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How We Treat the "Missionary Wife"

"Speak," I said, as I picked up the phone. No, I wasn't talking to the dog or being rude. That's just the way you answer the phone in Spanish. "Is your Lord and Master there?" asked the cultured voice on the other end of the wire. I froze.

I recognized the voice. It belonged to one of the elders of our church. I wondered whether he was serious or joking, but given the openly chauvinistic culture, I figured he could actually mean what he said fairly literally. After quite a few years working in that country, I had come to understand that women are primarily valued for their physical and domestic service to men. Oh, and their looks.

This kind of world view can be one of the biggest aspects of culture shock to an educated, gifted woman serving overseas. Shopping on a daily basis, not having a dryer, learning to speak another language: all these challenges we can meet. But dealing with open, blatant chauvinism from the society and the local church can be really draining.

It is true that we chose to go overseas and serve. And it's true we knew there would be obstacles to ministry. If only the problem stopped there it wouldn't be quite so bad. But for some of us, the problem is compounded by our sending churches. Supporting churches frequently ask my husband for a report about his ministry. Sometimes they ask me about the kids, but almost never do they ask me about ministry. After all, I'm a "missionary wife." (Does that mean I am not a missionary? Is there such a thing as a "missionary husband?") When we are back in the U.S., churches often ask my husband to speak or give a testimony. Not me. I've been prayed for in public by the wrong name, had my husband's name but not mine listed in the bulletin as "today's visiting missionaries," and my husband was once told that "the wife" could say something about the children if she wished. I sometimes struggle with what it means to "work for the Lord, not for men." Does that mean it's all right for a church to publicly recognize my husband's service but not mine? Am I wrong to feel that these are small marks of disrespect, which add up to a feeling of namelessness and voicelessness?

Over the years we have developed a few strategies to help combat my namelessness. If my husband is asked to speak, he'll suggest which part I can do. Or if they suggest I teach the four-year-olds he's learned to say, "That's not really her gift, but she would be glad to speak to an adult class." Sometimes it works, sometimes not. At least we are unified in the effort. As to that church elder, for once I was able to think on my feet and I told him that I was sure God was reigning in heaven as always. At which point he asked if my husband was home.

Do you have a friend serving overseas? Has your church sent a missionary somewhere to serve outside her home culture? I encourage you to send this on to her and see what kind of dialogue might start. While it's true that missionaries need financial and prayer support, sometimes what we most need is someone to know our name.

October21, 2008 at 5:48 PM

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