A young woman's first adventure on the mission field presents challenges, disappointments, and opportunities. She was prepared for a life of privation and sacrifice, but sometimes it seems that the missionaries are more likely to be defeated by themselves than by any outside enemy. Can God accomplish his purposes in spite of all their failings?
The airport on Santa Clara was tiny by American standards, with no air conditioning to distill the intense tropical heat. The faces surrounding Kerry were mostly black, some almost blue-black, with a sprinkling of white ones that made her feel only a bit less conspicuous and foreign. As she filled out a new series of immigration forms, an odd language buzzed around her. It sounded almost like English but with a curious baby-talk quality to it; she could understand isolated words, but not the actual meaning of the sentences. Fortunately the officials in the airport spoke an intelligible but strongly accented version of English that reminded her of television advertisements for the West Indies.
The West Indies! And now she was all the way around the world, in the East Indies!
Kerry glanced around the small airport, studying each white face with particular care. She could expect to see no one familiar, of course, but surely something would indicate the person who was coming to meet her. Once she heard a man speak in the marked Australian accent which she had learned to recognize in the airport before this one. But she heard no flat Boston vowels or southern drawls or Texas twangs, or indeed any speech that could pass as American. She was quite sure that the team members who were supposed to fetch her that day were American. Feeling more alone than ever,
Kerry returned to the form in her hand. Name—O’Brien, Kerry Eileen, she wrote in neat capitals. Age—24. Hair—brown. In some lights it appeared almost blond, but not quite. Eyes—blue. Height—5’5". Actually she was slightly shorter than that, closer to five foot, four and three-quarter inches, but she always rounded up. Perhaps if she were five foot, ten inches, she would round down, she mused. Weight—Kerry hesitated. Was it wrong for a missionary to fudge that one? Probably so, she decided. When she reached the square marked occupation she considered before carefully filling in Office Manager. That sounded more professional, more important, than Secretary, or Bookkeeper, or File Clerk, or whatever else was included in her job description, but for the hundredth time she wished that she could call herself Translator. Finally only one space remained, and she moved to attract the attention of the Islander behind the counter.
She pointed to the empty square marked origin. “What do I write here?”
The man glanced from the form to her face. “European.”
“But I’m American.” Kerry groped in her purse for the little blue folder stamped in gold, PASSPORT—United States of America.
“All white people European,” he shrugged, turning away to answer another passenger’s question. Odd, she mused, picking up her pen again. She had never considered herself European, although her name might sound like she had just stepped off the boat. Her father was fifth-generation Irish, and her mother was some combination of Irish and German. They gave their children Irish names, and the family wore green on St. Patrick’s Day and ate a recipe of corned beef and cabbage which Kerry’s grandmother had passed on to her mother. That was the total of her nodding acquaintance with the old country. She couldn’t even claim to be Catholic anymore; her parents had joined a Baptist church when she was three. But because the man had seemed so insistent, she printed European in the designated spot and signed her name in her small, curling script.
By the time the forms were finished and her luggage collected around her, no one had appeared who showed a remote interest in her existence. In all her other travels she had been with her family or with someone who was watching out for her—never before had she felt so terribly far from home and so completely alone. For just a second a sensation close to panic swept over her, and she took several deep breaths and wiped her palms on her skirt as she tried to reason it away. Of course she wasn’t really abandoned, she reminded herself quickly. She knew perfectly well what had happened. Her flight plan from the United States had allowed for a three-hour layover in Brisbane, Australia, but when she arrived there she discovered that her flight to Santa Clara had been canceled and she had been able to get on another, two hours earlier. At the time it had seemed better to arrive early, but clearly the missionary team that was supposed to meet her was still unaware of the change.
She opened her carry-on bag and rooted through it, looking for the phone number of the branch director or one of the other team members. Her ticket stubs, her passport, other official papers--but the paper with the names and contact information of the other Harvest members was nowhere to be found. Could she have left it in another airport during one of her layovers? And she hadn’t even had the good sense to put the number in her cell phone before losing it.
Trying to quell her sense of panic, she closed the bag and found a seat in the airport, gathering all her luggage around her. There was no reason to be afraid. Surely someone would find her eventually. The airport seemed perfectly safe. She just needed to sit tight for an hour or two until the person who was supposed to fetch her appeared.
As the minutes ticked by her eyes began to close involuntarily, for she had been traveling for thirty hours with only brief naps on the planes. So here she was, after all her months of preparation, and she wasn’t sure if she was more excited, scared, or simply exhausted. This was culmination of all her plans since that day in college when she had first learned of Harvest Bible Translators and had fallen in love with the idea of putting the Scriptures into indigenous languages. She had felt the call to the mission field during her senior year of high school and had first pursued nursing, but after flunking out of chemistry and throwing up during a film on medical procedures, she had come to the conclusion that the medical profession was not her calling. Bible translation had seemed so right, so perfect, and she had not questioned her goal for a minute until reality hit at linguistics school. Where had she been when the brains were passed out? Why did her sister Erin always manage to get better grades even though she studied less?
Just over three months ago she had received the phone call from Harvest asking her to come to Santa Clara to work for the branch office in the capital city. Looking back, it seemed remarkably fitting that at that moment she was reading Don Richardson’s Peace Child and was buried deep in the jungles of Irian Jaya, wondering if Richardson and his wife would be the next to be eaten by savage cannibals, or if they would succeed in converting the tribe before it succeeded in devouring them. She had been so far lost to her present surroundings that she failed to hear the phone ring, and only looked up when her mother handed her the cordless receiver from the kitchen.
“I’m calling you because we’ve had an opening that I think would be perfect for you, and I wanted to let you know right away,” the woman had said. “You know how we talked last week about your transcripts from linguistics school, and we came to the conclusion that work in translation really wouldn’t be the best place for you. Since you had that double major in anthropology and office management, we thought that sort of work would fit your skills better. There’s a small branch out in the South Pacific that needs someone to manage the office while one of the translators goes on furlough for a year. His wife has been doing the job. It would involve word processing, bookkeeping— all the areas you have experience with.”
Kerry had promised to pray about the assignment and had hung up the phone, but her initial reaction was simply disappointment. A secretary! All her wonderful plans of serving God, and all she manage was becoming a secretary?
“But there’s nothing wrong with that, and you’d be good at it, Kerry,” her mother had encouraged her. “Uncle Mike always talks about what a great job you did when you worked for him, organizing everything on the computer. You’ll still be contributing to the work of Bible translation, just in a different way. If you don’t do it some translator might have to stop translating to manage the office, and wouldn’t that be a shame?”
“I think it sounds exciting.” Erin bounced on the sofa, her eyes bright. “Imagine spending a year on an island in the South Pacific! Just like in a movie! Who cares if you’re just a secretary?”
Kerry paused. An island in the South Pacific. The idea did have a certain appeal. They could have sent her to Siberia or somewhere equally unattractive. “It would only be for a year,” she said slowly, more to convince herself than anyone else, and explained the situation to her family. “It wouldn’t be a permanent assignment. Perhaps if I went there, God would show me where to go next. And it would give me some experience. It would be a chance to see the world. But do you think I could really raise all my support in four months?”
“The money is the least of your worries,” her father said. “You know Mom and I can always help with that.”
So, encouraged by her family members, she called the Harvest office and told them she would take the assignment, and then began the whirlwind experience of raising support, visiting churches, getting shots, and filling out the endless reams of paperwork that seemed to be involved in working in a foreign country. She had always disliked the thought of speaking in front of large groups, especially asking for money, but Harvest required all its members to raise their own support, which involved visiting churches and individuals, asking for monthly promises of funds.
She had been half-heartedly raising the money for the last few months and hadn't gotten very far, but when she announced that Harvest had placed her on assignment the funds came in with surprising swiftness. Perhaps there was some advantage to being part of a respected family in an affluent congregation.
Her own church missions committee promised a third of her support, which Kerry knew from other missionaries was a generous commitment. Her uncle Mike, who only attended church on Christmas, Easter, and whenever the spirit moved him, surprised her by offering to pay for her airline ticket from his business account. Profits were up this year, he explained, and he needed another tax deduction. Even more touching was her third-grade Sunday school class, who collectively promised five dollars a month from their allowances. And a college roommate, with whom she had completely lost contact, wrote an unexpected letter promising to support her as well. Within three months she was ready to pack her bags for her first adventure on the mission field.
* * *
She shook herself awake from her semi-doze, reminding herself that she needed to stay awake and look around for whoever was coming to meet her. A smaller flight had come in while she was completing her paperwork, but even those passengers had mainly dispersed, and the room was nearly deserted. Two Island men called to each other in that unfamiliar language she had noted before, and an older white couple, he in neat pressed slacks and she in a linen-look skirt, sun-glasses hanging from their necks, were still consulting with the official behind the counter.
Kerry rose, wandered to the door and glanced out, then stepped backwards and collided with a young man in a tee shirt, cut-off jeans and sandals, carrying his luggage to the door. His guitar case landed on the floor with a bang, and she winced at what she imagined was a twanging sound within.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Kerry jumped backward, her hand flying to her mouth.
“No problem.” The man set down his heavier bag and retrieved the case, then studied her with curiosity. “Are you lost?”
“Not really.” She managed a weak smile, flicking the hair from her face in a nervous gesture and trying to regain her composure. “Someone was supposed to meet me here, but my plane was early and I don’t know how to contact them.”
“Who are you supposed to meet?” He had a clipped, educated British accent, like several of the other Westerners in the airport. He pushed his long shaggy hair out of his face.
“I don’t really know.” Kerry laughed in embarrassment, wetting her dry lips. “Someone from Harvest Bible Translators, but I don’t remember—oh, Meg was the name, but I don’t remember the man’s name—Sam, or Stan--”
“Meg Tilney?” he asked. “I know where she lives, and I’m heading out that direction now. If you’d like we could share a taxi, and I’ll give the driver directions.”
Kerry felt a pleasant shock that he would actually recognize the name. The community of English-speakers on this island must be remarkably small if a random man in the airport happened to be familiar with the missionaries on her team. Relief, and then wariness, succeeded her surprise. Would it be safe to get into a car with a strange man in a strange country? Of course, he wasn’t driving; they would only be splitting the fare. Nevertheless, she studied her new acquaintance carefully. Only of medium height and rather wiry, he wasn’t big or brawny enough to be scary. The eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses were friendly and pleasant. And he played the guitar. Overall he struck her as a cross between a British hippie and a computer nerd. Not a very threatening character, she decided. Besides, she was exhausted from her trip, and the prospect of sitting in the airport for two hours overrode her caution and made up her mind. He could possibly be a dangerous criminal, but in this strange world he seemed terribly safe and normal. Besides, he knew her teammates.
“Thank you very much,” she said a bit shyly. “I would appreciate it.”
“Do you have your baggage? Mine is right here. I travel light.”
Kerry fetched her luggage and the young man helped her drag it out to the street. The tropical heat smothered them like a cloudy blanket as they stepped outside. A slightly dilapidated car pulled up to the curb next to them. Together they loaded their bags in the trunk and climbed inside, and Kerry’s companion addressed the driver in the same language she had heard in the airport.
“Disfala gele hemi laik go long Harvest House. Yu save?”
The driver nodded and took off on the wrong side of the street, the hot air blowing in the front window and tangling Kerry’s long hair. Kerry pulled her hair together, twisted it in her hands, and leaned her head against the window to survey her new surroundings. Santa Clara was certainly a tropical island, for palm trees and lush vegetation grew everywhere, even in town. The official buildings in the center of town were neat and fairly modern, one or two stories, but as they entered the residential districts she saw houses built of cement block with corrugated galvanized metal roofs, with overgrown yards and clothes drying on lines. Chickens and semi-clad children played among lush tropical flowers. The smallest children were completely naked.
The people were similar in appearance to African-Americans, she decided, but smaller in stature, with more delicate features, and very foreign to her eyes. The men wore shorts and shirts and plastic sandals; the women wore cotton skirts or sundresses in tropical prints, or sometimes long lengths of cloth wrapped and tied around their bodies. Some of them carried bags woven from a grass-like material and donned necklaces of shells or perhaps bones. Remembering the photos in Peace Child and in her mother’s old copies of National Geographic, she did not need an overactive imagination to picture these people with spears, grass skirts, and bones through their noses.
Overwhelmed by the strangeness without, she glanced back at her British companion within. He, at least, was white, English-speaking, European. He did not appear curious about the island or the people, but seemed to be studying Kerry herself with friendly interest.
“Perhaps I should introduce myself,” he said when she met his eye. “My name is Chadwick Gresham.”
“I’m sorry,” Kerry returned. Perhaps she had been rude to omit this courtesy. “I’m Kerry O’Brien.” He raised his eyebrows. “Irish, or American?”
She smiled. “Irish-American, actually.”
“I thought so. You don’t sound Irish. And what are you doing so far from home, Kerry O’Brien? Taking a holiday?”
“I’m with Harvest Bible Translators,” she explained. “I’m going to work in the office here.”
He gave her an ironic smile. “So you’re one of those missionaries. One of those religious fanatics.”
At first startled by his rudeness, she concluded that he must be joking, although it seemed an odd joke to her. “I suppose so,” she returned with forced cheerfulness. “I must be a fanatic to fly all the way around the world like this.”
“So you’re planning to convert all the natives? Stand out on the street corners preaching sermons?” Kerry was unsure how to respond to this gibe. “I probably won’t convert anyone,” she blurted. “I’m just a secretary. The Bible translators would do all that, anyway.”
She saw the slightest hint of a smile around his mouth, and her face grew warm as she wondered if he was laughing at her, although she had no idea why. “I see.” He nodded gravely. “The Bible translators are the real fanatics, aren’t they?”
Kerry fell silent, missing whatever humor he found in the situation. He struck her as a worldly, cynical type who enjoyed ridiculing anything of a spiritual nature, and such people always made her uncomfortable. She stared straight ahead at the wooly dark head of the taxi driver, too tired to think of anything clever to say, determined to ride the rest of the way in silence unless he forced her to speak.
He failed to take the hint, for after a moment he spoke again. “Have you ever been away from America before?”
“I spent two weeks with a church group in Jamaica, and then in college I spent a summer in France. But that was different.”
“France is certainly different from here,” he nodded, glancing out the window at the Island people on the street and adding in a matter-of-fact tone, “You don’t meet headhunters and cannibals in France, although sometimes I think the cannibals are friendlier than the French.”
Kerry turned to him, her large eyes widening in alarm, for Don Richardson’s experiences among the cannibals of Irian Jaya were fresh in her mind. Irian Jaya was not so far from Santa Clara, she knew from the map: perhaps a few thousand miles.
“Are there really still cannibals on these islands?” she whispered, glancing uneasily toward the taxi driver. “Didn’t you know?”
He seemed surprised. “Oh, not so much in town anymore, if that worries you. But out on my island they hold some pretty wild parties. Last week they cooked someone’s grandmother. They offered me a piece, but I didn’t care for it. Rather stringy, actually.”
Kerry felt herself flush with horror. Could it be that this educated, civilized Englishman had actually eaten human flesh? Could living among savages change a person to such a degree?
“Actually,” he added, glancing at her again almost cheerfully, “they seem to prefer Americans, for some reason. I don’t know why; I would expect Yanks to be rather tough and flavorless. But there’s no accounting for tastes.”
Now she knew that he was teasing her—at least about the Americans—and she tried to reclaim her dignity and composure with what she hoped was an arch smile. “You should be glad they don’t prefer the British,” she returned.
Once again she saw his eyebrows rise in surprise. “You think I’m British?”
“Aren’t you?” Kerry felt herself blush at her mistake. Perhaps she had misread his accent. There were so many British possessions in the area; he could be Australian, or from one of the many islands nearby.
He lowered his voice confidentially. “Actually, I’m Japanese.”
She stared at his face, but there was indication that he was joking. His hair and eyes were dark, but he had narrow cheekbones and a rather pointy nose, with no trace of oriental features. “Japanese?” she repeated stupidly.
“Yes, you see, the Island people here don’t care much for the Japanese, because of the war. They have long memories. So whenever I’m in town, I affect this British accent so no one guesses.”
Kerry shook her head at him and turned back to the window. Chadwick Gresham was certainly an odd character with an odder sense of humor, and it was becoming clear that she could not take seriously a word he said.
She was rather relieved when the taxi stopped in front of a small, neat one-story house with a garden full of gorgeous tropical flowers. They both climbed out of the taxi and he helped her unload her luggage.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Gresham.” She doubted that he was over thirty, but decided it would be safer to keep their relationship formal, especially as she neither hoped nor expected to see him again. “I appreciate your help.”
“Oh, I’ll take you inside and introduce you properly.” He took her largest suitcase and lugged it up the half-flight of stairs to a wide front porch furnished with several wooden chairs, including two comfortable-looking rockers. Kerry followed with her smaller ones.
When she reached the porch she realized that he had set down her suitcase and seemed transfixed by a conversation within the house, coming audibly through the screen, the louvered windows open. A woman with an American accent was speaking in an agitated tone. “...so arrogant, Meg, really arrogant. I don’t know why Stan puts up with him. Imagine having the nerve to talk to Stan that way, telling him he didn’t need his help with the interlinear text, as if he knows more than Stan, for heaven’s sake! Sure, he’s intelligent, but not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. I should think he would be grateful that Stan takes the trouble with him. But that’s the thanks you get.”
“Well, Stan can be a little arrogant himself on occasion,” a second woman replied in a calmer tone. “Maybe Stan should just back off a bit, let him figure some things out on his own.”
“You defend him, Meg, you always do.” The first woman’s tone was annoyed.
“No, I don’t, I just think that Stan—” She stopped. “Did you hear someone at the door?”
Kerry swallowed and glanced at Chadwick Gresham. His face was flushed, his eyes glinted and he was biting his lip as he met her glance. Kerry was struck by a sudden embarrassment that this worldly man who ridiculed Christians should overhear an argument between these two whom she could only assume to be her fellow missionaries.
“On second thought, maybe I’ll just let you introduce yourself.” He gave her suitcase a small shove and forced a smile in her direction. “Nice to meet you, Kerry.”
Kerry managed a weak smile in return as he swung down the steps to the waiting taxi. Then a woman opened the screen door for her, holding it wide, a thin woman in her mid-forties wearing a cotton sundress, with chestnut hair, sparkling eyes, brown skin and the fine wrinkles of someone who has lived her life in the sun.
“I thought I heard someone,” she exclaimed. “Goodness, are you Kerry? But we thought you weren’t arriving for several hours! Stan was planning to fetch you—here, let me help you with your bags. Did you fly all the way from the States today?”
Kerry answered briefly as the woman helped her carry her luggage through the doorway. The living room was simple and comfortable, with wicker-style furniture and cushions, and a dining table in the alcove behind. Then she saw the second woman, a tall, largely built figure with short, salt-and-pepper hair, perched on a chair next to the front window.
“I’m Meg, and this is Jackie Schneider, the director’s wife,” Meg said. “Jackie, you can tell Stan he doesn’t need to go out to the airport after all. How did you find your way out here, Kerry?”
“I met a man in the airport who knows you.” Kerry set her purse down on top of her large suitcase. “He said his name is Chadwick Gresham, I think.”
“Oh, Chad! So he made it back from his allocation, did he? Well, that worked out well. I’m glad he happened to come along when you needed him.”
“Who is he?” Kerry asked, suddenly realizing that she knew nothing at all about him. “Didn’t he tell you? He’s a Bible translator from one of the other islands. He’s in town for a few months to work with a translation consultant on his language. The consultants come here to town, you see, and the translators fly here to meet them.”
Kerry barely heard this explanation, for she was suddenly seized with amusement as she remembered their conversation in the taxi. What a character he was. And then she was overwhelmed by a huge yawn and an overpowering sleepiness.
“Oh, you poor girl,” Meg said briskly, “you probably didn’t sleep at all last night, did you? Here, let me show you to your room, and then you can relax and unpack and take a nap if you want to. It will take you a few days to get past jet-lag. You’ll be staying with me for the time being, because I’m the only other single woman in this branch.”
Kerry followed Meg into the simply furnished bedroom with two single beds, two chests, and a desk. It seemed a bit rude to go to sleep as soon as she arrived. But the thin springless mattress and the plump pillow looked wonderfully inviting. She would just lie down for a minute, she decided; then she would have the energy to get up and unpack and spend time visiting with Meg and Jackie.
She stretched out on the bed and closed her eyes as waves of sleep swept over her.
Through the slightly open doorway she heard the two women resume their intense conversation, although their voices were lower and the words indistinct. She heard “Stan” again, and “Peter” and “Chad,” and then the woman named Jackie said, “Well, I’m not looking forward to this summer at all, let me tell you.” What sort of tangle of relationships had she stumbled into? Somehow this wasn’t quite what she had expected of her new life. And then she heard nothing at all.