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For parents of missionaries, saying goodbye is never easy

RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — “Over my dead body!” Those were Connie Beckler’s exact words more than seven years ago when she got the phone call that her daughter and son-in-law had committed to international missions.

“I prayed for everything to go wrong,” Beckler, who is a member of Maywood Baptist Church, Independence, Mo., said. “I didn’t want them to go because they talked about India. They talked about Africa, and I thought, ‘Oh my…. No!'”

Then Beckler’s daughter, Brie, learned she was pregnant with her second child. Late in the pregnancy, doctors admitted Brie to the hospital for pre-term labor where she stayed for three weeks. Her daughter was born nine weeks early.

“I just thought, ‘OK, this is not really what I meant,'” Beckler said. Still she hoped, “But that’s going to keep them here. Maybe they won’t go.”

Instead, Beckler’s newborn granddaughter had no lingering health problems, and the couple began the process of selling their house.

“I thought, ‘Well, [it] will take them forever to sell their house,'” Beckler recalled.

The house sold in two months.

“God [was] just knocking me in the head, saying, ‘I’m not listening to you,'” Beckler said. She then realized, “I had to start praying differently … I had to start praying that they would make the right decisions, that God would lead them where He wanted them to go.”

A parent’s broken heart

Beckler’s initial reaction isn’t necessarily surprising, said Mark Whitworth, head of IMB’s member care group, a team that provides emotional and mental health support for more than 4,800 IMB missionaries serving around the world. Instead, Beckler’s emotions mirror the feelings of many parents, including those — like Beckler — who consider themselves strong Christians, active in a local church.

“It’s very normal for parents to feel a sense of loss and grief,” Whitworth said. “It’s a process every parent must work through.”

The grief process is as varied as the individual, Whitworth explained. For some parents, the process may be more intense than for others.

Although Sharla Rachel, who is a member of First Baptist Church, Carrollton, Texas, applauded her daughter’s interest in missions as a child, she was not as enthusiastic when her daughter and son-in-law announced in their mid-30s their intent to serve overseas.

“When Rose* was in first grade, she came home from a Girls in Action (GAs) meeting at church and said, ‘I’m going to be a missionary!'” Rachel recalled. “That was great when she was 6; it was a different matter when she was 36!”

For 12 years, Rachel and her husband Richard had shared a home with their daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren. When Rose and her family moved to the Balkan region in 2009, Rachel’s sense of loss was profound.

“I had seen those grandkids every day of their lives,” Rachel recalled. “I couldn’t even imagine not having those three kids, and I love Rose … I love (my son-in-law) Steve.*”

Rachel decided to talk with her pastor: “I said, ‘I know in my heart this is the right thing. I know in my head this is the right thing, but my heart is breaking.'”

The pastor’s response comforted her.

“He said, ‘Sharla, that’s OK,'” Rachel said. “‘That’s a mother’s heart that’s breaking, but that’s OK. … It will forever break because you will forever be that mother.'”

Victims of the call

While intense feelings of loss, grief and even bargaining are normal, the situation becomes unhealthy when parents refuse to let go or try to intimidate or “guilt” children into staying, Whitworth said.

Gordon Fort, International Mission Board senior vice president for prayer mobilization and training, agreed. “When parents don’t support their child’s call, I can see it all over [the child’s] face,” he said.

Often, workers simply avoid discussing their work or their call with unsupportive family members.

“My mom has felt like a victim since we left for seminary,” one worker said. “I don’t think it would be healthy for me to have any additional guilt about this.”

Another missionary said, “This is something we constantly wrestle against. Our view is that if this is God’s best for us, then it must be His best for everyone this call touches: our kids, our parents, all the cousins, the entire family. This is His plan for all of us.”

“The safest place …”

Still, even the most supportive parents struggle with the separation and a sense of hopelessness during times of illness, death, political upheaval and violence.

“I cringe when I hear people say, ‘The safest place is in the center of God’s will,'” Fort said recently, speaking to a national gathering of missionary parents in Kerrville, Texas. “You, better than anyone, know the dangers inherent to living cross-culturally.”

Sally Ozment, whose daughter and son-in-law have served in various locations in Asia for more than 20 years, was particularly unnerved by the rise in terrorist activity after the Sept.11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

“[My faith was shaken] particularly when they were in the Philippines,” Ozment, who is a member of Sutter Creek Baptist Church in Sutter Creek, Calif., said. “I know God can take care of them, but as a mother hearing those things you just think, ‘Please, God, keep them safe.'”

In reality, Fort said, missionaries are not always safe. Violence and illness strike. Sometimes, children die. Clarence and Cynthia Beckett* understand that reality all too well. Their grandson, Noah,* died in January 2011 as a result of Burkitt lymphoma, a rare cancer that in the U.S. accounts for about 500 cases a year in people under age 40. Noah, whose parents were serving in Eurasia at the time, was 11 years old when he died.

“To see [our] daughter [and her family] go through something like that … hurt me the most,” Cynthia said. “I was so totally helpless. I couldn’t change anything.”

Still, to see Noah’s strength and the strength of their family when the worst happened also gave the grandparents strength, Clarence said.

Cynthia said, “It’s good to know that your children can walk through something like that and still testify of God’s goodness and never look back.”

Surety and certainty

For many parents, it is this certainty of God’s faithfulness, rather than the safety of the calling, that encourages them in difficult moments.

Robert Lovell, who is a member of Clear Springs Baptist Church in Mascot, Tenn., recalled a 2002 trip to Manila, Philippines, to visit his son, Joe.

“We were in a section [of the city] and I did not feel comfortable,” Lovell said. “I asked Joe, ‘Don’t you ever worry about being in some of these places?’ Joe said, ‘I don’t worry about it, Dad. I look at it this way. If something happens to me [and] they kill me, I will just beat you home.'”

“I’ve thought about that statement many times,” Lovell said, “and I’ve shared it with others.”

Other parents respect the surety of their child’s calling, even if they may not completely understand the reasons for it.

Helga Culbert’s son, Mitchell,* serves in Central Asia. Culbert, who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1980, does not feel that her son is in a safe place.

“I pray for my grandchildren because I always think they are at risk, although Mitchell tells me they are not,” Culbert, who is Catholic but attends a Methodist church in Gatlinburg, Tenn., said. “I worry about them growing up in a totally different environment … because I came from a totally different environment.”

Still, Culbert respects her son’s decision and trusts him to take good care of her grandchildren.

“He does what he believes in, and in a way I am really proud of him,” Culbert said. “Not many people know exactly what they want to do with their life. So in that regard I am proud of him and I support him and I love him unconditionally.”

Ozment, who shares similar feelings as a missionary parent, said, “I know parents that would give anything if their child would go to church once a month…. Mine live [their] call…. It is a huge blessing to know that they are serving God Almighty, that there are people who hear about Jesus who might never hear if they weren’t there,” she said.

“Who would want to change that?”
*Name changed. Tess Rivers is an IMB writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Tess Rivers