- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

Missionaries are some of the least-respected people on this planet.

Because they believe in the superiority of their faith over others, they are politically incorrect. Their work is dangerous and sometimes deadly; look at what happened to Lubavitcher Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, who were murdered in cold blood in Mumbai, India, in November.

However, Jewish missionaries aren’t hit with near the hatred and scorn I’ve seen poured out on Christians who travel overseas and live in utterly alien cultures, hoping that their presence and preaching will win some hearts and minds. There was no international outcry comparable to what the Holtzbergs received when Gayle Williams, 34, a South African working with autistic children, was murdered by the Taliban in Kabul in October.

There’s been an effort in recent years to tell missionaries’ highly unusual stories. I’ve picked up two of them in the past month — “Wild Indians,” a book by Carol Martin, a Texan who spent 17 years in the jungles of Colombia, and “Breakthrough,” a DVD produced by OMF International about British missionary J.O. Fraser who went to China’s Yunnan province in 1908.

Each of their tales involve sacrifice at a level few of us achieve. Mr. Fraser, a gifted concert pianist, was an honors student in engineering when he read a pamphlet asking why western Christians were unconcerned about vast reaches of the world that had yet to hear of Christianity.

“So few are offering for the mission field,” he wrote. “I cannot [help but] feel there is something wrong somewhere.”

He signed up with the China Inland Mission — a predecessor to OMF — and was assigned to rural southwest China. He was drawn to the Lisu, a non-Chinese-speaking tribal group that worshipped demonic spirits. But with fewer than a handful of converts after five years, he was depressed and sick. He was ready to leave Yunnan for another mission field when he managed to get a prayer group in England to intercede for him.

A breakthrough followed. Seven families became Christian at once and, during a three-month period in 1914, 600 Lisu forsook their animist practices for Christianity. Mr. Fraser by then had created the first-ever known script for the Lisu, which remains their official alphabet today. By 1950, 20,000 Lisu (out of an estimated 150,000 living in China) were converted. Today, the Christian Lisu population is about 400,000.

Like J.O. Fraser, Carol Martin experienced initial failure in her efforts to evangelize the Guayaberos, a tribe on the Guaviare River bordering the Amazon rain forest. In 1971, she went to work for Wycliffe Bible Translators, which sends people to live among isolated peoples who have no written language, much less an available Bible in their dialect.

Her book has hair-raising tales of how her four daughters grew up in snake-filled forests filled with nearly every disease imaginable. By the time her family left in the 1980s, not only were there no converts, but guerrillas were moving into the Colombian jungles. One missionary was murdered. Carol’s jungle home was burned down, her marriage unraveled and her husband committed suicide.

But the book ends with 25 new Guayabero believers harvested by the missionaries who replaced Carol’s family, plus a soon-to-be published Guayabero Bible. Out of depression and death came resurrection.

Julia Duin’s column “Stairway to Heaven” runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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