Think of a missionary and your vision will probably be along the lines of: Someone who leaves behind his job, family and comfortable lifestyle to travel around to world, usually to some remote third-world country, to preach the Gospel. At least that was my idea of missionary work – until I met American missionary teachers in Indonesia.
I first met Charity at the Pattimura International Airport in Ambon, en route to the Tanimbar Islands to attend a Bible dedication ceremony. Despite the long hours of travel, she had such infectious energy that I momentarily forgot about my own travel fatigue. I asked her what she does for a living and she replied, “I teach missionary kids.”
“As in… the children of missionaries?”
Not the sharpest question there, but thankfully Charity, who was seven months pregnant, replied good-naturedly: “Yes. Missionaries send their children to our school while they work on the mission field.”
That was new to me. My idea of missions work had always been a “man into the wild” concept – all about missionaries heading to where the harvest is plentiful, preaching the Gospel to those who have no access to the Word of God.
Little did I know that they are countless of men and women of God who also leave behind their families, travel thousands of miles away from home, but do not call themselves missionaries. They support missionaries.
“Often when you think of missionaries and workers, you have to be the Bible translator, or you have to work in the 10-40 window (referring to the Northern latitudes which include North Africa, the Middle East and large swathes of Asia), or with the people that are most underprivileged, or you need to be in the jungle,” said Charity.
“So there are those few that are called into the really front-line ministry.
“But the rest of us are linking up with them – we’re helping them to do what they need to do so they can be effective in the missions field.”
“I call us an elbow in the body of Christ – we are that middle link.”
THE NEED FOR AN EDUCATION
Many considerations come into play when a missionary decides whether to enter a particular country for missions work, but education often remains the top priority. Can my children get quality education in that country? Would it be difficult for them to enter college in the future?
There are numerous international education networks that do just that, and one of which is the International Network of Christian Schools. The ministry consists of 18 schools in 15 different nations, including Korea, China and Singapore. Charity has been teaching at its school in Bandung, Indonesia (Bandung Alliance Intercultural School, or BAIS) since 2002.
She joked that initially, she did not even know about the existence of Indonesia. But 16 years on, she is not only just teaching at the school, she is also its elementary school principal.
“God showed me that His work needs everybody. You need doctors, you need teachers, you need lawyers and for the Bible translators to do what they need to do, they need to have the peace that their children are taken care of.”’
FINDING THAT CALLING
The preparation for teaching in Indonesia started early for Charity. As early as 6th grade – when she was around 12 years old – she knew she was called to teach overseas, something which she was “excited” about. She even taught in South Korea before moving to Bandung. But for others, such as Stefanie Arrington, the call requires major sacrifice and submission.
It was 2011 and Stefanie had just finished a degree in Special Education the year before. Coming from a small hometown in Georgia, she took a big step forward when her first teaching job in Savanna moved her two and a half hours away from her family.
“Both my sisters live about six minutes away from my parents in either direction. Everybody in that town is related to me,” she quipped.
“Nobody really leaves (Georgia). You’re born there, you live there, you die there, basically.”
She only saw her family and friends once a month, when she drove back to her hometown for the weekend. If living two and a half hours away was a struggle, one Sunday, her world would be turned upside down.
Stefanie recounted a drive back to Savanna after visiting her family. She had been asking God: Why is this so hard? I don’t feel at home in my hometown anymore and I don’t feel at home in my new town.
“And just as clearly as you sitting there, and I can hear you talking to me, I heard God say to me: ‘I am calling you to something bigger.’ I literally just pulled my car over to the side of the road and just wept.”
It was not long before Ms Arrington received confirmation that God had called her to teach overseas.
Despite her initial shock, she started to research on teaching jobs overseas with an open mind.
“I basically said: ‘You know God, I am willing to go wherever. So wherever you call me I will go, it doesn’t matter what country, I don’t care.’”
When both of the international networks she applied to offered a teaching job in Indonesia, the destination was “pretty clear”. A long Skype interview with Charity and a week’s wait later, she secured a position to teach kindergarten in Bandung. The next task: Telling her parents, who had only ever known the life in Georgia.
“I drove the two and a half hours, I got to my parent’s house to surprise them – they didn’t know I was coming. As I walked into the house, Charity called me on my phone to officially offer me the job. So I told my parents to hold on, excused myself, went to the back of the house, talked to Charity on the phone, accepted the position, then walked to the living room and said: ‘So, I just accepted a position to go work on the other side of the world.’”
God was indeed calling her away – 10,599 miles away to be exact – to something bigger.
CLASSROOM AS THE MISSION FIELD
Bandung Alliance International School is also open to children of businessmen and businesswomen from all around the world, many of whom are in Bandung for its large textile industry. So the MKs – the missionaries’ kids – share a classroom with many non-Christians.
“I’ve had children that have never seen the Bible before. They come from atheist or agnostic backgrounds and so I get to present the Bible to them for the first time,” said Charity.
“At the same time I have classes of kids that are missionary kids that have grown up with this all their lives, and I get to disciple and challenge them.”
However, the lines between being a teacher and being a missionary can be hard to draw. For Krystle Ripley, she had to consciously separate the two when she first started teaching. Gradually, she learned that she can be a missionary wherever she is planted – that the two roles need not exist in isolation. Instead, they should converge, she said.
“I’ve come to realise that everyone is called to engage in missions. Everyone is called into discipleship. So, as a missionary, it is my job to share Christ across cultural boundaries. Among my kids from Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Australia and Britain, I get to present to them that when they put their hope in Christ, they no longer have to live in sin.”
This means the teachers witness their students living transformed lives. Whole families have come to faith through the decisions that their kids have made.
Yet, there are also times when a child’s new-found Christian faith can come in conflict with their parents’ beliefs. As the teacher, you have to help him or her struggle through, said Charity.
“The biggest thing I tell my students is that you need to honour your father and mother, and while you’re in their house, you need to obey them.”
Charity recalled a time when one of her 5th-graders, who came from a Hindu background, became a believer and instantly wanted to tell everyone around him about God.
“His chance to tell his parents came when I went over for dinner. He looked at a picture of a Hindu god on the wall and he’s like ‘That’s not the true god, Jesus is the true God. We should only worship Jesus’.”
With an incredulous look on her face, she continued: “He knew he could get away with it while I was still in the house, so he took the opportunity to share the whole Gospel and I was like, I’m just gonna need to be praying for him right now.”
It didn’t pan out the way the boy had hoped, though. He became so forthright with his faith that his parents pulled him out of the school and sent him back to India.
“And those are times where you go, ‘Okay God, you’re in control, for such a time you put him in our school and now we have to give him back to You and You will do whatever you want with his life.’ I still pray for him – I pray for those seeds that were planted, that he’s still strong in his faith.”
SACRIFICES: NOT JUST FOR MISSIONARIES, BUT THEIR CHILDREN TOO
The teachers at BAIS provide spiritual guidance and a good education to missionaries’ children, but they also have to step in for parents who are absent due to their ministry work.
Krystle had a student whose father travelled frequently to smaller islands in Indonesia to conduct surveys and determine what their needs are, while his wife stayed home with their three children.
“If the mother is sick or if she is busy, then the kids are not getting the emotional support or help that they need. So if my student Ella comes to class and doesn’t have her homework, my response is not ‘Ella, where aren’t you being responsible?’, it’s ‘Ella, is there anything going on at home right now?’”
“Instead of disciplining them, I have to look into what the needs of the kids are, and loving them through that.”
Hearing that, I thought of how I find it hard to balance my hours between church, friends and my own family. I asked her if she ever wished that parents out in the missions field would spend more time with their children.
“Yeah, I wish I could tell the parents that their family is their ministry, too. Their family is their first ministry. Some of the families know that, but some of them forget it,” she said.
“I want to tell some of the parents to sit down and look at the homework with their kids, that they’re still little, that they still need help.”
Ms Arrington added that things are simpler when a couple make sacrifices without children in the picture, as it is just between themselves and God.
“But when there are children – the kids did not choose to make these sacrifices, to move to a different country. I think parents have to be accountable to God about the sacrifices they require their children to make,” she said.
“Yet, that’s what’s wonderful with the kids we interact with – that they learn what it means to make sacrifices for God from a young age.”
A NEED FOR HARVESTERS AND TEACHERS
BAIS has 203 students enrolled, and a pool of 36 staff. But there is still a huge need for teachers who are qualified and rooted in the Christian faith, said Charity.
BAIS is still in need of at least two positions. But as the principal, Charity is trusting that by God’s grace she will find the people to fill the roles.
“You just go, ‘Okay God, you’re in control. What’s your next step?’”
I’d never been on a missions trip myself, before embarking on this trip to document the lives of missionaries. I was hoping for a personal encouragement from her.
“Sometimes you have the mindset that being a missionary is about being a hero, and you think, I can’t do that. The biggest thing I would say to that is, don’t be afraid. More than anything, you will be surprised by what God is able to do through you and with you.”
“You don’t have to be this super spiritual person to do anything.”
Want to find out more about what it takes to be a missionary teacher? Visit www.nics.org for more information.