RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The question came up over breakfast with a friend.
He’s dedicated to supporting and participating in international missions. But as war looms, attacks on missionaries increase and threats against Americans multiply, he’s concerned. And he’s thinking hard about how to express his missions commitment in the immediate future.
Is it safe, he asked, for American Christian workers to continue serving overseas?
It’s a fair question, and my friend is far from the only one asking it.
The short answer: Yes. Statistically speaking, virtually all of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who travel, live and work abroad do so safely. The few who do encounter danger or death, even in this age of terrorism, usually find it in the form of road accidents and local criminals.
But perception trumps statistics. And the wrenching experience over the last year of American Christian workers attacked, kidnapped or killed in the Philippines, Pakistan, Lebanon, Yemen, India and other places has taken a psychological toll even on committed mission supporters.
As the probability of war in Iraq grows, the State Department has “strongly urged” American citizens living in the Persian Gulf region to consider leaving. In late January the department advised Americans residing anywhere abroad to make basic “precautionary” preparations for quick evacuation “given the potential for acts of violence, terrorism, or anti-American demonstrations….”
“We are monitoring the situation, and we have contingency plans for various eventualities,” says Clyde Meador of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, who helps administer the work of more than 5,400 missionaries. “We plan our response to certain events before those events happen.”
This comes amid a climate of increased anti-Americanism, exacerbated by the move toward war with Iraq. A Pew Research Center survey of public attitudes in 44 nations late last year found growing resentment about American actions and policies.
Missionaries abroad, however, usually find that local people make distinctions between American government policies and individual Americans — particularly Americans who come to serve and befriend them.
“It’s all so iffy,” says one Southern Baptist worker with long experience living in the Middle East. “It’s hard to predict who’s going to react in what way. [Mission workers have] to be on tentative alert, but they’re going about their daily lives normally. It doesn’t loom over them quite as much as it does” in America with its near-hysterical, 24-hour news cycle.
Bottom line: Mission work remains far less life-threatening than it was a century ago. But there are no “safety guarantees” in serving God — never have been, never will be. The Lord promised to go with us to the ends of the earth and be with us to the end of the age, but he doesn’t promise a safe return in this life. Missionaries know that before they go, and they accept it willingly.
“You do not go because Southern Baptists enlisted you, your church selected you or the International Mission Board has deployed you, but because God has called you,” IMB President Jerry Rankin told 52 newly appointed mission workers last month. “You have no assurance of harvest and response. You are going to people who have hardened hearts and are blind to the truth, but they can never respond if they have never heard.
“Though you go to places of risk and danger, though you encounter trials, illness, misfortune and even threats, do not fear the people or their words, but trust in God. He is your strength, your refuge, your stronghold. You go in his power, his protection and his provision.”
Bridges, whose column appears twice-monthly in Baptist Press, is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.