It is not a small thing to decide to leave life as you know it and take up the mantle of missionary. Many of the folks that join overseas mission services are taking a “gap” year – or in our mission society, three years. Lots of folks are recent college graduates or folks at the start of retirement. I was mid-career. I had worked for a company, started a company, sold a company, and as we reached the end of our agreement to remain, friends and I were considering starting another company. Then my pastor asked if this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I often jokingly tell people not to take dating advice from a priest. Perhaps I should have been cautious about taking career advice from a priest. About the same time, as I noted in a previous post I wrote: “Then my friend Susan asked “Hey, do you know what Fr. Joe is doing these days?” As it happens, he was Executive Director of Franciscan Mission Service (FMS).” It was the start of a very long list to things that had to be done.
Being curious, I followed up, received a “so-you-are-interested” package in the mail from FMS. We did not have mail delivery in the small hamlet in which I lived, but we did have a post office. It was attached to the side of one of the houses, but it was an official postal office with a full time Postmaster – or as she preferred, Postmistress. I usually gathered up the mail once a week on Saturday mornings. In addition to the mail, other services were available: weather forecasts, local news, political updates, friendly chatter, health updates on neighbors, and whatever else was being offered on the front porch of the post office. Lest you think it was an image of small town America, think smaller. The post office was it. If you wanted coffee on the front porch, you brought your own.
In the village, neighbors were important. They watched your house when you were gone. They challenged strangers that might be hanging about. It is a fine balance between watchful and nosey. One of the folks noticed the FMS envelope atop my stack of mail and asked if I was thinking about being a missionary and “preaching to ‘dem people.” I think my reply was akin to, “No, I have a friend who runs FMS and he is looking for a donation.” The first part was prophetic as Fr. Joe has been a friend for 30 odd years. The second part was perpetually true. The unspoken part – well, they did not have a need to know.
I wonder if I knew how complex it would be to put a life on pause to go overseas on a mission, would I have been deterred? Maybe. The process of letting people know was one in which you realize how many threads of relationships are woven into the fabric of your life. The time and the telling of the story in response to some version of “why are you doing this?” required more energy than I imagined.
My friends at the local parish were excited for me. They knew how active I was in the parish and for them it seemed a logical next step even if the destination was unknown in their mind. My friends, colleagues and clients in my professional career thought…well, I am not sure what some of them thought. I suspect some thought it was a mid-life crisis (if so, a red convertible and a beautiful woman half my age would have been less complicated). Others were taken by surprise, not knowing that I was active in my faith – which is not exactly the most sterling of a track record for someone going on mission to share their faith. The most interesting encounter was one of our long-time clients. He took me to lunch and wanted to hear all about the mission. He told me that he had always thought about such an endeavor, but family and career were always a consideration, and he thought there might be time in a future period of his life. He asked to stay in touch during the mission.
My family’s response covered the gamut of reactions, which changed over time, and all moved towards being supportive. One sister, active in her faith, thought it was great and would organize a prayer circle for me while I was away. The other sister pointed out she was always impressed that I was the adventurous one in the family. That insight made me wonder what would have given her that impression. Her list included hopping a freight train (I didn’t know she knew about that), submarine service, surfing the North Shore in Hawaii, bicycling some of the mountain passes used in the Tour de France, back country camping and rock climbing in Colorado, cross country skiing/camping in Yellowstone in the dead of winter, and now going overseas to live in Kenya. When I thought of being adventurous, I thought of a friend who solo hiked the Continental Divide from the border of Canada to the Mexican border. All a matter of perspective, I guess.
My mom wondered about it all. When you receive, “Well, it’s your life….” you know it will be a tough sell. But it slowly worked out. Eventually, I was being introduced around her country club with motherly pride as the son who is going to Kenya as a missionary. My mother was the adventurous one in her family. She moved from a small farming community in rural Utah to Washington DC during the war, lived in Paris for three years in her mid-60s not speaking a word of French, traveled the world even to the Great Wall of China, and other adventures about which we kids did not have a need to know.
Then there was the house. It was located in a rural area on the first ridge of what rolled up into the Blue Ridge Mountains – it was a small ridge, but it had a view across the valley to the sunsets across the mountain. The property had several acres. The house was full of furniture. And I wanted someone I knew to live there, take care of the property, not have too much furniture so mine could largely stay in place, and after living there for three plus years, to move out when I returned. That took some time, but it worked out.
There were medical and dental clearances for the mission organization. Financial and estate planning; wills and directive, and all manner of paperwork needed to be completed. At work, contracts, clients and projects needed to be turned over. The list was long and I had not even started the three month mission formation program. But it all got done and I was ready to report to mission orientation and formation.
I was to report on a Monday afternoon. The Saturday before it started to snow. It kept snowing. The storm dropped 3.5 feet of snow in 24 hours. Did I mention my house was on property? It had a very long driveway. I did not have a snow blower. I had a shovel. The driveway was suddenly longer than I remembered. I recall standing there, faced with the inevitable task of shoveling my way out to the road – the dirt road that was at the bottom of the county’s list of roads to clear – and thinking, this just might be a sign from God about my faulty discernment process.
But I was adventurous, right? This might be the long way around, but shovel in hand, I started the journey.