From surprise announcements to hand-holding restrictions, Jemima Thackray explores the challenges of missionary relationships
“LOVE is no respecter of rules — and the sort of people we send in mission often aren’t necessarily, either,” the mission personnel manager at the Church Mission Society (CMS), Philip Bingham, says, describing his agency’s approach to romantic relationships in the mission field. But such insight into the human heart does not stop most mission agencies from at least trying to chaperone, if not govern, the affections of its volunteers.
The position of CMS, Mr Bingham explains, is to advise its people “not to be quick to form romantic attachments”, although, ultimately, the agency accepts that “romances happen”, and “not all work out — they don’t anywhere.” Other mission agencies, however, are more cautious, and stipulate that new people should not date for at least their first year in service.
“We say: take a year to understand how the culture you’re in understands relationships — both in society and particularly within the local church,” the co-ordinator of Member Care for Latin Link, Ruth Turner, says. “In many parts of South America where we work, they have a very different way of approaching relationships.”
WITHIN the ranks of Operation Mobilisation (OM), an agency that works, through its ship, Logos Hope, in port communities around the world, potential couples must seek permission to be in a relationship. “The general principle is that this can happen after a year on board the ship,” the head of UK Personnel, Glenn Leaver, says. “But we work on a case-by-case basis, as it can depend on the cultural context and the rules of each OM country branch. So, for example, OM in Papua New Guinea says that you have to be on board three years before beginning a relationship.”
Understanding this guidance, Mr Leaver explains, requires thinking outside the mind-set of Western individualism. “It’s not about wanting to control people: it’s about protecting the good of the community, because when you are living in community, the consequences of your actions affect more than just you, and can have a knock-on effect on the whole group.”
The rules offer protection for individuals, too, he argues. “When you are outside of your cultural context and in a foreign environment, relationships can start very quickly, because you are spending so much time together. It’s better to take time to see what God is doing in your life; people can end up getting distracted and missing out, or being regretful.
“And people can be naïve, too. I remember one couple on the boat, a Dutch woman and man from Papua New Guinea. Later, the boat stopped off at Papua New Guinea, and she met the man’s family. When she realised the level of poverty he grew up in, she was distraught and overwhelmed.
“Life on board the ships isn’t always reflective of how people are in their normal cultural environment; so it’s better to get to know the person in their own normal environment before over-committing.”
DESPITE the call for restraint in the early days of courting, relationships within missionary communities, or between missionaries and local people, are common.
“We have several longstanding cross-cultural marriages in CMS, and that’s a great richness of our mission community,” Mr Bingham reports.
One couple, Festo and Grace Kanungha, now work side by side in Tanzania: Mr Kanungha is a Tanzanian, and is the head teacher of a secondary school in the Rift Valley, while Mrs Kanungha (who originates from Cornwall) is the head of the attached nursery school. They took some time out to live in the UK for 12 months to learn from the education system, and are now applying that to their ministry in Tanzania.
“We reckon that a ballpark [figure] of about 1000 couples have met through OM,” Mr Leaver, an Australian, says. He met his wife, Fiona, a Scot, on board ship with the charity. “We tried to keep a balance, and not become exclusive. In the real world, you wouldn’t spend all your time together, because of other commitments; so, on board the ships, it’s important not to spend all your spare time with your new girlfriend or boyfriend.”
LATIN LINK volunteers are allocated mentors whom they can talk to about all aspects of missionary life, including relationships. “It’s foolish to think that some people won’t have feelings during the first year, or that they can just switch that side of themselves off,” Mrs Turner says. “We don’t want people not to be able to talk, as that wouldn’t be healthy, and could lead to people doing things they wouldn’t otherwise because of the pressure.”
If volunteers do form romantic attachments, mentors are there to help people to cope with the additional challenges of cross-cultural relationships — and also to consider the practical challenges, such as the fact that visas are now more difficult to get in the UK. “You can’t assume you can live in the UK; so you may have to be prepared to live away from your family,” Mrs Turner explains.
It is evident that missionary relationships have to stand up under some rather specific and unusual pressures. “When a relationship becomes official on board an OM ship, the couple’s name is written up on a board in the staff area so everyone is aware, which can present its own challenges,” Mr Leaver says.
This is partly for reasons of “accountability” around sex and relationships, he says, but it is also a lot to do with being culturally sensitive to the different nationalities on board the boat and in port. This extends to the way couples behave in public, too: “I had some colleagues who met in Bangladesh, but that’s a culture where men and women can’t touch in public. The only time you’re allowed to hold hands is crossing the road. Then the man is allowed to help the woman by holding her hand — and so this couple I knew spent a lot of time crossing roads.”
THE need for cultural sensitivity can affect relationships hugely, Mrs Turner explains. “In Peru, where I am based, people don’t really date: they enter a relationship only if they’re serious about the idea of marriage. In many churches, the pastor would be consulted, and could say ‘No’ if he doesn’t agree the couple are compatible
“Couples can’t be on their own for at least the first year; only little by little are they given space and freedom. The engagement usually involves both families getting together, and the man will then officially propose in front of everyone.
“Our volunteers try to adhere to these practices as much as possible, so that it’s clear that we respect the community and the church’s authority. I met my husband, Paul, in Peru. He had been brought up in Peru as a missionary kid. We were very, very careful: we always had chaperones, and I told my pastor straight away, and we married after only 15 months, even though we hadn’t spent that much time together, because we hadn’t even been living in the same city.”
SIOBHAIN COLE met her husband, Ryan, while working in Papua New Guinea for the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), and similarly tried to respect local customs (see case study below). “There is no concept of dating in Papua New Guinea. If we had been seen a lot by our local friends and colleagues, things would have been presumed, and it would have damaged MAF’s reputation and our own.
“So, instead of dating, we had kind friends who would arrange social events at their houses so we got to hang out. Then, when we were sure we wanted to pursue a relationship, we spoke to our community. I was having conversations with some of my staff within a month of Ryan and I getting to know each other, saying we were deciding whether or not to get married. That’s a terrifying thing to say out loud when you’ve been seeing someone for only a few weeks.
“Those were the most uncomfortable conversations I’ve ever had in my life. I told two of my colleagues about my relationship with Ryan before I told my own mother.”
NEITHER Mrs Turner nor Mrs Cole, however, set out on mission expecting to meet their future husbands — “especially as there are so few single men on the mission field”, Mrs Turner says. Indeed, this has been observable trend ever since the end of the 19th century and the deployment of a large number of unmarried women as missionaries.
“There are still many more single women,” Mrs Turner reports. “They are a real force in the mission field, and they have been for generations. The reasons for this are unclear, but it’s probably a reflection of the fact that there are more women than men in the Church.”
Both women dispute the assumption that unmarried women missionaries are motivated by finding a partner. “It’s actually the reverse,” Mrs Turner says. “Many women count the cost of going away, because they often go away in their prime and miss out on meeting someone from one’s own culture.”
“Before I joined MAF, I had to ask myself how I felt about not getting married,” Mrs Cole says. “I had to have that conversation with God, too. I had never been focused on marriage, but I had to wrestle with the question during the application process.”
CMS noticed a reduction in the number of single female applicants once the Church of England introduced the ordination of women. “There are still more single women than single men, though perhaps the imbalance is not what it was,” Mr Bingham says. “They serve as a reminder to those who disapprove of women in leadership that God does not agree with them.”
Case study: love in Papua New Guinea
British-born Siobhain Dale met Ryan Cole, from Canada, while working as a missionary for Mission Aviation Fellowship, an agency that flies small aircraft to the poorest and most remote communities to provide access to health care, education, and community development. The couple married this summer in the UK, and have now returned to Papua New Guinea, where Siobhain is an operations manager and Ryan is a pilot.
But “it wasn’t love at first sight,” as Siobhain explains. “Early on, not long after Ryan arrived, we all went away on a weekend. These expat weekends are helpful, because it can get claustrophobic for the single girls, because we can’t go out without a man escorting us.
“When we go away, we have a bit of what we’d call ‘normality’, and also an opportunity to encourage each other. I remember we had an activity, which was a dance lesson for the whole group; Ryan and I were paired together. We had fun, but it wasn’t love at that point.
“Ryan then went off for two months to do his basic training and to learn Tokpisin, the trade language — there are over 800 dialects in Papua New Guinea. Shortly after, we were invited to go on another weekend away, this time, just single people, and that’s where our courtship started.
“Going on a date with Ryan was out of the question, though, as in Papua New Guinea a woman is not allowed to spend time alone with a man who isn’t her husband. But we had the occasional picnic lunch together at the MAF base, and, if no one else was around, we held hands across the table.
“For a time, we barely saw each other, because he was based in Wewak, while I was in Mount Hagen. We had 40 minutes together once a week, which was the turnaround time between him flying in to Mount Hagen to drop off passengers and cargo and flying back out again.
“Although Papua New Guinea is 96 per cent Christian, their spirituality is mixed in with animism and ancestor worship. The traditional tribal culture is very patriarchal, and polygamy is not uncommon.
“The initial marriage contract may be a conversation between families. The couple then ‘go down the garden’, a euphemism for consummation, which refers to the fact that women are to be found in the fields, as it’s their responsibility to grow the food. The bride-price ceremony then comes later, usually once the first child is born, when the husband’s family pays compensation to the wife’s tribe.
“So, you see, it’s very traditional, and yet Papua New Guinea has the highest amount of pornography per head in the world — smartphones have reached bush communities! There is a high level of sexual violence against women; it’s estimated that 70 per cent of women experience rape or assault in their lifetime, even instances of expats’ being raped. Which is why it was important that, as missionaries, we modelled Christian accountability and propriety, but also equality and fidelity.”