By Karen Wingate
“Are you a missionary?”
The question hung in the air between me and the Honduran owner of a Hispanic import store where I was shopping with my family. I had just told her how I left my hometown years ago and lived all over the country after marrying a minister.
Her question confused me. Years ago I wanted to be a missionary. In fact, I made a public commitment at the 1984 Missionary Convention held in Phoenix, Arizona. Nine months later, I married a man who had no interest in the mission field. For years guilt told me I had failed God. Instead of pursuing my passion, I followed my husband to serve churches in five states, raised two daughters, started children’s and women’s ministry programs, and wrote Christian education curriculum for several publishing companies.
Before I could answer, Carmen launched into her own story about encountering Christ. She told of fending off abusive parents, fleeing a burning house, being kidnapped at age 15, escaping into drugs, attempting suicide, and facing cervical cancer at 21. Somewhere in the hurt a stranger handed her a note, inviting her to learn more about Jesus. In desperation, she told God that if he proved his existence to her, she would seek out this Jesus. Soon afterward she experienced a dramatic life transformation.
Now she uses her thriving import business to share her passion for Christ. “My work is a tool that allows me to do what I want most—talk about Jesus.” As she wrapped my purchase, she repeated her question. “Are you a missionary?”
My hands lifted in frustration. How could I top her story? “We serve a small church in Western Illinois. I’m still not sure what is God’s will for me.”
I could have kicked myself. Shame on me. I knew better. After all, what is the work of a missionary?
When I committed my life to world missions in 1984 at what is now known as ICOM, I had the mistaken idea that God would dump me in the deepest, darkest part of Africa to spend years deciphering unknown languages and cultures, serving sacrificially to share the gospel message. Yet after I left Carmen’s store, I realized God had led me to fulfill the pledge I made—to go wherever he would lead. Carmen affirmed what I already knew—that the role of a missionary is to stretch beyond our cultural comfort zones, wherever those might be, and use the gifts God entrusted to us to proclaim Christ’s forgiveness and life-changing power.
The World at My Doorstep
God’s calling is not limited to frontline foreign service. Nor is his initial invitation his entire plan for our lives. He starts with the person he made us to be—character, talents, interests included—then, over the course of our lives, hones us into the servant-worker he can use.
In 1986, through a random request from a fellow seminary student, the Lord opened a door for me to write curriculum for Standard Publishing, something I had dreamed of doing since childhood. Over the next 25 years, I wrote many Sunday school units, Vacation Bible School guides, and junior church books. I enjoyed the work, but was I fulfilling my call?
Behind the scenes God sent that curriculum to groups beyond my intended audience. I have since learned that Standard Publishing often donates leftover materials to foreign missionaries.
In 2003 the Salvation Army invited me to write a two-year curriculum guide for their children’s outreach program. My editor emphasized that the material needed to target inner-city children with no previous exposure to the gospel. My lessons were to avoid upper-middle-class examples and Christian jargon, use simple supplies, and present the Bible as if the children knew nothing about Jesus—which they didn’t. Later my editor told me that the Salvation Army translated the curriculum into Spanish and Tagalog. Missionary friends in Ghana, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines eagerly purchased my curriculum, finding the stripped-down, basic Bible lessons more suitable for their native audiences.
It was a life-defining moment when I realized God had used my gifts of teaching children and writing to proclaim the gospel message to other cultures. And I didn’t have to even buy an airline ticket.
But God wasn’t done yet.
Empty Nest Outreach
At the same time my daughters left for college, opportunities for curriculum writing waned. Both daughters had taken on the mantle of faith and service in God’s kingdom, one even serving an eight-month missions internship in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, I never forgot my commitment to cross-cultural evangelism. Two short-term worker stints with Training Christians for Ministry International Institute in Austria only fueled my zeal. What could I do? I was in the heartland of America.
ICOM 2012 and my daughters’ foray into international student ministry held the key to the next part of God’s plan. Speaker Tom Ellsworth described how the foreign field is coming to us in the form of international students. More than 765,000 international students currently reside in the United States. Fifty percent of future world leaders are now on U.S. soil, most of them from China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and India.
“What a radical opportunity,” Ellsworth said. “When they leave, I want them to love Jesus Christ and to be loved by the people of Jesus Christ.”
Then he gave this challenge: “People from around the globe are just around the corner. The world is imploding upon us. Who are the internationals in your town?”
I leaned back in my chair, frustrated. Family roots in my small farming community go deeper than the corn and soybeans they plant each year. I didn’t know anyone from other cultures. Then faces floated through my memory banks, proving me wrong. A Macedonian family ran the local restaurant. An Indian couple owned our small grocery store. Once again, I could work in foreign missions without ever leaving the boundaries of my small town. I prayed that God would show me how.
My first step was to enjoy breakfast at the restaurant more and befriend the family. In less than six months, the server came to my table with a question. “Would you tutor me in English?”
Most of our tutoring sessions were nothing more than exploring the difference between active and passive verbs. One day our reading comprehension lesson covered religious holidays. As we talked, my new friend asked why Christ had to come back to life. When I got home, I contacted friends at Literature and Teaching Ministry about procuring a Bible and the movie Jesus in the family’s native tongue. I don’t know what happened to that Bible or movie, but the family showed us deep love and respect by fixing us Macedonian coffee in their home and inviting us to their naturalization ceremony.
When they moved away, I felt bereft. What now? Was my outreach over?
“Start small,” Tom Ellsworth had said. “And seize the moment.”
About this time, Barry Reed from the Western Illinois University (WIU) campus ministry spoke to our congregation, reiterating Tom Ellsworth’s challenge and emphasizing the need for families to invite foreign students into their homes. My husband and I both felt a fire in our bellies—we could do this!
We invited two of my daughter’s friends from China to our home for a week’s visit, then invited two other students from WIU to come for Thanksgiving dinner. The Chinese girls cooked dishes for the meal, we played Apples to Apples®, and through lots of talk, entered each other’s worlds. Late at night, my daughter later told me, the girls were talking about Jesus.
Deep satisfaction settled within me. I just provided the home environment, cooked a few dinners with long, strange sounding names, and then let ministry happen.
Now my women’s group has joined me in undergirding the international student ministry at WIU. It’s simple things—like providing homemade cookies during finals week, organizing a baby shower for a Chinese student thousands of miles from her own mother, or being an encouragement to the campus ministry staff.
I told God I would go where he wanted me to go. Instead he gave me opportunities wherever I went—then used my efforts to impact the lives of those who needed to hear.
Yes, Carmen, I am a missionary. And so are you.
Karen Wingate is a freelance writer in Roseville, Illinois, where she bakes cookies for international students.
Your Mission Field
God has called all of us to go beyond our own comfort to share him with others. You don’t have to go far to find people.
• Where in your own life and setting do you feel out of your element culturally, socially, or otherwise? Ask God to help you see the situation through his eyes.
• What people or places do you avoid because you’re not sure what to do or how to act? Ask God to give you boldness and clarity.
• What keeps you from seeing your life and your community through God’s missional eyes—busyness? fear? complacency? Ask God to help you grow.