Who was your favorite missionary growing up? Who is your favorite missionary these days?
When I was a child, my favorite missionary was absolutely Amy Carmichael. She shared my name, she shared my desire to serve God wholeheartedly, and she had the kind of adventures I dreamed of having. I loved her high standards, her soft heart, and the many writings she left behind.
I do still love Amy Carmichael, though I imagine she was not an easy person with whom to work. These days, I try to avoid pedestaling Christians and even using the word missionary. I have several friends who serve as doctors and teachers cross-culturally who inspire me by their self-discipline and compassion. But I’m also inspired by people like my four siblings: one is a benefits specialist for a large company. She helps people get the health care they need. One is a pastor – he helps his church run smoothly, preaches the gospel, and facilitates healthy community. One is a school principal. He has planted his family in a lower-income neighborhood and works tirelessly for the good of his neighbors. One is a farmer, caring for the earth and growing nourishing food for people in his city. All of them are on a mission with God to see God’s glory revealed in the world and to put love where love is not.
How would you sum up your definition of Christian vocation?
The Christian’s vocation is first to know herself as the beloved child of God, and out of the security of that identity, to love God and to love her neighbors. This looks different for every person, but I believe God calls all of us to good work, well done.
Can you talk about when and why you converted to the Episcopal church?
I’ve been drawn to liturgy since I was a teenager, and several of my favorite writers – people like Madeleine L’Engle and Lauren Winner – are in the Anglican tradition. The Anglican church I attended in Cambodia deeply comforted me, and the Anglican church Jack and I attended during our first year of marriage warmly welcomed us. We also found wonderful church homes in Presbyterian churches in California and Washington.
When we moved to rural Indiana eight years ago, our church options became more limited, but we found a home in Gethsemane Episcopal Church in Marion. We loved their liturgy, their multi-generational congregation, the weekly Eucharist, the short sermons, the coffee and donuts, and the commitment the church had to its local community. They fed the hungry and helped the poor with overdue bills. They preached the gospel and they lived it, too.
We were confirmed in the Episcopal church because of a specific church community that we wanted to commit to. Although the denomination has its own past sins and current divisive struggles, we do love that it’s a denomination with a wide tent. We love that while we agree on the Nicene Creed, we have the freedom to disagree on many other points. And this probably has a lot to do with the time I spent overseas because it was there that I began to realize how much my beliefs were shaped by my specific cultural experiences – and thus the extent to which I should hold those beliefs with humility.
Has the response to your book so far been approximately what you were anticipating, or has anything surprised you? What have been some of the common threads in the responses you’ve received from people (online, in person) so far?
I’m not sure that I had a lot of expectations for the book’s release into the world. Most of the responses have been positive, with a strong “You too? I thought I was the only one!” kind of vibe. Probably the most encouraging responses have been from those people who are working cross-culturally and said that my book helped them think critically and creatively about the work they do, and how to do it better. The most moving responses have been from those people who, like me, spent many years captive to the belief that they had to prove their worthiness to God, but, because of my story, have stepped closer to being able to accept their status as Beloved.
What’s your one-minute response to people you meet who remind you of yourself ten years ago or so, ready to save the world?
First, I say that many of our desires are given by God, and we should pay attention to them. The desire to serve is a good one. But I remind them that probably, their motives are mixed – mine sure were. I’ll tell them it’s ok that their motives are mixed. What’s most important is that they understand that they are beloved beyond any usefulness they might have to the kingdom. They can’t earn or deserve God’s love. And then I’ll tell them that if they go, they need to go as learners and listeners, not as saviors. Often, I’ll also mention this important piece from Courtney Martin about the reductive seduction of other people’s problems, and urge them to consider what they might do if they stayed here, too.
What books/resources would you recommend to college students considering missions, especially individuals who attend Christian universities?
If possible, take an intercultural communications class! If you know where you want to go, start learning the language with an app like duolingo. Think about what you would like to do overseas, and take steps now so that you’ll have a needed, tangible skill to offer the people in the country where you’ll live. Make friends with people on your campus or in your city who come from different cultural, ethnic, or religious backgrounds, and practice listening to them. The books I recommend in my book’s appendix are all good. I also appreciate Strange Virtues by Bernard Adeney and When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. And read novels and watch movies from the culture in which you hope to make your home.
How have your experiences shaped how you parent your kids / talk to them about faith and missions? Are they curious about your experiences?
My kids – six and eight – are not very curious yet about the years I spent overseas, although they both proudly display their signed copies of my book in their bedrooms. They have some level of understanding of the inequalities in the world, and they correspond with the two children we support through Compassion International. They understand the word missionary to mean “a person who takes the story of God to those who don’t know it.” I haven’t suggested that they read missionary biographies. I do try to make sure they read a lot of multicultural literature. And we read the Bible together every night, and the weird and inexplicable stories of our sacred text are helping to form in their minds the understanding that mystery and blood are central to what it means to be human.
What are some of the practices you learned from Christians around the world that you implement into your life in the U.S.?
I don’t know that I have specific practices, but what I’m most thankful for are the ways in which living among Christians from a deeply different culture helped me see the ways in which my own Christianity is syncretized (or blended with) American culture. The individualism at the heart of American culture is often at the heart of the American gospel, too, for example, but it shouldn’t be. Living overseas taught me to tolerate ambiguity; I can live with not-knowing for a long time, and I think all Americans ought to practice that.
How much have you traveled in recent years? How is your wanderlust these days?
My job at Taylor University has allowed me to travel internationally for the last three years (China, Italy, and the Bahamas), and that has made staying put in the rural Midwest much easier. But every few months, I still get the urge to get in the car and just go… and in the summers, I do. I become queen of the road trips. As much as I’ve tried to develop roots and stability here – with gardens and chickens and all – something in me still longs for new horizons.
I’m so grateful to Amy for taking the time to thoughtfully answer our questions–and thank YOU for reading along and making this such a great discussion.
Throughout her memoir, Amy weaves a narrative that includes her own perspective as well as a larger historical overview of missionary work. Dangerous Territory will resonate if you grew up wanting to make a difference in the world, and/or if you grew up in the church but struggle to align faith with the realities of adult life.