The part of Melanesia I grew up in could be quite dangerous. Similarly, the areas of American cities I have lived in are also considered not the best neighborhoods around. And the Central Asian region where we currently serve has its own unique dangers – I narrowly missed being blown up by a car bomb some years ago. While different groups have exposed us to some fantastic training and resources, the deepest practical security lessons I have learned came from my single mom.
After my dad passed away, we eventually returned to the mission field as a family of four: my single mom, my two older brothers, and myself. The Melanesian country we lived in was particularly dangerous for single women. Yet my mom moved around with incredible freedom and independence, with barely any security incidents for over seven years. My mom is very short and slender, so it wasn’t that she cut such an imposing figure that the bad guys stayed away. She didn’t carry a handgun on her either. Instead, she simply lived out some good missiological and neighborly principles. I have learned that these several things can mean the ability to live safely almost anywhere in the world.
First, my mom learned the local language well. All missionaries are supposed to do this, but sadly many can’t or won’t learn the language to the point where they would be considered advanced speakers (language learning is very difficult!). Yet the ability to understand what is being spoken around you and to speak yourself quickly and intelligibly is a massive part of situational awareness and staying safe. Learning the language(s) well and continuing to learn for the long-term should be a central part of wisdom for living safely in risky places. Just one well-dropped comment in the local language can alert everyone around that not only do you understand everything that is being said, but also that you are no mere tourist unable to respond and react in the powerful local vernacular.
Together with the language, my mom also learned the culture well. She learned not only what words meant but also what forms meant, things like body language and clothing and honorable conduct. Especially for foreign women, understanding how to dress modestly and interact respectably could mean the difference between a normal trip to the market and a terrifying encounter with a man with a machete. Learning the culture teaches you how to prevent dangerous situations from happening, how to defuse those that do become threatening, and also how to respond once an incident has occurred (Which in Melanesia even meant the possibility of summoning an enraged mob to your defense). Learning culture is harder than learning mere language because so much of it operates below the surface and must be intuited and pieced together. And yet the often invisible culture sets the rules that can mean life and death. In our our current Central Asian context, my wife has learned that respectful greetings to men, such as shop owners, can place her in the category of an honorable sister who should be protected, rather than the category of strange and probably-immoral foreigner, which means she is less likely to be objectified.
Finally, my mom did everything with local friends. Whether we were making a run to town for groceries or going on a village trip or going to church, we almost always had one local “brother” or “sister” or more with us. No matter how good you get at the language and the culture, you will never be able to interpret a situation as quickly and as intuitively as a local can. This extra set of eyes and ears provides a massive boost to freedom and security in a given context. Being accompanied by local friends also makes a powerful visual statement, especially in honor-shame or tribal contexts. It means you’ve got people who will vouch for you and who will defend you, people who are loyal to you. In these cultures this can mean not only that you’re less of an easy target, but also that you are the kind of person who does not deserve to be attacked or robbed. If you have visibly earned the respect of local friends, then other locals are more likely to extend respect you also – even those who might rob you.
My mom knew the language and the culture and she went everywhere with local friends. The honorable conduct of “Mama R” meant that she had freedom to move around safely that surpassed that of most of the other expat women in our context. We now serve in a very different part of the world, but I think of these things when we have the opportunity to visit parts of our region or city that might be more dangerous. These principles are valid anywhere, even in our home country. Sure, we might be fluent in American English, but could we grow in better understanding the various subcultures around us and in befriending those from those cultures? Absolutely. And that would mean greater safety and freedom with which to take the gospel into risky places.
Greater freedom and safety should, after all, be leveraged for greater gospel access. I learned that from my mom.