“I Thought I Knew”

My new heroine of the faith? Eleanor VandeVort, missionary of thirteen years to the Nuer people in South Sudan. Her book, A Leopard Tamed, is the most honest portrayal of the challenges that come with being a Western missionary: both challenges to the missionary and challenges to the new converts.

Here are a few of Eleanor’s thoughts and questions, for your pondering:

Eleanor confesses to her frustration at the spiritual darkness she saw represented in the taboos and rituals the Nuer people were involved in. Then she asks some questions:

“Is my scientific orientation to life, which has removed me from the constant threat of death, the factor which stabilizes my faith? Or, in that I need not fear God physically as the heathen do, has this freedom set me adrift from God, missing Him altogether?
And, is not the people’s fear of God, which causes them to set up roadblocks in His path, and earns for them the designation “heathen,” a more credible indication of their acknowledgment of God than the American could-not-care-less attitude toward Him?...Who in truth are the heathen? I thought I knew.

Eleanor mentions how the Nuer people always say, “It is God’s talk”, meaning that

“whatever happens, life or death, good or evil—all of it is God’s doing. He controls everything. And they were right. Man could not make the sun to shine, or bring the rain. He could not cause barren women to conceive, or keep a child alive. These four basic needs he could not meet.
As I walked along under the thick tops of white grain, I thought of how in civilized countries we had challenged God…We spent our lives trying to outfox death, to keep it as far out of our lives as possible…we didn’t have to reckon much with God in order to live…I could evade Him if I wanted to. I could come to terms with daily living so long as I had money, or credit, and didn’t think too seriously.”

Eleanor tries to communicate the “simple gospel” of John 3:16 to Meer. a young wife struggling to keep her sixth baby from following the other five children, who had died prematurely. Why can’t Meer understand? Eleanor wonders. Then she hears the words as Meer does:
“God…the one who kills her children….loved all the people so much…how could that be true, He kills people...that He gave his one only son…but she had given Him five children already…so that the person who believes Him will not die…but how could this be, even the white man dies…but will live with life which does not end…who wants to keep on living when life is so hard?”

The main character of Eleanor’s book is Kuac, the first Nuer pastor and a man on fire for God. But his interactions with the missionaries and ordination under the American presbytery brought unexpected complications into his life. First, he had slowly stopped planting his fields, relying on money from the Americans. But they kept insisting that his congregation needed to support him. His people didn’t understand why they had to pay a man of God.
Kuac was something of a prize pastor for the Presbytery, and they sent him many paces;

“He was like a grafted branch that did not take. He was a cog in a machine which he did not understand. He was supposed to be something which was out of his reach…However, he was not blind. He did see. What he saw discouraged him.
He saw that the civilized world wanted nothing from him or his people. He knew that his people had nothing to give that world. He knew they were despised…Why was their way of life not equally justifiable as any other man’s?

Kuac is named the moderator of the Presbytery, and upheld as a type of the church in South Sudan. But Eleanor sees a broken man. “Lured across the cultural boundary of his society where he was superior to me, into my society he had lost his identity and become a pauper and a foreigner.”

Out of sympathy for Kuac’s struggle to bridge the two worlds he stood in: that of pastor of the white man’s God and Nuer man, Eleanor writes:

“We were missionaries. We had meant only to bring people the Gospel, salvation, and the benefits of the Gospel: love, peace, joy, and freedom from the fear of death. But our possessions came with us, our trucks, our motor boats, our electricity. These were the things we were using to evangelize. At least it was in this term that we justified their existence. We did not foresee that our things would become more important to the people than our Gospel…No one was to be blamed for this, but as it was turning out, were we not becoming more of a stumbling block than a help to the people?

Throughout Eleanor’s book, she asks many hard questions. Some she resolves. Many remain without answers. There’s something in all of us that wants a good, happy ending to every story. Missionaries often feel pressured to provide it.
Next time you speak with a missionary, keep this in mind. She has more questions than when she left; he is wading through a maze of complexity even as he presents a simple report of a brother coming to Christ.

Eleanor was forced by the Arab government of Sudan to leave the Nuer people after thirteen years. Kuac, the Nuer pastor, was imprisoned for working so closely with foreigners.

Only one thing should be expected of, sought for, and encouraged in missionaries: Eleanor found it in Isaiah. “Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen that ye may know, and believe me, and understand that I am He.”

In Eleanor’s words,

“This is what He wanted of me…Not the salvation of the Nuer people. Not the translation…It was the severest test of faith I knew: to believe Him, not for what He would do, for that is only one infinitesimal aspect of God, but for who He is. It bespeaks the kind of faith that walks on water where there is no path—not only no direction, but no sense of gain, simply a measurement of the adequacy of my own knowledge of Him…Now as I left, I knew for myself, at least, that God meant what He had said: that I was to know, to believe, to understand that God is God, and leave His defense up to Him.”

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