Behind the walls of crushing trauma
By Kate Azumah
After Mule* hung up the phone, he felt like someone had turned him upside down. He knew intimately what was at stake. He felt betrayed, maligned, and crushed, but the impact was only beginning. “I was preparing for an exam that week. Everything I had studied vanished from my mind as if I had learned nothing.” How could they take such a dire decision without him?
Mule and his family have a history of 11 years in the mission field. Four of them were spent serving the unreached Mursi people in southwestern Ethiopia. The community mistrusted foreigners and city folks; so the missionaries worked hard to build friendships and earn their trust over the years. Mule was in charge of a mission project the community regarded as the apple of their eye. It was their only source of health, education, and good farming methods. Suddenly, Mule had to tell them the project was closing. Worse, he didn’t know the reason. Others had decided, and he had become a mere messenger.
A sudden end
Days following the grave news, Mule ran several errands; sometimes walking long distances to deliver documents at government offices to finalize the closure. The harder part was how to inform the community. Missionaries who had served there advised him to invite the community’s Christian elders and relay the news to them.
Mule reveals, “It was a terrifying moment. Even though these were Christians, in their tradition, they are a proud people. They carried rifles and could shoot without batting an eye, especially if it involved the threat of losing something dear to them.” After he announced the closure, Mule saw something he had never seen before—a dignified Mursi man deflated like a balloon. “Why, what did we do? Did our children steal something? Why are you closing the project?” they asked. None of them could believe it. They thought they were to blame.
“We finished all the paperwork and invited co-missionaries for handing-over formalities. Then we bought a bull and killed it. In Mursi culture, a matter is sealed by the slaughtering of an ox. That was when the community realized, sadly, that the mission project was indeed over.”
Mourning and comfort
“As a family, we had prayed the night we first heard the news, but it was very hard. We felt betrayed by our leaders. My wife avoided seeing our director altogether because she didn’t want to get emotional and say something bad to him. Unfortunately, the guesthouse where we stayed back in the city also hosted our organization’s office, so we had to see him every day.” Mule laughs about that now, seven years later.
“For a whole year, we lost our joy. There was something we had to forgive, but our hearts were too wounded to do it. It was like a cancer eating up our insides. We were no longer involved in ministry and had no financial support. Once, all we had was 20 Ethiopian birr – less than a dollar – for our family with three children. It was difficult and painful, but God provided for us somehow. He even made us a blessing to other people in need sometimes.
Mule says that during this period, they were sustained by the prayers, fellowship, and listening ears of trusted friends who encouraged them to focus on Christ. Other well-meaning comforters, however, only stoked the fires of their frustration and anger with prescriptions of what should have been done and not done. “That did not help us. In such situations, you need the right people to share your struggles with; the wrong people will make things worse.”
The Lord’s way
Following their experience, Mule and his wife decided to quit as missionaries. “We were well-educated, so we wanted to look for good jobs and support missionaries instead. But God said, ‘No, I’m not finished with you. I want you to continue with the organization, and I want you to forgive.’”
A leader in Mule’s organization got to know, a year later, that their decision had caused harm. He heard about it from other workers and invited Mule and his wife to talk about what happened. “We were able to explain what was on our hearts. We also discovered we couldn’t blame him. He had assumed we were well informed. With organizational hierarchies, sometimes information dissemination doesn’t go as desired.”
Their leader asked for forgiveness, and Mule and his wife also did. “We felt like a huge burden was lifted off us. The head of our organization also visited us in our country and listened to our story. He gave us a book; Persecuted by Christians, which encouraged us greatly.”
“Our experience helped me to understand how Jesus passed through Gethsemane and was betrayed by His own disciple. One of the most difficult situations we can face is persecution from other believers. I learned humility and forgiveness. When we decide to follow Jesus, we don’t receive blessings only; we also suffer, sometimes at the hands of our Christian brothers and sisters.”
Mule did not receive professional help for his traumatic experience, but he shares this: “In Africa, trauma and suffering are part of our culture and our life. You will face one and move on to the next bigger one. I think our blood and our skins are very hard compared to others, because for us life is always about survival. We should rather ask what we can learn from our difficult experiences, so we don’t repeat them.”
There was something we had to forgive, but our hearts were too wounded to do it.
“Professional help is good, but it should be sensitive to the African context, and provided by Africans. Professional help that is Western doesn’t always help. I heard about a missionary family that experienced trauma in the field. For them, the incident was part of life, but the more painful experience was the professional help they received. Some of the questions asked were more traumatizing than the situation itself.”
A listening Church
How can the Church better serve hurting and traumatized missionaries?
To this, Mule responds, “Provide a platform for them to share what they are going through and just listen. Listen carefully without judging or questioning. Allow them to express their challenges. They are the ones in the field relating to their neighbours, having problems with the community, etc. Don’t assume you know all about it. Then find ways to best minister to the missionary after listening. That would be helpful. Missionaries need help.”
Mule and his family were healed and restored. They returned to their organization and served among another unreached people group for four years. Currently, they are serving in their third station, still with the same organization.
“Now, we are okay,” Mule says. “We may not know who is coming with a good intention or a bad one, but our hearts are open to everyone and we are at peace.”
Traumatic experiences may be inevitable in the mission field, but they need not have the last word. God’s healing and restoration are possible! Since missionaries are almost always sent from a local church, it is good for the Church to know how to serve their hurting and traumatized missionaries.
- Missionaries experiencing trauma to receive the needed help.
- The Church to be more supportive of hurting missionaries.
- God’s grace and provision for member care providers.