When I was growing up we had missionaries in the basement. They came and went with their stories and pictures; invading my play space and filling my head with images of other people and places.
Preacher Dad was employed by “Headquarters,” the very big and important administrative center for the United Pentecostal Church. He was in charge of the foreign missions department. I have no idea what he did, really, other than travel a lot. I do know that my parents converted our basement into a private bedroom and bath for missionaries on furlough. Furlough happened every four years for those missionaries assigned to other countries. They came home for one year to see family and raise funds for their next four years. Their first stop was Headquarters, where I assume there was some sort of debriefing process. All I know is they stayed in our basement.
A few of them stood out.
The Herdmans had spent many years in Africa. They actually spoke Swahili, which they would use if I encroached into their space with my big listening ears. It was a fascinating language to hear, like music with kissing sounds thrown in. Brother Herdman had a big wide face and a smile to match, Sister Herdman was a bit stern but not unkind. They taught the African women to cover their bodies; to dress the way American Jesus said you were supposed to. The African women put on the requisite white tee shirts they handed out and promptly cut holes in them for their breasts to hang through, so that their children could nurse. I guessed they missed the point. The Herdmans clearly loved Africa and the people there, despite the fact that they went there to save them from themselves. There was always a slideshow, sweating black men in long sleeved shirts, ties and trousers, faces glistening in the sun, standing in front of a barren churchyard and cement block church sporting a UPC sign. I always thought they had taken something interesting and made it not.
Then there was Brother Johns, a missionary to the Philippines. He had a big personality, a natural entertainer and storyteller. He would play our piano with gusto and joy, making up songs as he went. If he made up a verse about me, the warmth of his personal spotlight created a glow that only faded when his attention moved to one of my sisters. We all got a turn, Brother Johns was cool that way. He brought beautiful Philippine dolls in beaded dresses with shining black hair made of thread. And he couldn’t ever drink orange soda because once, on a very hot and thirsty trip in the heart of the Philippines, he bought an orange soda from a roadside stand and got very sick.
There was a constant flow of visitors and souvenirs, and while my personal world was so small that I wasn’t allowed in the neighbors’ houses, there was a sense of adventure and awareness of other cultures that broadened my perspective. My father came home from trips abroad smelling like smoke from the airplane and my sisters and I would attack him for the gifts he always brought, most long since lost: wooden carvings from Africa, glass from Israel, copper from Rhodesia, china from England, crystal from Germany. I didn’t know it then, but he had several life insurance policies in case he was killed during his travels. It was a volatile time and he was realistic about the odds.
So he traveled and he preached, with an interpreter. During my ninth summer, the family went along on a six week trip to South America. Our first stop was Ecuador. We traveled by truck, through the jungle and high into the mountains to a camp where church services were held with Preacher Dad as the guest speaker. The open air revival tent was filled with native Ecuadorean highlanders in beautifully woven garments, beaded necklaces piled from shoulder to chin and loose tops for nursing children of all ages. That was the first time I ever saw a breast; a small child walked up to his mother, took her breast out and suckled while she calmly continued peeling an orange. This blew my mind. I lived in a home with four females and had literally never seen a nipple other than my own. Some adults were my size at age eight. The babies were so beautiful it hurt. So were the young men; brown skin, brown eyes, black hair, easy smiles… I was lust-struck. There were communal tents for the families that came to the revival and in one, a baby was born. He was named Donald after my dad.
Locusts the size of ballpoint pens were everywhere. Revivalists were fed soup out of a huge metal barrel, black liquid with unknown substances floating in it. I was relieved to know that we were not allowed to eat it. I questioned why the Ecuadorean women were allowed to wear jewelry and was told something along the lines of “they didn’t know any better.” It’s so hard to justify black and white rules to an eight year old.
In Argentina we stayed at the home of the Richardsons, missionaries in Buenos Aires. One evening the adults went to a church service, leaving the children from both families home. During the evening, we heard booming, explosions. The next day we drove along the street and saw bombed out buildings. It was 1974.
In Brazil, we saw voodoo shops, which struck terror into my heart. My parents snuck into a sacred park area to watch a “witch” go into a trance and cast a “spell.” They returned shaken and stirred. People who protested the presence of the missionaries left chicken feathers on their doorstep. This was solid evidence of the work of Satan.
Missionaries were not there to understand another culture, but to spread the word of god. Their belief in their mission was very real and I believe they were well-intentioned and good-hearted people, if misguided in their religious arrogance. Certainly, they were brave. Despite my perspective on the concept of missions now, I am forever grateful for their stories that shed such light into the sequestration of my childhood.
*Names have been changed to avoid anything that might happen if I don’t.