of the Guayaberos, who turned out to be not-so-wild, after all.  Carol gave birth to two more daughters in Colombia, and the family developed a deep love for and trust with the Guayaberos. Yet it was four long years before anyone in the tribe came forward to help the couple learn the language. 

Carol’s vivid memories of life in Colombia run the gamut from the comical (Carol’s first encounter with a bat) to the tragic (the deaths of three Guayabero children in four weeks).  She answers some of the most common questions about the lives of missionaries, describing her family’s living arrangements and medical issues, the missionary kid experience, and the acceptance of the possibility of martyrdom. 

Carol’s engaging and transparent narration makes a lasting impression, particularly as she debunks the common myths about missionary life.  “I hope my experiences will eliminate for the reader any misconceptions of the mission field that might be holding them back from answering the call themselves,” she says.  “Truly, the harvest is plentiful and the workers few, and most Indians are in fact very friendly.”

She recently discussed her book and her experiences as a missionary.

What do you miss the most about being on the mission field?

Every Christian is called to be a part of what God is doing.  Being a translator is like being on the front lines. People, support personnel, come alongside to help you. People from the U.S. take short term missions and come alongside to help you. Prayer partners pray to help you.  All this because what you are doing is so significant—you are on a mission.  

There are really very few things in life that are important.  That people know the LORD is just about IT.  So to be on the front lines to share this good news is such a privilege, a responsibility.  It gets in your blood...all else pales in comparison.  

Today, I am part of a great ministry, but I am far from the front lines.  I’m back in the trenches.  Now it’s my turn to come alongside, to support.  Often, I don’t even know the end result.  I labor in faith that this too is the job that God has given me.  “We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which He prepared in advance for us to do.”  This gives me great satisfaction, but sometimes I do miss the front lines. 

I also miss the Guayaberos.  Often I find myself wondering who is still living?  Who has died?  Jack and I worked with them for seventeen years, but there were no believers when our ministry ended.  The missionaries who currently work with the Guayaberos have told us there are now fifteen believers.  I wonder who they are.  Do I know them?  The children I loved…they would all have children now.  I have missed out not knowing them, not knowing how their lives have turned out.  Do they still have enough land to fit their lifestyle?

There are many popular notions of the hardships of missionary life—particularly the primitive living arrangements.  What were the biggest sacrifices that you made to live in the field? 

We are told to count the cost of following Jesus.  Years before I became a missionary, as I sat in my centrally air-conditioned, wall-to-wall carpeted home that was fully equipped with running water, two inside bathrooms, electricity, washer/dryer, refrigerator with ice dispenser, two televisions…these things, I’m ashamed to admit, were the things that came to my mind as I considered the cost.  How could I possibly have counted the cost?  I lived in luxury and comfort, and, being far too focused on material things, believed these would be my sacrificial offerings.

Once I was actually in the field, did I miss my air conditioning?  Definitely.  Did I miss indoor plumbing?  Absolutely.  Were these the things I missed most?  Definitely not.  What, then, are the sacrifices a missionary makes?

First and foremost, missionaries give up time with their extended families.  My Grandma Redman died.  Going to her funeral was out of the question.  I grieved alone.  My youngest sister, Janey, got married.  She made a beautiful bride, I’m told, but I wasn’t there.  My parents moved twice to homes I never saw.  Nephews and nieces were born, grew, walked, and talked before I met them.

The second biggest sacrifice for most missionaries is their health.  Not only are there a great new variety of ailments, parasites, and diseases, the health care is often at a great distance and substandard.  Many of our fellow missionaries got malaria and hepatitis.  Of course, my daughters and I got parasites…roundworms, whipworms, pinworms, and amoebas.  My daughter Joy was about eight months old when I found a live, twelve-inch long roundworm in her diaper.

“Call the plane!” I yelled at my husband Jack.  “I’m going home!”

He calmed me down.  We prayed.  We treated Joy.  We stayed. 

How did you cope with the reality of being so far from your extended family?

This feeling of loneliness, of missing out on family back home, is a universal one.  All of the missionaries we served with in Colombia knew the ache for our families we left behind.  We filled the void by becoming surrogate families to each other.  As a result, many strong bonds were formed.  We celebrated holidays and birthdays together.  We invited singles.  No one was ever alone on a holiday.  My family still keeps in touch with some of the dear friends we made in Colombia.

Many times when missionaries return to the U.S. on furlough, they feel like fish out of water.  How did you feel the first time you returned to the States?

A book could be written entitled Missionaries on Furlough.  I had experienced a degree of culture shock when I moved to South America.  This was expected, and we had prepared ourselves as best as we could for the transition.  Returning to the wonderful USA, however, threw us into a culture shock we didn’t expect.

The fast pace of American culture brings rapid change.  While we were living in a laid back, “I’ll do it tomorrow, there’s no rush” atmosphere, people in America were very busy expanding, developing, inventing, and multiplying.  On a trip to the grocery store, the choice of cereal alone can cause heart palpitations

When we came home on furlough, I hadn’t driven a car in five years.  I couldn’t find the door handles, couldn’t figure out how to use the defrost.  When I went to gas up the car, I couldn’t figure out why no friendly attendant came to help.  There had been no such thing as self service when we left for Colombia. 

We watched as another customer gassed up his car.  I thought, “We can do this—just unscrew the cap.”  But alas, we couldn’t find it.  We looked first on one side, then the other, then danced and moved around the car, trying desperately not to look foolish.  We didn’t manage to find the cap, so we got back in the car and burst into gales of laughter.  We later learned it was hidden neatly under the license plate, of all places.

Besides visiting family, most missionaries use the time on furlough to raise financial support.  We stayed with many kind, generous people who opened their homes to us, fed us fabulous meals, and treated us like family.  But by the time our furlough was spent, I was rather eager to return home to Colombia.

What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions people have about missionaries?

I have observed that people commonly assume that missionaries are super-spiritual, certainly more spiritual than the average Christian.  Missionaries are so spiritual, they can’t be bothered with what kind of clothes they wear.  They probably won’t notice, and—even if they do—they won’t care if you give them a used bag to make their tea.  I had the common misconception that missionaries were the happiest people on earth, and that once we became missionaries, we would live happily ever after.  These misconceived ideas gave me no reliable basis for counting the costs of following Christ anywhere, let alone the mission field. 

The truth is, missionaries are just people like anyone else.  And things don’t always turn out “happily ever after,” even when you follow the Lord where he leads. 

After seventeen years with the Guayaberos, my husband Jack and I had built loving relationships with the people and had translated parts of the Bible and compiled a hymnal—but we still had no known converts.  When our ministry came to an abrupt end, Jack was overwhelmed by feelings of failure and bitterness.  He started drinking heavily.  Eventually, we divorced and his battle with depression ended with his suicide. 

No, missionaries are not necessarily super-spiritual.  We are just people, and sometimes people have problems, and they forget to give those problems to the Lord.

Want to know more? Check out Wild Indians…and Other Common Misconceptions: A Real Life on the Mission Field.

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Interview courtesy of The B&B Media Group.


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