superheroes and martyrs: common missionary misconceptions

I need to set a few things straight.

I am not a superhero or a martyr.  Nor is it likely that I will ever be a superhero or a martyr while here in Tanzania.

In my recent surfing of ministry blogs, I found there are some missionaries who would lead people to believe they are serving while every day in the midst of great peril.  Now, let me be clear: there do exist some missionaries who are serving while every day in the midst of great peril.*  But the majority of us are not (nor will we ever be) in that category.  It wasn’t so very long ago, during a three-year stint in China, that I would read all kinds of scare stories from other servants about the dangers involved in being “undercover” missionaries in a communist country.  It is true that Chinese believers attempting to share the gospel with others can be in serious danger of relocation or even prison.  But the missionaries themselves are in little danger beyond the possibility of being sent back to the United States.  [On my first night in China, I cried myself to sleep while praying that I myself would be “found out” and sent home.  However, God did not grant my wish, and I’m so very glad.]

One thing Christie and I strive toward is transparency in our work.  While it makes a good story that missionaries in Tanzania are suffering greatly for the cause of Christ, it is generally not true.  I’m no Stanley, and Christie’s no Livingstone, I presume.  Sure, there are things we give up and difficulties we face — but these are often and largely overstated.  I want to be honest about our situation here, and so, I’d like to clear up some exaggerations concerning the lives of missionaries in Africa.  I hope those of you who financially contribute to us will not pull your monetary support after reading the following list.  Even more so, I hope those of you who regularly pray for our family and ministry will not pull your intercessory support upon discovering just how easy we have it.  All the same, I feel it is my duty to straighten out these common missionary misconceptions:**

  • The government is not angry with us, or even distrusting of us.  In fact, I’m friends with a policeman, and have had several pleasant conversations with government officials.
  • There are no cannibals near where we live.
  • There are no lions near where we live.
  • There are no government dissidents with guns near where we live.
  • There ARE monkeys near where we live… but they don’t seem to be dangerous (though I am still VERY afraid of them).***
  • We do not live in a grass hut.  We live in a nice, concrete home with a tin roof, wooden doors and working windows (with mosquito screens).
  • We have electricity at least 5 days a week — and even more during the World Cup.
  • We have indoor plumbing and water available to us at least 6 days a week.
  • Malaria is like a really bad flu.  It is generally, for healthy people, not life-threatening.  And none of the Harrison clan has had it yet.
  • I don’t wear a loin cloth, and Christie doesn’t go topless.  Neither do the Tanzanians with whom we work.
  • No one in our family is in any danger of being sacrificed to pagan gods.
  • While I often do use my bike as a means of transportation (diesel is $5/gallon), we have a 4WD truck.
  • We don’t eat rats and generally don’t eat bugs.  [Right now I’m enjoying coffee and cinnamon toast.]
  • We have medical facilities, trained doctors, and a pharmacy in Geita.
  • Very rarely does the local Tyrannosaurus Rex attack our village and eat our young.  For the record, his name is Ted, and he’s largely misunderstood.

What else have you heard about missionaries in Africa?  Do you have any questions about our lives here?


* There certainly are missionaries who serve in dangerous places.  And there are also missionaries who have been forced to give up much more than Christie and I, in order to serve in their locations.  This post is characteristic of my thoughts and opinions, based on my own experiences in China and Tanzania, and is not meant to be representative of the lives of all missionaries in all places.

** Perhaps at another time I will share with you a list of those things we indeed have given up in order to be in Tanzania.  Bacon is not on that list, or I would not have come to this place.

*** Monkeys and baby dolls… monkeys and baby dolls.


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21 Comments

Filed under living in africa, mission, tanzania

21 responses to “superheroes and martyrs: common missionary misconceptions

  1. Brett: I never doubted your sincerity or transparency. this further cements that. I truly appreciate your desire to be honest about your work and surroundings. I see the truth as being absolutely essential and that lies will eventually be found out and cause you greater damage. I do admire though what you and Christie are doing, even though some may think you have it easy. I believe it is a “gift,” a calling if you will. (however, I would also like to read about what you have given up some day).

    • bill, it is definitely a gift that we get to partner with God in his work among the poor in tanzania. we are very blessed. and i’ll get on that “what we’ve given up” post soon. but i’ll tell you the top of the list right now:

      close proximity to family and friends. my daughter hasn’t met my dad, my brother, or my sister — much less most of my closest friends and extended family. and my grandparents haven’t met their first and (currently) only great grandchild.

  2. i had a dear friend from college who went to france as a missionary. she emailed me once, in a quandry because a couple from the church had come to her for marital advice, and she has never been married! she was very distressed over the fact that people seemed to think missionaries were experts in every category and didn’t need to sleep, etc. i added that they also expect them to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. it’s amazing the misconceptions people come up with.

    • well, trapper, i don’t know about missionaries in france, but in africa we really don’t sleep. and there aren’t really many tall buildings for me to leap…

  3. I actually had someone ask me yesterday if I had running water and I was like… I live in Israel, not Africa. hhehehehee. (But, where I was in Bots, we didn’t always have running water and out in the bush we never did). But, its funny you write this 😉

    • well, it is true that our running water is only present because we went to the trouble of building a water tower that holds a tank on top for pressure…

      how long were you in botswana? and what did you do there?

  4. Great post. Loved your sincerity about your ‘real life’. Those seem to be common misconceptions about not only mission work but also about living in deepest darkest Africa doing anything else.

    I think you have it pretty tough sometimes but love how your family seem to make the most of the adventure and kinda go with the flow. You never seem to have much to complain about.

    • do people assume the same things when you say you’re from south africa?

      and you could call it tough sometimes, but the benefits greatly outweigh the difficulties. like family time, being out in nature, and slaughtering our own pigs.

      • They certainly do! The fact that we are white surprises them the most.

        Seeing that none of the visitors to the World Cup were eaten by the lions that wonder around our city streets, hopefully those misconceptions have been cleared up.

  5. Kim

    And here I thought I had you all figured out 🙂

    People can sure be silly sometimes. Glad you don’t see all the challenges you deal with as anything that difficult. And really glad you are not at significant risk for becoming a martyr. I like my examples alive and well thank you very much.

  6. That’s too bad about the lions. I mean, maybe not for you since you have a kid and all. But I sort of like to imagine you looking out your window to a herd (herd?) of giraffe walking by.

    I would be scared of monkeys too, I think.

    • i think it’s right to call them a herd — though my english question has more to do with whether or not it’s a herd of giraffe or a herd of giraffes?

      and monkeys are evil.

      • I’m not sure…you know I don’t think there is anything wrong with giraffes with an s. I think it is that way and I was incorrect…although I think it was a typo on my part.

        Monkeys are evil. I’ve read about them.

  7. Pingback: culture stress (or i don’t want to be a missionary anymore) | aliens and strangers

  8. Carrie

    I can relate.

    My question: Do you have any skunks? And if you don’t do you know of something that is not a skunk but smells like skunk? Something in my house smells like a skunk (the smell moves), but we don’t have skunks in this part of the world.

    • i don’t think we have skunks in tanzania. not that i’ve ever seen anyway? but we had them in alabama. [there’s something about that smell that i actually like…]

      no idea what you’d have that smells like that. but also i don’t know where you live. i know from your email that you’re a missionary somewhere…?

  9. Ted

    Brett, you’ll never be able to convince me you’re not a superhero. And I’m actively looking for tangible proof but, once I find it, your secret will be safe with me. Except for the fact that I just said something about it for the whole world to see.
    Did you ever do the post about stuff you’ve given up?
    And was the tyrannosaur name just a coincidence, or is this about my temper? I haven’t had any temper problems since China.

    • i have not yet done the post on stuff i’ve given up. i ought to. sometime this year i will — there, a goal.

      the t. rex name is neither a coincidence OR about your temper. i just think of you whenever i think of superheroes. and i wanted a throwback to good ol’ teddy d. if you’ll note, your name is even in the address for this post. glad you noticed i included your name…

  10. Ted

    I’m honored. I didn’t notice my name in the address though.

  11. Pingback: missions: two by two | aliens and strangers

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