What do Bulgaria and the Solomon Islands have in common? They are on opposite sides of the world and contain different racial and ethnic groups who speak different languages. The one thing that they share is that they were the locations of the two missions trips that I have participated in.
In 1981 after my junior year in college I participated in a 6-week summer internship with Wycliffe in the Solomon Islands, southeast of Australia. I loved the Solomon Islands. I loved the beautiful tropical scenery, the warm friendly people, the food, and the language. The most common language spoken in the town was Pijin, an English-based creole, and our task was to learn as much Pijin as possible and help teach the Pijin literacy classes. After six weeks I was proud that I could easily understand sermons in Pijin, and at the end of this summer I began to think seriously about becoming a Bible translator with Wycliffe.
The team of American college students consisted of 6 girls and 2 good-looking young men, who for me were the icing on the cake that summer. Although I never thought I was terribly popular with the opposite sex, for some reason, with that particular mix of girls, I was the Scarlett O'Hara of the group. I was more extroverted than most of them, I liked to flirt with the guys, and I liked dressing in frilly girlish clothes. As the summer progressed I developed a closer friendship with one of the guys on the team. We had a "date" attending a soccer game and would often stay up late, sitting out on the front porch and talking. The team had strict no-touching rules between the guys and girls, partly because of the local culture, and we would push these rules by squeezing each other when we thought no one was looking or playing footsie under the table.
I should have been more sensitive to how this appeared to the others in the group, but I was pretty oblivious. During the last week the situation came to a head. One of the other girls sat me down and told me that everyone thought my behavior with the guys was obnoxious and they were all sick of it. I was crushed. I had been having such a wonderful summer, only to learn that everyone hated me! My great experience was ruined!
I had the blessing to be able to talk the experience over with one of the older women on the team, who was able to help me put it in perspective and tell me that no one hated me, but that I needed to be more sensitive to the other girls. In retrospect, I figured out that some of the girls were probably interested in the guy that I liked, and so our behavior was especially irritating for them in stirring up jealousy.
Fast forward 33 years to the summer of 2014 and my second official missions trip. Our church was sending a team of 16 adults and teens, including me and my son Jonathan, to Bulgaria for 12 days to lead Vacation Bible Schools in several small churches there. I loved Bulgaria. The weather was perfect, the people were warm and friendly and happy to see us, the food was delicious and just unusual enough to be interesting. Although I didn't speak the language, enough Bulgarians spoke English that this wasn't a serious difficulty.
Our work proceeded smoothly with no serious mishaps. It was tiring at times, but the churches seemed grateful for our help. But for me, the trip was often lonely. I knew everyone on the team casually, but not well enough to talk about anything that was important to me. Small annoyances bothered me more than I knew they should, and I found it hard to shrug them off and move on. When I got upset, I felt that I had to put on a happy face so that I didn't bring anyone down or sound like a complainer. And I've never been good at putting on a happy face when I'm upset, so this made me feel like a failure as well.
To make matters worse, Jonathan was having difficulties of his own. At the last minute two good-looking young people had joined the team, completely altering the group dynamic. The girls followed this particular boy around, and certain teenagers were included in this nucleus while others were excluded. I felt angry that these Christian young people were treating each other this way, which only fed my own discouragement.
In thinking over these two trips, it struck me how similar they were in one way. In particular, my stress didn't come from the food, strange language, or hard living conditions, but from relationships on my own team. In the first case I was the "insider" who created resentment in the girls who felt left out. On the second trip, my son and I were the ones who felt left out, which led to discouragement and loneliness. Perhaps it is something about my personality which made these situations difficult - or perhaps the Wycliffe member hit the nail on the head when he told us, "One of the hardest things about being a missionary is getting along with other missionaries."
This second trip may have been providential for another reason. My first novel, Finding Father, was released in July, and now I am working on my next one, Kerry's Calling. It is the story of a young missionary woman on her first assignment and her relationships with her teammates. Maybe I needed this timely reminder of the real difficulties that can occur!