In honor of Shrove Tuesday, a snippet from a book I’m working on about missionaries in Congo. I know, it perhaps seems mighty odd for me to be writing about missionaries, but I grew up in a church that regularly hosted missionaries, and I always found their stories to be a compelling mix of higher callings and simple humanity.
They rode in silence, everyone praying the same desperate thing inside their heads. Two hours before, they had prayed together. Big, noble, fearless prayers. Oh, heavenly father, please look after our hosts in this time of unrest. Please, oh Lord, protect the wonderful people of The Republic of Congo.
That was before they bribed their way through the first checkpoint on the way to Brazzaville. The checkpoint was clearly unofficial, even if the men who waved the Land Rovers to a halt wore uniforms. Everyone had been ordered out of the Rovers in the narrow, shady road. The men in uniforms lined the passengers up while they “inspected” the vehicles. Over the rapid-fire exchanges in French and Congolese, Angie’s father said, “Don’t worry. They’re not going to hurt us.”
The soldiers laughed at that and said, “Rich pig. Dollars. Donnez la monnaie.”
It didn’t cost a great deal, less than twenty dollars, and they were on their way again, rattling along the road cut into the forest.
“We just have to stay calm,” Mr. Veatch said. “They’re not going to hurt Americans.”
“Of course not,” said Nina, Angie’s mother.
Of course not, but after that they prayed in silence, something along the lines of “Please, get us out of here. Please, get us to Brazzaville and back to the U.S.”
Angie’s prayer was a little less polite. Less prayer than mantra. Screw good works. I want to go home.
It was all different from the six years they’d spent in Haiti. Yes, things had been rough there. Angie and Hope had slept under mosquito netting and longed endlessly for the comforts of America, even though they lived better than all the Haitian parishioners of the mission. They’d had indoor plumbing, windows, a washer, a fridge, and care packages from the sponsor church in Missouri. American candy, soap, and mac ‘n’ cheese.
Angie hadn’t lain awake every night in Haiti, listening for distant gunfire.
After two years stateside, she didn’t want to be in Congo. She’d come because that’s what family did. Fine, that was a lie. She’d been furious that her father agreed to the mission trip and insisted she come. She’d been angry and afraid. Terrified to think of Hope going on mission just a year after her leukemia went into remission.
“Re-mission,” her father, John, said. “Do you hear that? Re-mission. A chance to recommit ourselves to mission. It’s been missing. We haven’t been fully in Christ since we came to Missouri.”
She wanted to say, “Speak for yourself. If you haven’t been fully in Christ, that’s your problem.” Instead, she kept her head down, waiting to see what her mother would say.
After Hope got sick, they’d come out of the field, taken a pastoral position at Guiding Shepherd. A nice church. Too nice for John. His sermons toward the end were less shepherding and more accusatory. The church elders seemed relieved to send him back into the mission field. Seeing the newsletter photo of the four of them at their farewell party, Angie considered for the first time that they were all hostages to John’s fervor. That was why her mother said nothing to talk her father out of going again. Hope, Nina, and Angie, they were all shell-shocked victims struggling to smile.
A week later, they were in the Republic of Congo, standing on the tarmac at Brazzaville/Kinshasa. Five days of driving over dirt roads to get to the school and the church. The problem was that none of them were fearless anymore. Except John. In Haiti, Hope had been healthy and seven, and had never met a stranger. In Congo, she was weaker. Mortal and embarrassed by that spate of doubt. Nina was like a woman with the wind knocked out of her. The kind of woman who would be stronger in her faith for having been tested. Eventually. In a few years. But not yet. Angie had just lost her sense of rightness. Not her sense of right and wrong, but her sense that she was useful.
She had gone to Haiti at ten, a hopeful little Christian with ideals. Before it was over she’d seen how little good they’d managed to do. Oh, sure, there was the school with the little medical clinic, but there was the never-ending parade of babies who died, kids who dropped out of school to work, girls married way too young, children called restaveks who were nothing but slaves. And the unrelenting poverty.
Then Hope got sick and suddenly there were no more good works. There was a plane back to Missouri and the best medical treatment for Hope. That was good. Angie was grateful. She wanted Hope to live, to get well, but it seemed so easy. If you were American, if you were white, if you had money, or friends with money, you lived in a different world than poor black Haitians did. If you weren’t an America, you were already home. Tough luck.
Returning to a public school in Missouri compounded it. Hammered from all sides with the waste, the indifference, the blindness, Angie found it was easier to go along and be a part of it. She let herself forget what deprivation looked like. She embraced the shallowness, the new clothes, the donated car, the spending money, the ipod, the college applications. John guided her toward a private Lutheran college, to keep her in Christ.
Angie accused herself every day. Lukewarm. Christ would spit her out. He would spit them all out. Even John, whose fervor didn’t keep him from buying new suits and fetishizing his laptop. Lukewarm. John must have felt it, too. Maybe that was why he dragged them to Africa. Hope wide-eyed and a little too thin. Nina with a sharp new crease between her eyebrows that got deeper if Hope so much as sneezed. Angie, glaring at the back of her father’s head as they jolted down the road away from the checkpoint. She promised herself that as soon as they were safely on a plane back to the States, she would tell him exactly what she thought.