Ivy League Education vs. Middle Eastern Racism

Melissa* sat in a metal chair next to the overgrown pool, clearly distressed. She turned from Farhad* to try to catch her parents’ eyes, looking for reassurance. As a graduate student at an Ivy League school, she didn’t know what to do with what Farhad was telling her. His forceful accented words were not fitting within her worldview, within her moral framework of highly-educated liberal New England.

I was manning the grill nearby and could see the dynamics. By this time I knew Farhad and could have guessed what he was going on about just by his body language. As a member of a minority people group who had suffered genocide when he was a teenager, Farhad harbored a deeply-rooted hatred of the majority Middle Eastern people group who had slaughtered his own. And a deeply-rooted hatred of Islam, the faith they used to justify their atrocities. Farhad was not a Christian, but he was definitely post-Islamic, and had been willing to study the Bible with me and Reza* and even to attend church with us.

Tall, in his forties, with slicked-back shoulder-length black hair and a narrow angular face, Farhad liked to wear a suit to church with a Hawaiian shirt underneath, generously unbuttoned at the top, 1970’s style. He had kind dark eyes and a genuine smile, though he was missing one of his front upper teeth – the result of a mugging incident soon after he had arrived in the US as a refugee.

“I get kidnapped by Al Qaeda. I almost die. But I keep all my teeth. I come to America. I lose my tooth! Why?!” he was known to ask when telling the story of how he got mugged in the apartment complex where he was placed by his resettlement program.

Now, he was unloading on Melissa, who had simply come down to the Louisville area to visit her parents during a school break. Her parents, both professors at Ivy League schools, would come down periodically to the area to stay in their second home, where my mom was a long-term house sitter at the time. Because they lived in the same house as my mom during these visits, our two families had gotten to know one another well and become friends, even though our worldviews were drastically different. We were a family of evangelical missionaries, studying at the Calvinistic Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. They were a family of staunchly liberal Harvard-educated progressives. But there was an openness to conversation, even friendship, with others who were different from them that set them apart from the more radical progressivism that is in vogue today.

This professor couple believed that as much as possible, nature should be allowed to take over the property, hence the overgrown pool from the 1960s, now full of lily pads, algae, frogs, and a snapping turtle. When the weather was warm, we liked to have cookouts on the cement patio next to this pool, and I would often invite my international friends. My mom’s creative cooking was a real treat for them, as well as for me, a college student at the time living on my own. We’d eat by the fire pit, swapping stories from all around the world until long after the lightning bugs had come out. A map on the wall contained pins from all of the different countries where my mom’s many guests had come from.

But swapping stories with refugees can get intense very quickly. The barbecue chicken wasn’t even done grilling when Farhad was dropping stories on Melissa of genocide and passionately espousing his seemingly-racist and Islamophobic opinions. She didn’t know what to do with it. Melissa was a sharp woman, and getting a world class education. But when your education and worldview is framed to believe that racism and oppression can only really be perpetrated by white Christians, by the oppressor class, what do you do with a Middle Eastern society where various people groups have hated and killed each other for thousands of years? What do you do with a brown-skinned Muslim who is eager to convince you of the evils of his own religion, and has first-hand accounts of genocide to back it up? Victims are supposed to be inherently virtuous, the oppressed are not supposed to be able to be racist. But Farhad was calling members of the dominant people group names like “dogs” and “filth.” He clearly hated them. All of them. Islam is supposed to be the misunderstood and maligned religion of peace, but Farhad was pointing to examples from recent history of massacres literally named after chapters of the Qur’an. Of Muslims with power slaughtering Muslims and other minority groups with less power.

Melissa caught her mom’s attention and tried to appeal to her. “But… but… mom… this can’t be right, can it?”

“No, honey, you’re right, it can’t be right, it’s, well, it’s…”

They were grasping, intellectually brilliant though they were. Their moral lenses had taught them that the world was full of people who were basically good, and evil only really exists in the oppressor class, or in those who just haven’t had enough education. But Farhad was a fly in that ointment, a big angry fly, prominently missing a tooth. His logic was strong. There was clear victimhood and suffering in his story. There was also clear darkness in his heart.

I turned the barbecue chicken legs over on the grill and thought about the scene before me. I thought about how adept Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees are at messing with the categories of popular Western morality. I am amazed at how Iraqis, Iranians, and Afghans can say all kinds of politically-incorrect things and get away with it. What progressive Westerner is going to be so bold as to call them out and risk exposing themselves to accusations of racism or Islamophobia? Some still might, but many, like our friends, will find that they have instead stumbled upon some kind of loophole, some kind of short in the moral circuitry.

I also thought about how grateful I was to be able to live in the real world, the world I had learned from the Bible. In that world evil and darkness are not limited to the few, to the oppressor class. They exist in every human heart. We are all evil, we are all on the spectrum of darkness. So we are not surprised when it shows up in the poor and marginalized, just as it does among the wealthy and privileged. While God’s word is clear about the evils of true oppression, the Bible calls both both the oppressor and the oppressed to repent of their hatred (murder) in their hearts toward one another, and to become part of a new redeemed humanity together.

The Bible has a category for people like Farhad. It shocks him by calling him to love his enemies (Matt 5:44). And when he finds that impossible to do in his own strength, to repent and to cast himself on God’s mercy in Christ. And if he does this, then he will be given the Holy Spirit who will empower him for the first time to do the impossible – to love those who committed genocide against his people. He’ll be able to do this because God’s justice is coming, and because he will know that he was forgiven when he had committed even worse against God himself.

An Ivy league education is no match for the realities of Middle Eastern racism. But the Bible can handle it – yes, more than handle it. It can transform it.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Zhanhui Li on Unsplash

To Reach the Unreached, Start More Schools

A Christian leader was once asked by a ruler of one of the Arab gulf states what his government should do in order to help expats stay longer in his country. The answer this Christian leader gave was threefold: churches, schools, and hospitals. If this infrastructure were in place, the leader explained, expats would be able to remain in that country for the long-term.

What is true of expats in general is also true of missionaries. We like to romanticize missionaries as rugged frontier types who have the secret spiritual gift of being able to function as a healthy church with their lone family or small team, who treat all their medical needs with a dog-eared copy of Where There Is No Doctor, and who can homeschool their kids on the back of a camel – all while learning language and planting churches. But missionaries are mostly ordinary people with ordinary needs. They need healthy churches, decent medical care, and schooling options that will work for their kids. The lack of this kind of infrastructure is a major factor in missionary attrition, one reason why people can’t stay on the field long enough to reach the remaining unengaged people groups.

Infrastructure isn’t everything, but neither is it nothing. As has been said among those who study combat, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. Even the best soldiers on the front lines will ultimately have to retreat if the supply and logistics system backing them up fails.

In this post, I want to highlight the vital missions infrastructure of workable schooling options for missionary kids. During our time on the field we’ve seen over and over again how deeply impacted families are when they can’t figure out good enough education options for their offspring – and the twin problem of their kids struggling to have a healthy peer group, or any peer group at all. Many of these families end up leaving the field, or relocating to other countries where there is a MK school. They were able to work through the elementary years with a year-at-a-time cocktail approach of homeschool, internet school, local government school, and maybe a local private school. But the junior high and high school years start exposing some very concerning dynamics among their kids. Academically, they’re falling seriously behind, or they’re struggling and depressed because they have so few friends their own age. Suddenly it becomes clear that the options that worked out for younger kids are no longer workable for teens. This often occurs just as the parents are really hitting their stride in language, culture, and ministry.

Why not just send kids to boarding schools, the classic missionary response to the education problem? Well, without discussing the pros and cons of this option, there seems to be a clear shift where missionary families are simply less and less willing to go this route. At the boarding school where I attended – not as a dorm kid myself, since my mom was a teacher so we lived near the school – my class was the last one to have kids arrive in the dorms as young as 1st grade. We noticed in the 2000s that classes were getting smaller, largely because families were choosing to keep their kids at home longer. I don’t sense this trend turning around any time soon. What may have been expected of earlier generations – sending the kids to a boarding school – is among younger generations of parents becoming at least undesirable, and for others, even unthinkable. Some will continue to pursue this option, but it will likely be a shrinking minority. I say this with much love for the school that I attended, and with great respect for all the families that have sacrificed to make this option work.

Is homeschooling not the obvious answer then? Not necessarily. While homeschooling continues to grow in popularity and accessibility, there is one wildcard factor involved that can sink this otherwise good option – the wiring of the child themself. I loved the years we were homeschooled while growing up, but had siblings that struggled with it. It’s the same with my own kids. We are coming to understand that at least one of our kiddos is flat out incompatible with the homeschooling environment, despite the valiant efforts of her mother, herself a gifted teacher. No matter what homeschool advocates claim, not everyone can homeschool, and homeschool may not be a good fit for every child.

Local schools might be great for language acquisition and making friends, but the academics can mean hours of remedial work once school is over, which still may not prove to be enough. School online brings better academics, but can isolate the child or leave them with only a digital group of peers.

Missionaries might be some of the most adaptable people on the planet, yet in spite of this the dual goal of a good enough education and healthy group of peers for teens continues to be a very thorny and elusive thing. So what should be done so that missionary families can have better options for their kids’ education and remain on the field longer? I would contend that sending churches and agencies need to help start dozens of new small or mid-sized Christian international schools. These schools should be placed in strategic cities or towns where there is still access to unreached or unengaged people groups. Priority should be placed upon high school grades, and then middle school, as the ages most difficult for homeshchool and most in need of strong peer friendships.

What if there are not that many missionary families in the area? Well, to quote a classic baseball movie, “if you build it they will come.” The presence of a trustworthy school will automatically draw other missionary families to that area. One of the cities we used to live in just got a new school, one that’s beginning as a robust co-op for elementary students that plans to become a full blown school in coming years. They were worried they might not have enough interested families. As it turned out, all of their available spots were snatched up right away. There are many families out there that would happily move to an unreached city, if only the schooling piece made sense. Find me a global city with good schooling options for MKs and TCKs, and I will show you a city with dramatically-improved longevity among the missionaries – and a ton of missionaries who have relocated there. For any colleagues reading this in Central Asia, one or two of these specific cities should immediately come to mind.

But it takes a whole lot of investment to start a school! Yes, it does. As the son of a MK teacher, I grew up with an inside view of how hard it was just to keep a school staffed and running, never mind the trouble of starting one from scratch. But we must wrestle with the tremendous costs of not having this kind of infrastructure more available for missionaries serving in hard places. Given the rate of turnover and attrition, it may in the end prove to be less costly to go big from the beginning and just start a school. And there is always the option of ramping up, starting with sending homeschool teachers, transitioning to launching a co-op, and finally launching a full-blown school.

Along with the cost, the potential reward also needs to be kept in mind. Let’s say long-term missionaries – who currently average around ten years on the field with some orgs – are able to double their years on the field, returning to the home country after twenty years instead. Think of the impact these second decade veterans could make in the lives of the locals and their colleagues, think of the wisdom and experience that they would bring to the table. Our region of Central Asia has very few who have made it to their second decade. Often, this is due to the fact that the first decade concludes with kids struggling in their teenage years. But if we can serve these families through starting schools, we just may be able to double missionary longevity in strategic areas. What an outcome.

The key is for gifted Christians with a passion for education to understand the great need and to embrace this kind of vision. And then for sending churches and agencies to fully back their risky goal. Previous generations of missionaries started schools like it was as easy as keeping tequila plants alive (which is shockingly easy, even for bad gardeners like myself). It almost seems second nature to them when you read about how often Christians and missionaries invested in starting educational institutions in the 1800s. Perhaps our contemporary fears of mission drift and “colonial” missions have kept us from investing in the very supply lines the mission truly needs.

Years ago I heard Tim Keller make a similar point about cities and schools when discussing how Catholic and Jewish communities had been able to thrive in American cities when evangelicals largely hadn’t. He also pointed to infrastructure, noting that Jewish and Catholic families with children have stayed in the cities when there have been schools, community centers, and hospitals accessible to their distinct community. If the infrastructure is lacking and it’s been hard for evangelical families to remain in American cities, how much more so when it comes to the cities and towns where the world’s hardest to reach people groups live? This will require some serious vision, investment, and commitment.

Christians and churches who are passionate about education may never have considered the vital role they could play in reaching the world’s unreached people groups. Their experience, their connections, even their classroom management skills, these are as valuable as gold, and could be the crucial piece that allows missionaries to remain on the field – and new peoples and tribes to have the chance to follow Jesus. We should challenge them to use these precious gifts for the sake of the nations.

If we want to reach the unreached, we’ve got to start more schools. To keep the front lines strong, we’ve got to strengthen our supply lines.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash