by Bradley N. Hill
“Remember your T.P.” That was the code word for “Pack your one suitcase; we are evacuating!” The Evangelical Covenant Church has devised and revised a number of plans to evacuate its missionaries from the Congo/Zaire since work began there in the Ubangi-Mongala in 1935.
"Remember your T.P." That was the code word for "Pack your one suitcase; we are evacuating!" The Evangelical Covenant Church has devised and revised a number of plans to evacuate its missionaries from the Congo/Zaire since work began there in the Ubangi-Mongala in 1935. The probable anticipated causes were four: (1) rebel incursions into our area; (2) government persecution or expulsion of missionaries; (3) intolerable anarchy; (4) general uprising.
In fact, the history of evacuation made our plans seem prudent. The mission was evacuated in 1960-61 when the Congo gained its independence from Belgium, then again in 1964-65 when the Simbas threatened to overcome government forces. After nearly three decades of peace, in the aftermath of the Hutu/Tutsi massacres in Rwanda, Laurent Kabila moved his troops across Zaire in several months to challenge Mobutu at the doorstep of Kinshasa. In each of these cases there was a "clear and present" danger to the missionary community, and it was decided, in collaboration with the national church, to evacuate.
THE EFFECTS OF EVACUATION
Evacuating missionaries has far-reaching consequences both for the national church and the sending agency.
Issues of trust. Can anyone fully trust a "fair-weather friend"? Can the national church truly be discipled by missionaries who will not stay during times of trouble? Evacuation at least raises the question of whether or not the missionaries are "hirelings" that do not lay down their lives for the sheep. As has been said, "Protestants and evangelicals seem to be the first to leave for better, safer places."1
Issues of property. Evacuation leaves a vacuum. In many cases, the church is not prepared to take over maintenance and accounting of the facility. Nevertheless, during the missionary absence, in some form or other, locals run the show. The return of the missionaries is awkward, to say the least. Slowly but surely the mission once again settles in and resumes its programs as they were. Commitments are again made to train, educate, and equip the nationals as soon as possible to run the show … but the next evacuation once again reveals how little progress has been made.
Issues of ownership. The missionary presence is deemed necessary to assure the continuing influx of funds. Money follows the missionary as surely as night follows day. Every "station" wants a missionary, because with the missionary comes a support system that benefits the whole area: an airplane, vehicles, health care, radio contact, etc. Evacuation is a painful reminder of this truth. During evacuation periods, all capital-intensive (i.e., expensive) programs falter. Only those that were truly replicable and meeting the felt needs of the people are sustainable in the missionary’s absence.
Issues of accountability. The exacting standards of mission accounting systems are not sustainable after the evacuation. Of necessity, accounting is "entrusted" to the nationals during the missionary’s absence. Funds are often used by them to meet critical situations, line items ignored, receipts not always kept. Upon return, the mission must "straighten things out"-an audit is needed, and the audit usually ends in drawing a line and starting over.
Issues of reentry. Forced evacuation results in forced "nationalization" of mission enterprises, with mixed results. In some cases, the church leadership has been more than ready for a long time to do this work, in others not. In some cases missionary pet projects come to an end. Only those ministries that have an indigenous, equipped leadership already committed to that particular ministry and philosophy will survive. The return of the mission tends to be a return to what was. Yet things can never entirely return "to normal."
Issues of strategic reallocation of resources. Historically, evacuations have resulted in a redistribution of missionary resources. The evacuations of the 1990s resulted in the Evangelical Covenant Church developing ministries in seven other African countries in cooperation with other national churches and sending agencies. But because these former missionaries to Congo/Zaire have now made long-term commitments to other ministries, the "reopening" of the Congo missions, when it comes, will not see a stampede of missionaries just waiting in the wings. A few may return. Most will not.
Evacuations, then, receive a mixed review. On the negative side of the ledger, they disrupt vital ministries (for example, health care diminishes) and the flow of materials. The nationals may feel abandoned, and the missionaries regard themselves as a "refugee" people in need of relocation. On the plus side, the success or failure of the mission to equip and train the nationals is clearly revealed. What ministries continue during missionary absence reveal the true felt needs of the church and people. And lastly, the Lord often uses evacuation to scatter his people around the world. The various movements for a missionary moratorium in Africa have not been successful. Evacuations become involuntary moratoria.
FROM THESSALONICA: A THEOLOGY OF EVACUATION
Should missionaries ever evacuate? If " Yes," under what circumstances? For what reasons? A "No" answer implies a readiness to stay and die, the ultimate act of identification with the people and obedience to the Lord’s call. Covenant missionaries have not all been of one mind on this subject. Some would have stayed had they not been ordered by headquarters to leave. Others would go back at any time regardless of any danger in obedience to what they believe to be God’s call. But the majority felt it was only prudent to leave until things were again stable, and in fact, that it was for the good of the church to do so. Who is right? Both are operating from noble motives.
Acts 17 describes Paul’s arrival in Thessalonica. He had come there as a direct result of the "Macedonian Call" (Acts 16: 9). Clearly the Holy Spirit had prevented the band from going elsewhere and had bid them come to Macedonia, which included Thessalonica. This was confirmed by open doors in Philippi. Paul was imprisoned there and beaten. When released, he did not flee.
Certainly Paul’s concern for his physical safety is minimal. When stoned outside Lystra and left for dead, he gets up and goes back into the city. He heads directly for Jerusalem, knowing that he will be arrested. Not once in any of his recorded prayers does he pray for safety, only that an opportunity would be found for the gospel. So we have the case of an absolutely clear call, confirming fruit, and a faith-filled, courageous man. Yet he evacuated from Thessalonica. Why?
Scripture records that he was with them for just three sabbaths. He had the usual mixed results: Some were persuaded and joined Paul, and others formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. Paul had evidently been staying in the house of a certain Jason. When the mob failed to find Paul there, it seized Jason instead. The mob accused Paul and company, and by implication Jason and the new believers, of disturbing the public order. They were also accused of sedition, proclaiming another king, and violating the decrees of Caesar. These are familiar, historic accusations leveled against Christian missionaries.
The authorities received a pledge or a bond from Jason and "the others" and let them go. This had the effect of making Jason and the "others" liable for any damage that might occur, including damage due to riot. The lives and livelihood of the whole fledgling Christian community were in jeopardy.
The brethren then sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, where the same scenario was repeated. Some believed Paul. Agitators stirred up the people, and the brethren sent Paul out to sea. From there he went to Athens. Nowhere does it suggest that Paul considered his retreat to be an abandonment of the call or in any way an act of disobedience. Neither can we attribute it to cowardice.
What are we to make of this? Three principles suggest themselves as a basis for evacuation.
1. A viable Christian community had been established. How many Thessalonians believed? We are not told a number, but it must have had some size. Scriptures say, "some of the Jews were persuaded" and "along with a great multitude of God-fearing Greeks" and "a number of the leading women." The books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians make it clear that Paul was anxious about their continuing in the faith, but he had left them sufficient knowledge to soldier on. Again and again he repeats the phrase "as I told you" or "as you know." And he rejoices in how their faith was known by all and how they, themselves, had become a model to be imitated (1 Thess. 1: 6-7). They became missionaries themselves (v. 8). This was a group that could be left with all likelihood of survival and even continued growth. The picture might have been different had the church been too small or weak to survive without him. It is speculative to be sure, but would Paul have then evacuated?
Today missionaries are far more likely to evacuate when they know the church they leave behind is strong enough to stand and even prosper in their absence. Their continued presence is not a matter of spiritual life and death. The missionary presence is helpful but not critical to the continuing life and growth of the church.
2. The continuing presence of the missionaries Paul, Silas, and Timothy put the church in danger. They were the outsiders, the ones who had "upset the whole world," the ones ostensibly preaching treason and bringing anarchy. Jason and company were known quantities. The strangeness of the newcomers, whose ancestry was not well known, who did not fit into the social fabric, whose accent was strange, and who were not native born, was the volatile point.
Covenant missionaries, as mentioned, were white, rich, and Western. At times, this brings blessings to the church. Western missionaries can bring material aid, technology, and new ideas. Their very strangeness opens new vistas for many a villager. But there are times when their presence also brings danger. American missionaries, whether they like it or not, trail behind them the odor of former colonialism and Western imperialism. To the degree the national church is identified with these things, the church is vulnerable. In fact, the recent rebel incursions into the Ubangi only substantiate this point, as the rebels arrested church leaders and ransacked their homes, looking for radios and wealth the missionaries must have left behind. Others are accused of spying for "the other side."
3. The believers asked the missionaries to leave. In both Thessalonica and Berea they did not volunteer to leave but were asked to leave by the brethren for both the good of the church and their own safety. The national church does not want to have the responsibility for safeguarding the missionaries during times of civil unrest. Great is the sense of guilt when a "foreign missionary" suffers and dies needlessly. Church people know how fragile Westerners are, how poorly they would fare in hiding. They also know that rumors of missionaries in hiding would spread quickly, and that the threatening forces would soon find them anyway. Their arrest would lead to the arrest of the church leaders. The church would be identified with the foreign interests. Paul understood this and so allowed himself to be sent on. It was as much an act of faith and courage for Paul to leave them as it would have been for him to stay. His departure did not disobey the call, but the call only continued to move him on to new places of effective service. The call is never static.
Missional situations are never as clear-cut as we would like. For that reason Robert Klamser recommends that a mission agency have many sources of information regarding sociopolitical events.2 It is as easy to overestimate the situation as to underestimate it. But at least this seems to be a clear biblical model: When the new church is viable, when the missionary presence itself becomes a liability to the church, and when the nationals themselves ask the missionaries to leave in the face of serious threat, it is time to "Take your T.P."
Missionaries put themselves at risk for a variety of reasons and motives. Some believe the Lord is calling them to stay and possibly die, knowing that the safest place is in the center of his will. For others it is due to a faulty analysis of the situation, the tendency to downplay the threat. Others just stay too long and "get caught" when they intended to leave. Danger for others puts stress on psychological fault lines. They think, "I must stay to prove my faith, obedience, and courage," because they are uncertain of these things in their lives. Others reason, "I must stay to prove my love for the people." In these latter cases, the decision is often more about the missionary and his or her needs than the church or the call.
Certainly there are times and places where the blood of the martyrs is the only way and is what Christ indeed calls us to. As has been said, "The ultimate criterion must always be God’s direction for our individual lives and our corporate lives."3 It may well be that the ". . . tilt is towards a strategy for maximum safety and a minimum of risk taking."4 However, there will be times when believers, whether missionary or national, say with Polycarp, "I bless Thee for counting me worthy of this day and hour . . . ." It has been said about the slow growth of the church in Muslim North Africa that it is due in part to too few martyrs. It is also true, though, that it can be a greater act of faith, courage, and obedience to go on and live for Christ than to die for him when there is no clear mandate to martyrdom either from Scripture, the church, or the circumstance.
1. Lucien Accad, "Stay or Leave?," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January 1992, p. 55.
2. Robert Klamser, "When and How Should We Evacuate Our People?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January 1992, pp. 48-52.
3. Klamer, p. 52.
4. Phil Parshall, "Missionaries: Safe or Expendable?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly, April 1994, p. 162.
Bradley Hill and his wife Ruth served in Congo/Zaire under the Evangelical Covenant Church for 19 years in pastoral training and church planting. More recently he was served as senior psator of the Bellingham Covenant Church, Bellingham, Wash. He holds the M.Div. from North Park Theological Seminary and a D.Min. in missions from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, Portland, Ore. He is the author of Soul Graft and Slivers from the Cross (Covenant Press).
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