I’ve been following Amy Peterson’s writing for a long time, so I know the current parts of her story much better than the ones found in her first book, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, which releases today. This memoir challenged me to think about the ways that I also want to be “great” for God and to make peace with the fact that I didn’t move to Kenya after high school, even though a tiny part of me still feels guilty.
I caught up with Amy to talk about the themes of her book. You can listen or read along below!
Cara Strickland: Hi, Amy. It’s so good to talk with you today. Will you tell me a little bit about your book?
Amy Peterson: It’s a memoir about two years I spent in Southeast Asia over a decade ago teaching English as a second language and some of the things that happened while I was there. But it also deconstructs what I call the Missionary Myth, which is this idea we have that missionaries are somehow more spiritual than ordinary people.
Growing up, I wanted adventure in my life and to be great for God. The best way I could see for that to happen was for me to go overseas. So, at the age of 22, I moved to Southeast Asia to teach English at a university there. I can’t tell you the name of the country because some of my students and friends remain in danger due to things that happened during that year I was there.
I taught English in a closed country where missionaries weren’t allowed. But the government did know I was a Christian. I was just teaching English and getting to know my students and figuring out how to live in a foreign country. And then one day, one of my students knocked on my door, and I invited her in for tea. She said, “Amy are you a Christian? I heard Brian from the Backstreet Boys is a Christian.” She was a big fan of pop music, especially the Backstreet Boys. And in her reading about them, had learned that Brian was a Christian and that made her curious about Christianity. At first, I thought that her interest was inconsequential. That it was part of a pop crush.
We started studying the Bible together, and her interest was serious. She was a thoughtful and poetic student. Eventually, she and several of her friends decided they wanted to follow Jesus.
After I’d finished my first year teaching there, I came back to America for the summer. While in America, those girls were studying the Bible together, and the police found them, brought them into the station, and interrogated them repeatedly over the summer. Eventually, the police discovered they had received their Bibles from me. So they revoked my teaching visa. I couldn’t return the following year, which sent me into kind of a faith tailspin.
I spent the next year teaching English in Cambodia, but I was questioning a lot of the things that I had taken for granted before, wondering if I had done more harm than good. So, that is a quick peek at the story that I’m telling in this book.
CS: You touched on this a little bit in your answer to that question, but one of the things I noticed in my reading was that in the course of this story, your faith shifts somewhat. Would you talk just a little bit about that journey and about what faith looks like for you now?
AP: Yeah, that’s a big question. I think my faith shifted in a number of ways over those two years. And at first, my faith was strengthened because I saw things happening with my students that seemed miraculous, and were beyond what I had expected. More than that, when I saw them, who’d never heard any of these stories from the Bible before when I saw them read the Bible and how it made sense to them, I thought, oh my gosh, this is actually true. And I realized, maybe I hadn’t really believed it was true before.
I wondered, everyone believes this where I’m from, but is it going to be true on the other side of the world? Is it going to make sense to someone who’s never heard it before? All those truths were so familiar to me having grown up with them, in church, and with a Christian family. I needed to see what they were… I needed to see them afresh. So being able to see those truths through the eyes of brand new Christians made them fresh and new to me.
But then once everything went down, I started questioning God a lot. I had to work through a lot of doubts about God’s sovereignty and love, and how those things can coexist with the amount of suffering we see in the world. And how can I know when what I’ve done is good or evil? How can I know what it means to serve God best? So I wrestled with those questions a lot. I think I became a person who is less likely to raise her hand, always with the right answer when it comes to questions of faith. I’m more likely to be quiet and to be listening, letting some of the mystery of faith be a mystery. Instead of always needing to find certainty.
CS: Another change I saw over the course of the book was your thoughts on mission work. What would you say are your thoughts on mission work now?
AP: I think there are things we need to rethink in the way we do missions, and especially with what we call short-term mission trips. You know, the short-term mission trip has only been a thing for 50 or 60 years now. It didn’t get started until the 1960s, and kind of exploded in popularity in the 80s and 90s, especially for high school or college students. The narrative is that they are experiences where young people can have their faith strengthened, and they can grow spiritually while serving “the least of these.”
A lot of the ways we think we’re serving the poor can be counterproductive. Some short-term trips are great, but others need to be thought through more. And I’ll just give you an example; say that you’re taking a group of high schoolers to build a school in a village in Central America. These students don’t have construction experience, but they are so willing to serve, and they love God. So they go to this country, and they’re building this school. And while they’re working there, a man walks by, a local, and he’s out of work. And maybe he has construction or carpentry experience. And maybe he would have been glad to have a job building that school. And if he could’ve earned some money from building the school, he would be able to afford the textbooks he needs to send his daughter there next year when it opens. But instead, what he sees are these teenagers who don’t know what they’re doing building the school, and then they fly away.
Andy Crouch says in his book that Americans act like little gods. We see a problem, we fly in and solve it, and fly away again. And that leaves the people on the ground feeling like they don’t have a sense of agency; they don’t have control. And there might be better ways for us to serve or partner with people.
I’m not saying let’s end all short-term mission trips, but we need to think about them more carefully. We need to ask people in other countries what they want us to do, and not come up with our ideas of how we want to serve.
CS: You wrote this book from the perspective of a much younger you. If you could tell her anything from your current vantage point, what would it be?
AP: Well I think some of the things I would tell myself at 22 are conclusions I come to at the end of this book. And those are things about where I was finding my identity, that I needed to find it in my status as the beloved of God, rather than in whatever things I wanted to do for God or accomplish for God. But I’m not sure that telling myself would have made any difference because there are things that you know intellectually, but sometimes you have to have experienced those intellectual bits of knowledge to make it all the way down to your heart, to become things that you believe on an emotional, gut level.
I think I also would’ve told myself to stop being so self-obsessed. When I read my journals from ages 22 and 23, I was very obsessed with my life. Who was I going to be? Who did I love? Would I get married or not get married? And I was not very focused on my teammates, for example. And I probably wasn’t a great teammate to the other teachers who were teaching in the universities with me because I was pretty focused on my needs. So I would encourage myself to be a little more relational and sacrificial with the people who were around me back then.
CS: One thing that keeps coming up in your book is this idea of wanderlust. It seems like it’s your version of homesickness and it follows you throughout the book. How do you think that shaped your experiences?
AP: I’ve been obsessed with wanderlust since I was a teenager. As soon as I could drive I had a desire to go and see all the places. I still get antsy if I haven’t traveled in very long. And that made me more likely to want to go overseas as a missionary. I think for a lot of people, the idea of going overseas feels like a big sacrifice, all the things they’re giving up and leaving home. For me, it just felt like a huge adventure. Which also meant that my motivations for going overseas were pretty mixed. A mixed bag of longing for adventure, longing to be of great service to God, and a sincere love for God and desire to do whatever God wanted me to do.
Part spiritual memoir, part travelogue, and part love story, Dangerous Territory shares Amy Peterson’s captivating tale of learning to live her faith. This book will resonate with anyone who has wanted to make a difference in the world and those who grew up in the church but struggle to align faith with the realities of life.
We’re giving away copies of Dangerous Territory today, along with mugs that have a quote from the book. To be entered, simply share this post on Twitter or Facebook by clicking the respective buttons below. Five winners will receive a copy of Dangerous Territory and a mug. (Winners will be announced on February 2)