Before I had my first child, I dreaded going to baby showers and hearing the various war stories of childbirth. It couldn’t be as painful as they described. Why are women still enduring this torture in the 20th century if it is so horrible? Of course I was the first to sign up for “how to” classes when I discovered that I was soon to join the ranks of these labored veterans. Preparation was the key to survival…and I would be. Then the day came when the first contraction began. A little painful, but not excruciating. What was the big deal? Then my water broke and suddenly life—and my perspective—changed forever.
Before I arrived in Africa, I dreaded attending field conferences where more experienced global workers would reminisce about hard times on the field. I listened to stories of curses by witch doctors, attacks by army ants and living in dung huts. It couldn’t be as painful as they described. Since the apostle Paul, men and women have been leaving their homelands and family to serve the Lord overseas. Maybe it was tough before the age of the satellite dish and laptops, but not now. My husband and I attended cross-cultural training seminars and took courses in language acquisition. We were prepared. Then we moved to Zaire. Sure, the first couple of weeks were tough but we prided ourselves on how “culturally adaptable” we were. What was the big deal?
After a few months on the field I discovered that (like life in the delivery room) there was no turning back for me at that stage of my journey. The hard labor began not with a “water breaking” experience but a gradual progression of the “little” things. When we arrived, our water purifier broke. Two weeks later (when it was finally fixed) we had no water. Half our light bulbs didn’t work and we spent days finding a store where we could replace them. Of course, when we replaced them, the electricity went out. We were told that our resident visas would only take two to five weeks and then we could send for all our belongings. We received our visas after two months and began waiting for our exoneration from customs. It would only take two days. Finally two weeks later it came. We immediately sent for all our belongings and waited the “three days” for their arrival by air. These three days transformed into three months for the bureaucratically challenged. After an eternity of camping out with the few things we brought on the plane, I was in a state that would rival any woman lying on a gurney with her feet in metal stirrups. These little “contractions” included the brakes going out twice on the car…discovering a worm had hatched eggs in my foot …our air mattress blowing up…all my whites being washed with a blue T-shirt…our seven-year-old cutting a hole in her sister’s expensive mosquito net…and my husband spending four hours just to buy a bucket. My life and perspective changed forever.
A lesson that I’ve learned is that being prepared is good. Like the childbirth classes, all the preparation was not in vain. In Galatians 1:17-19 we see that the apostle Paul spent several years of preparation before his first global worker journey. We spent two years in language school learning French so that I could then sit in another language class learning Lingala from a French speaker. We were prepared.
After several months in Africa, my husband Doug and I drove to pick up our children at the French school they were attending. We were discussing the price of eggs when suddenly a car sped around the corner. Doug swerved and barely missed it as he dodged two other vehicles in the entourage. That is probably when I noticed the two jeeps with 50 caliber machine guns mounted on top following the cars. Were we dreaming, or was this a rerun of “Rat Patrol”? No, we had accidentally passed the Prime Minster’s motorcade as he was leaving his office. Doug sped on as we saw soldiers chasing our new four-wheel drive …until he saw the one standing in the middle of the street with a machine gun and his hand held out to stop. We did stop, and within seconds we had a half a dozen men in green army fatigues screaming at us in French. My husband calmly rolled down the window and explained how we were innocently going to pick up our daughters at the school down the street. We didn’t see the soldier assigned to stop cars. One soldier grabbed our papers and told us to wait. As they huddled together, they switched from French to a whisper in Lingala. I stuck my head out of the window and confidently said, “Nakoki koloba lingala” (I can speak Lingala). The men turned, looking like they’d just gotten caught with their hand in the cookie jar. They quickly changed back to French, not realizing that this was the only phrase I knew in Lingala. They began telling us how “grave” this situation was. Since our arrival in Zaire, we had heard how ”grave” something was just before we were hit up for a bribe. “You could have caused an accident with the Prime Minister,” the soldier lamented. Looking at the time and knowing we needed to pick up our kids, I blurted out, “I know Chantal, the Prime Minister’s daughter.” Suddenly, the atmosphere changed from harassment to polite courtesy. We told them we were global workers and promised to be more careful next time. As we drove off, Doug turned to me and asked, “How do you know his daughter?” I smiled and said, “I met her last week, and know her as well as I know Lingala.”
Because of our pre-field training, we entered more confidently than others and had the tools to synthesize certain events. But there are certain things that you cannot be prepared for.
The thing I was not prepared for was the isolation. We were fortunate to make friends quickly and have a full social calendar. The isolation, or loneliness, is much deeper than attending weddings and sharing a meal with friends. It is the loneliness of the experience. No matter how well you speak the language or adapt to another culture, you will still be somewhat different. But the language and culture will change you in such a way that you will become somewhat of a stranger to your own culture. This “in-between” place can be very lonely.
When I went through labor, my husband was at my side holding my hand and speaking encouraging words in my ear with each painful contraction. The doctor and nurses talked me through each stage of the process and played an active role. But I was the one who experienced the excruciating pain that accompanied every tightening of the abdomen. I alone had the popped blood vessels, hemorrhoids and stretch marks after the delivery. In the same sense, this is our field experience: a journey that God has allowed us to go…. alone. We have people standing by holding us up in prayer, whispering encouraging words, and giving valuable input—but we alone are stretched beyond what we thought possible. We are physically and emotionally drained. And we are the ones bearing the bruises and scars. Yet, we know the names and faces of those who have been transformed by God’s Spirit. We alone have the privilege of experiencing the birth of a love for the people that God has called us to. And we will never be the same.
The labor is not in vain.