Some things just CANNOT be taught in the classroom. For instance, how to compete for attention with a mother donkey and her newborn coming to graze next to me while I teach. I took classroom management in college. It taught me many things including how to set up a classroom, how to keep a child’s attention, and how to eliminate distractions, but how to deal with a donkey was not in the curriculum! Thankfully, I observed this particular situation while a veteran missionary wife was teaching. Now I’ll know what to do if I ever find myself in the same situation! There are countless advantages to working alongside veteran missionaries.
You can learn from a veteran by asking questions. Ask a LOT of questions. How do you greet people? Are there any offensive topics you might not be aware of? What mindsets may need to be addressed when discipling others? What dishes can you cook with the ingredients that can be found in your new country? Which laundry detergent seems to be most effective? What are the cultural holiday customs? etc. There are NO dumb questions, especially in your early days on the field. For example, we were told ahead of time to expect a lot of visitors both on Christmas and New Year’s Day, and that it would be appropriate for us to have food to serve them. We were so thankful to know that ahead of time! What could have been an awkward experience for us, (being rude to our friends by not having food to serve) turned out instead to be great experiences. Veteran missionaries have already learned all of these things and you can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by asking them questions.
You can also learn a lot by watching veteran missionaries. Observe EVERYTHING! Watch how they converse with and relate to the people, how they teach. Ask to accompany them on visits and pay attention to how they conduct themselves. Watch how they eat with others, and how they express their thanks. Every detail is important, especially when you are new to the culture. One thing that I learned, is that when I want to leave someone’s home, I can “ask for the road”. That is the polite way to let them know that I am going to be on my way. I have learned a lot of these seemingly little things just by watching others.
When you arrive on the field you’ll be faced with countless new things. It’s nice to have a friend that understands what it is like to adjust to this new way of life. Before we moved to Burkina Faso, West Africa I purposed in my heart to not complain about the heat all of the time. I knew it was going to be hot and I’ve never seen complaining about the weather to be effective in changing it! However, when hot season hit it was an encouragement to have a veteran missionary that I could go to and be reassured that my daily physical fatigue was a normal result of the heat and not just me being weak! In fact, the nationals suffer with it as well. It has been so helpful to have someone that can tell me how to make cream, or what to use as a substitute for sour cream, or where to purchase baking soda. Who would have thought that the pharmacy would be the only place to find it?!
While many missionaries are pioneer missionaries (without them none of us would have veterans to work with!) there are definite advantages and blessings to working alongside others who are willing to share with us from their failures and their successes. I am so thankful for Rebecca Shumaker, the veteran missionary wife that God has allowed me to learn from. I can only attempt to repay the kindness and time she’s given me. I hope to some day pass along to a newly arrived missionary the tips and advice that I have been blessed to receive.