by Allen Martin,
In my 30 year career as a missionary I have been blessed to have made a good number of friends along the way. As a child I was not very outgoing and did not really have a great number of friends. However, the friends that I made have been my friends for life. I recall my mother telling me many times; “If you want to make friends, then be a friend.” People will respond if we will first offer our friendship.
One of the men who I had the privilege of counting as both a dear friend and a mentor, was missionary pioneer Floyd Woodworth. One of the things Uncle Floyd emphasized time and time again was the importance of making friends with the national brethren that the Lord has called us to minister among. He felt that many missionaries have sadly failed to have much more fruitful ministries because, for whatever reason, they failed to reach out and embrace the true potential offered through close friendships with nationals. None of us are islands unto ourselves, we all need others just as they need us. All too often, we as missionaries living in another culture, see our homes as a refuge where we can retreat to our “own culture” rather than embracing our new culture and opening our homes and our possessions to be instruments and opportunities for reach others. I have found it to be true in Latin America, that if you make a friend then they will be a lifelong friend.
Many years ago, as we were newly in the process of establishing our home among the Quichua Indians of the high Andes of Ecuador, we were confronted with the dilemma of “where should we live.” All of my training in intercultural communications had told me that we should probably live in a mud hut in a village among the Indians that we had come to reach with the Gospel. To this very day I am so thankful and indebted for the wise council that I received from a dear Indian brother. Manuel Sáez was one of the very few Christian leaders that we had in the country at that time and he later went on to become the first Quichua District Superintendent of our new Indigenous District. The advice that I received from him was not to live in a hut in a small village, but instead to find a home in a larger, centrally located town. He said that the Quichua Indians hadn’t had much interaction with North Americans, but that they did know that we were accustomed to living at a much higher social economic level than what they were accustomed to. He confided in me that, if we were to live in a hut, that the Indians would never trust us and not only that; it would also be a real source of jealousy for the surrounding villages that would further hinder our ministry among them. His sage advice was to find a suitable house that was several economic levels above the average Indian home. He suggested that it should neither be a mansion nor a hut, but that the key would be in how we received the national brethren in our home. Taking our cue from our wise friend, we took his advice and it served us very well for all of the many years that we served on that field. As a matter of fact, I am aware of another couple, from another mission, that did in fact live in a hut in a small village in the far North of the country for a period of 19 years. When they did finally give up and return to the states it was due to the fact that they had never been able to win a single soul to the Lord in that small village.
I am convinced that relationships are the currency that truly counts in Latin America. Much more so than even money it is friendships, or the lack there of, that make all the difference. Our Area Director at that time, Norm Campbell, recognized the importance of building relationships when he strongly urged us to invest our first six months in country visiting and preaching in as many churches as we were able to get invitations to visit. He explained his philosophy in this way; “Allen, you can have a tremendous impact and influence as a missionary in this country for many years to come, if you are known and respected, but if no one knows who you are outside of your local sphere of ministry your effectiveness will be severely limited. Once you jump in full time to the ministry that you have come to do you will no longer have the time nor the freedom to travel and visit other churches much less to get to know all of our other missionary works in the country.” Once again, because we took wise counsel to heart regarding building relationships it was to bare tremendous fruit in our ministry for years to come. These many years later I am still good friends with many of those pastors who allowed us to preach in their churches and trust me, it gave us a much better perspective regarding both the geography as well as the political makeup of the national church and its different districts.
One of the most dramatic examples of how the Lord is able to work through the establishing of friendships happened in the dorm rooms of the Bible School that we built and directed in Riobamba, Ecuador. The Quichua Indians (known as Quechua in Peru & Bolivia) that we had come to work among had only been freed from slavery and allowed to be citizens as recently as 1964. You might imagine the level of resentment and prejudice that still existed on both sides. The Mestizos still thought of the Indians as animals and the Indians held tremendous resentment towards those they called “los Blancos” that had kept then in servitude for some 500 years. We even had to deal at that time with tremendous pressure from the Spanish churches because they felt that we were wasting precious Kingdom resources on the Indians.
One of the best ways that we found to prepare ministers among the Indians without removing them from their native surroundings was to bring them together every three months for two week live-in intensive courses at the Bible School. Soon, word spread, and numerous Hispanic pastors also wanted to be able to come and take advantage of these “intensivos.” This then meant that the Hispanic pastors had to sleep in the same dorm rooms as the Indian pastors. They had to eat in the same cafeteria, share the same classrooms and study in the same library. It was not long before they began to take notice of just how hard the studies were for the little Indian pastors who had not been blessed with the same privilege of receiving a solid educational background like they had. They watched them labor into the wee hours of the night trying to keep up with their studies. Then they began to feel compassion for these Indian pastors and began helping them with their studies. Then, miracle of miracles, they became friends! God used those dorm rooms to break down 500 years of abuse and prejudice. It was not long before it became common to see Hispanic pastors being invited to preach in Indian churches and visa versa. Friendship had overcome prejudice.
As missionaries we are often the very ones that need to make the first move. In our case, as opportunity permitted we tried to invite the district and national leaders to our home for meals and fellowship. It is surprising just how much can be accomplished when you sit down to a table and break bread together. There were even those times that we got several missionary families involved and hosted the entire General Presbytery for a special meal. Sometimes that involved renting tables and chairs and setting up an outdoor meal under a rented canopy and at other times it was as something as simple as an American style barbecue where we invited the Presbytery to bring their spouses and children. But the results were friendship and relationship building.
I recall a particularly difficult period in which relationships between the missionary fellowship and the General Presbytery had become especially strained. As the Field prayed about it we felt led to rent a Christian campground and invite the General Presbytery with all of their immediate families to come together with all of the US missionaries and their families for a retreat. We planned lots of good food and some great fellowship. We taught them how to play baseball and they murdered us at soccer. By the end of the retreat the Lord had not only healed and restored the relationship, the new foreign mission’s department was birthed from those wonderful times of fellowship and dialogue together.
Some of the richest times of mentoring national leaders have taken place when I invited different ones to accompany me on trips up into the mountains as we held Bible studies and preached in remote villages. They went with me as we did water baptisms in rivers and served communion or performed weddings in remote mountain churches with dirt floors and simple benches made from rough cut boards laid across cinderblocks. We built strong bonds of friendship as we ate meals of guinea pig and boiled potatoes with goat cheese. The thing is, we did it together and then later they too were able to go and do the same types of ministry and discipleship while taking other young leaders to accompany them.
Food is such a vital part of any culture. When you reject someone’s food you are in essence rejecting them and their culture. A word to the wise regarding food, when you are going to be eating the native food it is not advisable to visit the kitchens where the food is being prepared. In times like those, ignorance is bliss. Another thing regarding eating a meal that you are not sure about; if you will quietly chew a couple of Pepto Bismol tablets beforehand I have found that it is fairly effective in coating the stomach and preventing the absorption of amoebas and parasites. Please, be missionary enough to never permit any disgust to show on your face with regard to any type of food that should be offered to you. I would however suggest, the prudence of coming prepared with a Ziploc bag that you can then use to put the leftovers in so as to take them home with you. That way your host is not offended because you couldn’t or didn’t eat the entire meal. Feel free to dispose of the leftovers in any way that you like, once you are well on your way.
I would also strongly suggest that you make a real effort to become friends with your neighbors. Unlike in many larger US cities where no one really knows their neighbors, in Latin America most folks are still very friendly. Not only will this open doors to give you an opportunity for friendship evangelism in the future, I have found that good neighbors tend to look out for each other. If you have younger children at home, you will find it even easier to get to know your neighbors. If you are friendly with them then your neighbors will keep an eye on your home and will let you know if a thief, or even worse a kidnapper, is stalking your home in order to do you harm. Even today some of our closest friends were our neighbors in the past and a good number of them are now serving the Lord.
Finally, if you are in a position to do so, it is always a very good idea to volunteer to teach a class or two each year at the local Bible School. Not only will you be a welcome blessing, it will also help you to stretch your vocabulary. It is in those classrooms that you will come to know the future leaders of the national church as well as having the opportunity to be a mentor for them. Later as you are planting new churches you will already have established relationships with a number of the young pastors that you might want to work with in the future.
So as my mother was fond of stating; ‘If you want to make a friend, be a friend.”