Deceptive Appearances: The Missionary Edition

About 18 months ago, I wrote a blog entry about why appearances often deceive us. This is part two of that entry, geared toward those little deceptive appearances about missionary life. Hopefully this is both funny and enlightening.

If I made the casual remark back in the States that my family employed a maid for the period of eight months, I can only imagine the looks I'd receive. I'm quite sure thoughts like these would be running through the minds of those standing around me, How can you afford a maid on a missionary salary? I can't even afford a maid. Must be nice. Missionaries must make a ton of money. Yet, if I made this same comment in Latin America to other missionaries or nationals, nobody would bat an eye. I'd hear comments like, "Our boys fell in love with our empleada ('maid' in Spanish). She was like an abuelita ('little grandmother') to them." or "Boy, I'm not sure I could've gotten anything done without our empleada with all that tile flooring to wash every day (yes, every day. Some Latin Americans wash their tile floors as many as 3 times a day!), or all the clothes to hang out every day."

The fact remains that simple, daily chores we can do in no time at all can take hours in less developed countries. There is often a large gap between the bottom of the front door and the ground, so dust and dirt constantly blows in off the street. And with no air-conditioning, windows are left open year-round, bringing in more dust and dirt. Our empleada was only with us one day a week and she cleaned our tile floors (downstairs) three times throughout her day. Despite all that, by the end of the day, if you walked around barefoot, the bottoms of your feet would be completely black with dirt. And while we had a dryer, using a dryer was very expensive, so everyone line dried their clothing. Yes, even sheets, blankets, and jeans. This was obviously easier to do in dry season; things would dry in half the time. In rainy season however? Fuggetaboutit!

Even if her assistance wasn't the huge enormous blessing it was (don't forget I was going to language school full time, learning a second language!), she gave me the opportunity once a week to practice my Spanish with someone who wasn't being paid to teach me. Part of our time together consisted of a meal eaten just the three of us (Troy, me, and Marta) when we got home from classes (our children didn't get out of school for another 2 hours after we did), and then Marta and I would just sit and talk for 20-30 minutes. This got easier as the year drew on, of course. She helped me enormously! And financially? It was a no-brainer. While I won't give particulars, she cost our family less for 7 hours of labor than it cost for our family of six to eat one meal at McDonald's. Yet, this was a huge blessing financially for her and her family.

So when you hear that a missionary you know or support has recently hired an empleada, you can be happy for him or her, knowing that he or she is receiving a tremendous amount of (inexpensive) help while providing a job for someone who truly needs it.

This doesn't stop at empleadas, however. This applies to the shoe-shine guy, the gardener, and the man or woman who washes the car. The thing many of us in the States have to understand is that many developing countries are what are known as "niche" countries. Every person has his or her own niche in society. Some people are doctors. Lawyers. Policemen. Clerks. Secretaries. Teachers. And some are gardeners. Shoe shine men. Or car washers. A person who shines shoes for a living clearly can't do the work of a lawyer. And so when a lawyer shines his or her own shoes, he or she is seen--by those in society--as taking that job away from someone whose niche it is to do it.

My husband is a very capable man. Before we became missionaries, he worked for well over a decade in maintenance. There isn't a whole lot he can't do. And after a year in Costa Rica without grass, he was looking forward to getting his hands dirty in the garden. Of course, to some degree he still can, as that is a hobby. But we happily pay a gardener and a new recently fired friend of ours to wash our car each week (or as needed) because that's what it means to live in a niche society. Once again, it all costs pennies in comparison to what we might pay in the States for similar services. In a country without food stamps or other forms of government well fare, this is how a society supports those whose lives have been a little harder than those more fortunate.

Aside from receiving services as a fraction of a cost, there are certain items that are cheaper to have made here than to have imported from the States. We have a missionary friend in South America who found a gorgeous sectional couch at a ridiculously low price (far cheaper than she would've paid for the same couch in the States) and excitedly posted pictures of it on Facebook. Not long afterwards, she mentioned she was unsure she should've done so because she wasn't sure how it looked to those back at home. I fear her excitement was a bit dashed with concern for any negative comments she may receive in future.

Folks, we missionaries could not be on the field without your support. You've worked hard to support us. But let me gently suggest that you are not the one supporting us--God is. He is the one who funneled the money we use in ministry through your willing and obedient hands. And we are so humble and grateful that you were willing to be that vessel! Most missionaries I know are a frugal lot who have a hard time considering even their own salary as theirs (which, in essence, none of our salaries are ours, are they?). So, I promise we would not rush out and buy the first pretty couch we found. If you could've seen Troy and me in the month leading up to those actual housing purchases, driving from store to store, ferreting out the best prices.... I actually was scolded in Spanish in three different stores for taking pictures of items we were trying to compare. (I'm so naughty!) We really do try to make the most of each dime God sends to our ministry through you.

So, the next time we post a picture or make a comment and you think, "Wow, must be nice to be a rich missionary with their own gardener and maid", please take the time to talk to us about it first. Or re-read this blog entry.

Because I promise you, appearances can be deceiving!

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