Friday, July 09, 2004

Laborers Together by Peggy Grossman

I've been thinking about how to write this: the author is a family friend.

The bad news first, I guess. Her daughters should have been more aggressive editors and cleaned up some typos and unclear paragraphs. OK, I got that out of the way.

Peggy Grossman was a Southern Baptist missionary in Liberia, Senegal, and Burkina Faso over about 30 years, together with her husband Paul and their four children. This book is her autobiography, written as a collection of anecdotes which she was persuaded to publish.

You would expect someone with 30 years in Africa to have many tales to tell, and she tells them enthusiastically and without regard for PC sensitivities. Rich (by local definition) outsiders are expected to contribute to the local economy by hiring servants, and these servants are called by the immemorial and very un-PC titles of "house boy" and "yard boy" and so on. Maybe the language makes your teeth itch, but the titles don't carry the same implications in Liberia that they would in the US. In fact they convey a certain status: "I work for so-and-so, he's a big man."

The first section of the book tells of her childhood, her call to missions, her husband, children, and their eventual acceptance by the Mission Board. A calling, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the direction God gives a person for their career. Folks usually use it to refer to careers in Christian ministry, but the term has a long history in Protestantism and could mean a "secular" occupation, albeit one devoted to God.

They spent about 5 years in Liberia, and I met them from time to time. Perhaps not surprisingly I remember their daughter Paula (my age) better; at first I was a bit envious that she seemed to have more privileges than I (and consoled myself that someone who put ketchup on her eggs must have some deep character flaw) and in later years I was not quite sure how to deal with the pretty lady.

The moment Paul and I were accepted as missionary candidates, I began praying, "Lord, show me my ministry in Africa. Let me live my life, truly, in such a way that people can see Jesus in me, but give me a specific ministry."

After being in Liberia about six months and still praying that same prayer, I answered a knock at my door one morning to see a man slight of stature who definitely wanted to speak with me. He ignored my greeting, but got right to the point. He burst out, "Missy, I no go toilet for three days." (Missy is the word used to address all women in Liberia, and replaces "Mrs." or "Miss").

Now, really, I didn't think that was any of my business. I told him where he could go to get help, but he insisted that he knew all "white men" (a term most Africans in those days used for "missionaries") were rich and always had medicine. A picture formed in my mind in which I could see a box of Ex-lax on the top shelf of my medicine cabinet, safely away from "little hands". I got the box of Ex-lax, handed it to him and said, "Read the directions."

Three days later . . . another knock . . . the same man . . . a different story. He immediately exclaimed, "Missy, I no stop going to toilet!"

As I talked with the man, I realized he couldn't read and, hence, had taken the ENTIRE box of Ex-lax. His quote was, "It tasted like candy."

God spoke to me at that moment: "Peggy, here is your ministry. You can teach these people to read. In fact, you better teach them or you might kill them if you pull any more tricks like this one."

And so she did. And not just teaching people to read English, but teaching them to read the Bible in Moore in Burkina Faso.

They trained pastors to start churches and rejoiced with the enthusiastic ones and wept over the dishonest ones.

It would be impossible to even estimate how many people were taught to read and write through the assistance of the Burkina Faso Baptist Mission literacy program. In the Sanwabo area alone, we never knew exactly how many classes were in session because our trained workers would visit a village to witness for the Lord, and discover that they needed a literacy class. Instead of informing us of the need, they would simply begin a class . . . neighbor teaching neighbor.

Not all was pleasant: "It's not a sin to steal from the white man." Burkina Faso is heavily Muslim, and converts to Christianity are frequently persecuted. Snakes and bugs (lizards are your friends!) and dust and heat get to you after a while.

But through it all she looks to the Lord, and tells of her family, and keeps it interesting.

Go read it.

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