There was a time when Westerners in international Christian mission were men. At least those named in mission records were men. Trips to Africa or Asia by sailing ship were long and arduous. Fully a quarter of passengers never made it to their destinations.
One hundred fifty years later, in the mid-19th century, women missionaries were also becoming U.S. household names. Amy Carmichael of India, Mary Slessor of West Africa and Lottie Moon of China are inspiring examples, among thousands of others. Carmichael left the British Isles and died in India 55 years later, never having returned home. Moon inspired an annual mission offering among Southern Baptists that helped to create the largest mission organization in the world.
By my generation there was a new watchword: families in mission. Not only men or women, but whole families dedicated to serving together. Sailing ships had given way to steamships. Then DC-3s were replaced by jets, and airmail was made obsolete by the digital revolution. Even three-generation households in mission became thinkable; Jewel and I headed to Asia as grandparents to help create one.
A couple of months ago, though, my vision for families in mission suddenly expanded. It had been much too small.
The revelation came after I met Ganga, who hovered around the edges of a gathering I attended in a neighboring Asian country. He was chosen to give gifts to visiting speakers.
“I want you to meet my family,” he had said. “Will you have lunch with me?”
I learned that 25 years ago he had marveled at the great turning to Christ he witnessed in his nation, but he grieved for neglected children around him. So he and his wife began adopting children who had no home of their own.
“We decided we could be parents to 15 children at a time,” he said. He himself had come from a family of 16 children, of which he was the 14th. Many of those who now came to his home were already 7 to 10 years old.
“Twenty-five years later, we have 70 children and more than 20 grandchildren,” he said. “Our goal is to plant at least one of our children in each of our country’s 75 districts. Already we have children in 32.”
Only then did I begin to grasp his vision. Yes, it was to provide a home for homeless children. But it stretched far beyond helping the needy. It is an expansive dream that embraces both kingdom building and nation building.
“We do not coerce our children to become Christians,” he said. “But we teach the truth unapologetically. Eighty percent of our children have decided that they, too, want to become followers of Jesus.”
He continued: “Whether they are Christian or not, I stay in touch with all my children after they leave home — visiting, counseling, encouraging. We want all of them to become ‘stars’ — solid, productive citizens who help build strong foundations for our country.”
In the living room I saw a wall covered with the photos of the children who had graduated from high school in a recent seven-year period. On the dining room wall was a running record of the achievement of those currently in school. Everywhere I looked, love was flowing. I saw that Ganga, at his age, may have yet 70 more.
I stood in awe. This is a family in mission. But there’s something deeper. This family is mission. One such family in every nation could change the world.
Richard Showalter, of Landisville, Pa., is chair of Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission and a former president of Eastern Mennonite Missions and Rosedale Bible College.