Trust & Obey: Identity and Reputation on the Mission Field
By a Pioneer in Central Africa
Trust Before Treatment
When I moved with my family to a new town in Central Africa, we expected my training as a Physician Assistant would bless our community and open doors for gospel conversations. However, for the first few years, I struggled to gain much relational traction through healthcare. Few people came to me with their medical problems, and even fewer followed through with the treatment I recommended. My credentials weren’t enough. I had to earn the community’s trust before they would listen to my advice.
Much to my surprise, I found that I gained credibility much more rapidly through dental care (especially tooth extraction) than through the medical care I am formally trained to provide. It has been a slow process of building trust over time, but local people now come to my home almost every day for treatment. And they usually do what I recommend. My wife and I are so encouraged by this answer to prayer. As trust in my medical skills continues to grow among our local friends, neighbors and community, we pray that they will also begin to trust us in matters of eternal significance and faith.
A Private Altercation
While I’ve been steadily building trust and relationships in my new ministry context, I’ve had a rocky relationship with the local police commissioner. Despite my efforts to improve my connection with him, he maintains a perpetually malicious attitude toward us.
One afternoon recently my family went out to the countryside, less than a mile from our home, to play frisbee. A police officer drove by and stopped to chat with us. He initially took a semi-aggressive tone, but soon relaxed and began laughing with us. However, at some point during our interaction, he felt the need to alert his boss to our presence. Within minutes, the police commissioner arrived, infuriated at us. He yelled at me, my wife and even our kids. We had done nothing wrong, but he demanded that our entire family immediately follow him back to town and report to the prefect.
The prefect is the head of a region of the country and is typically appointed by the president. In our area, he holds the highest-ranking government office and the police commissioner answers only to him. While we try to maintain good relationships with all the local leaders in town, whether political, tribal or religious, this current prefect had only been in place for 2-3 weeks. In fact, prefects had been changing rather frequently and we didn’t even know our region had a new one.
In my very first meeting with the new prefect, I sat in silence while the police commissioner and his right-hand man ran circles around me linguistically and tried to discredit me in front of their boss. When given the opportunity to speak, I did my best to explain to the prefect a little about who I was, but the other two men had obviously already destroyed my reputation. Unsatisfied with my language ability, I called my wife, who was waiting in the car with the kids, to explain the situation again in French. Eventually, the prefect told us we could go home, but we had to report back in a few days so he could review the authorization papers which allow us to live and work in the region.
My wife and I felt discouraged and exasperated leaving the prefect’s office, but we had been praying silently for God to grant us favor since the police commissioner detained us. As we left the building, I spotted my closest local friend Muhammad (a former prominent leader) and our landlord, both men of influence in the community, standing in the courtyard. They seemed as surprised to see us there as I was to see them show up at the most opportune time. They could tell immediately that something was wrong. Muhammad pulled me aside to ask what had happened. I briefly explained our encounter with the police commissioner and the prefect. Then my wife and I left the courtyard.
A few moments later, as we were getting in our car, a man I didn’t initially recognize stopped me. With a huge smile on his face, he said, “Do you remember me? You pulled my tooth out a few weeks ago. Thank you so much! My pain is gone. I can sleep again. I can eat again. Thank you.” I asked him what he was doing there and he said, “Oh, I work for the prefect.” Now I had a huge smile on my face. “Seriously?” I asked him, “Would you mind sharing with the prefect what you just told me? It would help him understand better who we are.”
Later that evening I received a call at home from a prominent man in town who told me, “Don’t worry about what happened today. I spoke to the prefect on your behalf. He now knows who you are, and you should not have any trouble.” The next morning, I visited with Muhammed, who told me that he and my landlord had also talked with the prefect after we left the office. They then contacted another influential local leader. “He is aware of what they did to you and can speak for you if needed,” Muhammed assured me. “If the police commissioner gives you trouble again, do not worry. We will take care of it.”
Would I Trust God in my Trials?
On the day of the encounter with the prefect, I had just finished reading Hebrews in my quiet time. The next day I read James 1, a timely reminder to consider our trials as all joy. In the midst of the stress, it certainly did not feel like joy. Anger, frustration, fear—those were some of my emotions while the police commissioner berated me in front of a powerful government official. However, there was also a moment as we were leaving the prefect’s office when I thought, how cool that we were unjustly brought before the leaders in town. Not only that, but God allowed the police commissioner to dishonor us before his boss, only to then have a parade of people come to vouch for us and validate what we do in the community. When we could not defend ourselves, God could. Consider it all joy indeed.
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