Families on Mission Vs. Single Missionaries
RTE: How has it been having your family in the mission field?
FR. LUKE: When my wife and I first went to Albania, many people thought that it was going to be very dangerous and that our children would suffer: “You are going to deprive your children of all the benefits of life in America.” Contrary to that expectation, we feel that our three children who were raised in the mission field were immensely blessed by the experience of learning another culture and language. They always appreciated what they had in America when they went back, but they also appreciated their mission home in Albania, which they thought of as their “real” home.
They’ve grown up with a very different world-view. They appreciate things that they would never think twice about if they had grown up in America. During our first years in Albania, we didn’t have running water every day. So, the kids learned to appreciate it. When we had water, we’d say, “Thank God for water. It’s great to have it.” During different periods, for months at a time, the electricity is off about five hours a day; in winter, maybe seven or eight hours. So they got excited when the electricity came on. Or, if we did have electricity, the tension was often so low that we couldn’t do something as simple as watch a video. I remember on one of our visits to the U.S., they wanted to watch a video, and came to my wife saying, “Mommy, if there’s enough tension can we watch television?” They still flip the switch to see if the electricity is working.
Next to our house in Albania we had a very tiny shop, nine by fifteen feet, with all different types of food – this was where we did most of our shopping. Once, when we were about to go back to America, my son Paul asked his mother, “In America, will they have shops as big as Uncle Soorie’s?” We laughed. It was beautiful to see how they were exposed to a different way of life. We lived in Tirana, the capital of Albania, and we were constantly exposed to beggars, poor people who came to our house every day asking for help. It was wonderful for our children to see this, day in and day out. They got used to getting things for the beggars, answering the door and coming and saying, “Oh, so-and-so is here.” We got to know these people by name, we visited their homes. When you live in suburban America you aren’t even exposed to them unless you go downtown. Many of these beggars truly became friends, and our kids loved them. They loved playing with them and saw them as human beings, not as beggars.
Another blessing of raising children in the mission field is community, both the indigenous Albanian community, the wonderful local people that were part of our life, and our co-missionaries who themselves had numerous children. At one time we had fifteen missionary children in the field, and they created such bonds of love and friendship. They weren’t exposed to the busyness, to the constant activities that American children are involved in. Their lives were very simple, and very fulfilled.
Neither my wife nor I have any sense of their being deprived, and one of our greatest regrets in leaving Albania after ten and a half years is that we have left at a time when our children are still young, and we are not sure how much they will remember. We often talk about going back into missions when they are a little older so that they not only remember, but can participate more fully. Even though they were young, we tried to get the idea across that they themselves were missionaries, that they needed to be witnesses. To whatever degree they could participate in our different activities, they did.
RTE: Growing up with cultural diversity must not only teach what is universal in human nature, but how to deal with differences early on.
FR. LUKE: Right. We Americans, unfortunately, are quite isolated from the rest of the world. The universal business language is English, so we think we can get anywhere speaking English. Having only Canada to the north and Mexico in the south, we aren’t exposed to many different cultures and languages and this is a great loss for us. It’s so enriching to be around the diversity found in a mission field, and to learn to see beauty in such diversity. One thing I tried to get across to the Kenyans, and later to the Albanians, was, “Sure, in America we have things that are nicer than in Kenya or Albania, but you have many aspects of your culture and life that we Americans can envy. Family connectedness, the support you have for one another, hospitality – how beautiful these things are! Don’t ever lose these aspects of your culture and think, ‘We want to become western, or American, because America is better in everything.’ There are certain things you can adopt from America that are beautiful, but don’t lose the beauty and richness that you have in your own tradition.”
Hospitality was something that always left the greatest imprint on me. I could travel to the poorest village in Africa and they would put on a feast. It was their responsibility to show love and hospitality to guests. It is the same in Albania. I don’t know who is more hospitable, the Albanians or the Kenyans, but they would put anyone in the West to total shame. Having almost nothing, they share whatever they have with whoever comes.
RTE: An American seminarian at Holy Cross Seminary told me about a depressed acquaintance who called one night, feeling suicidal. The seminarian invited him to come to the seminary for a few days for a change of scene and to be in a calm atmosphere. He agreed and the seminarian made the arrangements and cleaned an empty dorm room so that he could have his own space. The day his friend moved in, one of the Greek-born seminarians found out what was happening and insisted that the man take his own room, which contained his books and belongings, icons that were prayed in front of, and was a real home. The Greek seminarian slept in the hall on a couch outside the door so he could check on him through the night. The American seminarian said, “You know, I was so pleased that I’d found him his own space where he could have some privacy, where he could put his own things up – but actually what he needed was to be taken into someone else’s home and taken care of. I didn’t get it until I saw it.”
FR. LUKE: Yes, this virtue of hospitality is something missing in our American way of life. As missionaries, my wife and I saw hospitality as one of the greatest ways to express God’s love to the people. We wanted our home to always be open to people. We married right at the beginning of our time in Albania and it is interesting to think that my wife and I slept in our house alone perhaps three months out of the first five years of our marriage. We always had people coming, numerous people staying for months at a time. Our open home was a hallmark of our ministry. Even after the children started coming and we didn’t have as many overnight guests, we always had an open-door policy. There were people at our house every day. One of the difficult counter-cultural adjustments in coming back to America on sabbatical was that although we lived on campus at a seminary, no one came to visit. We lived there for four months and maybe a handful of people came to our house. And even when people came, they’d say, “I’m just here for a minute, I’ve got to run…” They’d stay briefly and then go on with their day.
RTE: We’ve been speaking here of missionary families. What opportunities are there for unmarried men and women? And in view of cultural differences, are single women limited as missionaries? What part do they play on a mission team?
FR. LUKE: The mission in Albania offers a good response to this question.
During the years I served there, of the 20-25 missionaries we had at any one time, we had a nice mix – usually about eight monastics, eight married missionaries, and six or seven single missionaries. Of the two dozen missionaries, about half were men and half were women. Also, about eight were clergy, and the rest laity. The unmarried missionaries played an important role in the overall outreach of the Church. In Albania, we had single missionaries who headed up our medical clinic, our elementary school, our post-secondary professional institute, as well as our development and emergency relief office. We also had single missionaries who taught at our seminary, who taught English in a variety of contexts, taught catechism, worked in administration, and who participated in our university ministry, among other things.
The Body of Christ has a need for everyone – men or women, married or unmarried. It is the same for the mission field. In fact, when a missionary team has a variety of members, it makes the overall witness that much more effective. Some people will relate well to a monastic. Others feel more comfortable with a married priest. Some prefer to approach a mother, or a married woman. Still others will listen to a single man or woman. All are part of one body, offering a unified witness. So there are surely opportunities for the monastics, the married, and the unmarried! In some countries, it isn’t appropriate for men to approach women and talk with them in public. Such societies need women missionaries, and this means both married and single women.
In the Protestant world of missions, single women really weren’t encouraged, or even allowed, in the mission field until the 1800’s. By the 1900’s, women outnumbered men as missionaries. Today, women far outnumber men, and this includes many single women. Women had to overcome many obstacles and prejudices before being allowed to serve in a variety of capacities, and this may be the same for the modern Orthodox missionary movement.
RTE: Do you have any specific counsel for unmarried missionaries?
FR. LUKE: My advice for single men or women is that they must be ready for some additional challenges. The loneliness of a new culture, the challenges of entering a new country, the frustrations of learning a language, and the normal difficulties and disappointments of the mission field can be overwhelming. As a married missionary, you have your spouse to support and comfort you; the monastics may be living in community and have another type of support; but the single missionary can feel the loneliness and frustration in a magnified manner. A single person has to be ready for these added challenges. He or she needs to be a strong person, and also be able to find support in time of need. Their co-missionaries need to be sensitive to this extra burden, and try to reach out to them.
One way to help overcome these additional struggles would be for single missionaries to live in community, either with other missionaries of the same sex, one of the missionary families, or even with an indigenous family. Living with a family of the country can be one of the fastest ways to learn the language, culture, and ways of the host country. Of course, other challenges may arise as cultures clash and one’s privacy may be lost.