Any given second can change our lives forever — a car accident that leaves a young mother paralyzed, a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer that necessitates immediate treatment, a struggling teen who gives in to the suicidal thoughts that have plagued him. None of us are beyond the touch of suffering. However, for missionary families, these crises are complicated by the reality of living overseas where resources and the finances to access them are almost certainly more meager.
Missionaries face a litany of challenges, some like those of their mono-cultural counterparts but others unique to their calling. Issues like language learning (or lack thereof), cultural adaptation, changes in food and temperature, safety concerns, and the lack of familiar social supports in family and friends are just a few sources of stress on a missionary/missionary family. In addition, the pain of watching one's child struggle with these issues greatly compounds the stress that becomes so common to cross-cultural workers.
I recently was reminded about some research that had been done regarding missionaries and stress. "Back in 1999, Drs. Lois and Larry Dodds (of Heartstream Resources) were studying the levels of stress on the mission field, using a modified version of the Holmes-Rahe Scale. In Holmes and Rahe's original study, they found that if you reached a level of 200 on the scale in a year, the cumulative stress would have consequences for some time to come. In fact, they found that 50% of those who reached this level were hospitalized within two years. The reasons included heart attack, diabetes, cancer, and other severe illness. If ever the level reached 300, the person was almost certain to end up in the hospital within two years. Frankly, you don't want to have that much change and transition in your life.
The Dodds wanted to find out what the typical missionary went through. As you might have guessed, the news wasn't good. The typical missionary had not just peaking levels above 300 — they had sustained levels over 300 year after year. The typical missionary, in fact, had double that level — 600 on the scale! First term missionaries were found to have scores peaking at 900.
In the end, it's worth the stress. This rescue-mission that we're on is more important than personal
comfort. But that’s not to say that we should ignore the issue. Instead, we should minimize the
problem as much as we can, so that missionaries can be more effective in their ministries."
In my 22 years of working as a mental health professional among missionaries and their children, I have seen countless families face huge hurdles. Some have had the benefit of organizations with rich resources and deep pockets, but most have had to fumble through the unfamiliar world of treatment options and help of various kinds with little guidance and support. Having people come alongside these struggling servants makes a world of difference in their painful journey. That is the calling that Melissa hears from God — to follow Jesus in being one "to bring good news to the poor ... to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed." (Isaiah 61:1)
Susan is a NCC (National Certified Counselor) and has a M.S. in Community Counseling from Georgia State University and a Diploma in Christian Counseling from Psychological Studies Institute (now Richmont Graduate University). She has been with Africa Inland Mission for 29 years, 23 of those as a counselor at Rift Valley Academy.
My husband, Mike Saum, and I have been missionaries in Kenya for the past ten years. In June of 2015 our mission agency, Africa Inland Mission, sent us back for treatment to the United States because my husband was suffering from a debilitating back injury. Even though this was a good decision, we were not prepared financially to return to the United States. Our airline tickets cost over $6,000 and because we did not have enough in our home assignment fund, we had to purchase our tickets with a credit card. This was just the first drop of the rising tide of debt.
Since our home church in Keller, Texas is very small, they are unable to house missionaries that come back home unexpectedly. We were able to acquire a rental house, but that meant an extra expense. My husband has been seeing multiple doctors since we arrived (pain management doctor, physical therapist, internal medicine doctor, chiropractors, and an orthopedic surgeon). The insurance that we receive from our mission is good overseas, but not in the States. Almost all of our medical bills were covered in Kenya, but in the United States we have extremely high deductibles, so our meager missionary salary ($1600 a month) doesn't cover much. Once again, we had to tackle our medical payments with a credit card. Since returning to the United States this past June, we have accumulated over $15,000 in medical debt in addition to the airline tickets, housing, and basic day to day living.
This is not the first time we have accumulated medical debt on a furlough from the mission field. In 2009, we accumulated over $12,000 in dental bills. In 2012, our daughter broke her arm and I had an unexpected emergency appendectomy. Again, we accumulated over $10,000 in medical debt. It took time for us to pay this off, but with the help of supporters and anonymous donors we were able to pay off the debt and return to our ministry in Africa.
We are so thankful for the understanding and generous financial help from our family, friends, and supporters in coming to our aid in times of crisis, but we can't draw from the limited well of our inner circle indefinitely. God's love and resources are boundless, but as missionaries in financial crisis, we need help finding the right people to come to the rescue. A lot of times when these emergencies occur, it is a time of crisis and you don't have the time and energy to "beat the bushes." It would be such a blessing to have an organization that could come alongside missionaries like us who find themselves in unexpected situations. Missionaries can't go back to the field with debt and it is quite daunting when your debt is in the thousands. Our heart's desire is to serve God in Kenya. My husband has made great improvements, and it won't be his health that will be delaying our return, it will be our medical debt. We know dozens of missionary ministries that have been snuffed out prematurely because of unexpected financial issues. What a thrilling prospect to help these struggling missionaries and strengthen the global church. "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:21