Life as missionaries-Part 2

Frank and Emily van Dalen have decades of experience as missionaries in Pakistan and Lithuania. In the current interview, I had the pleasure of talking with them about faith, the work of missionaries, and their time in Pakistan and Lithuania. In the second part of the interview Frank and Emily talked about their experiences as missionaries in Pakistan.

This is the continuation of the interview previously published. For the first part, see here.

As far as I know, you spent a significant amount of time in Pakistan.

Frank:  Twelve years.

Could you compare your experiences from your childhood, through the time of your mission, and what is happening nowadays?

Emily: When we first went as missionaries to Pakistan, it was very different than when I grew up there. When I grew up in Pakistan, it was much closer to the British Raj days and much less Islamic.

Frank: Much more tolerant?

Emily: Much more secular, but also a much simpler lifestyle. You know, now that it is a much more modern country, more things are available. When I was growing up, we made our own butter, and if you wanted potato chips, you made them. You couldn’t buy them in stores; the things weren’t really available. It was a very simple life; it had a slower pace and a smaller population. The population in Pakistan has exploded, and when you go from Pakistan back to America and look around, you think, Where are all the people, you know? It is crowded everywhere you go in Pakistan. The city of Karachi, where we were missionaries, had maybe 20 million people.

Frank: It had grown from 12 million to 20 million during our time there. It was rapidly expanding.

Emily: This affected the church work as well because when I was growing up, it was village churches that we would visit and a lot of camping ministry, where the missionary would actually live next to a village for 3 months and train people in the village in the Bible. But when we went to Karachi, there were already 16 congregations in the community, and by the time we left ten years later, there were 26. So every year, there was a new congregation that sprung up. The church was growing quite fast, the church buildings were full, and the Christian population there was culturally from a hindered background. So, they are quite different from the Muslim majority. 97% of people are Muslims in Pakistan, and only 1–2% are Christians. They were a very persecuted minority, but there were millions of them because of population growth, so there was plenty of work to do.

Frank: New Zealand has a small population—just over 3 million when I was growing up. Going from there to over 100 million people in Pakistan is a big shock. Even though America had its big cities, it was spread out, and the same was true in New Zealand. But in Pakistan, it is just masses of people packed into a relatively small country. There are large areas of desert where nobody can live, so the fertile area is where people are living, and it’s just always people and no sense of privacy. I am an extrovert, and I enjoy crowds of people. Emily is an introvert, and it was tougher for her that she couldn’t get her quiet place.

Emily: Our house was almost like a hotel; we always had people coming. The other thing that really changed from the time I grew up until when we came back as missionaries was the Afghan war with Russia. 3 million Afghan refugees came to Pakistan, and they were much more conservative and militant than Pakistani Muslims. So the society became more and more conservative, more and more Islamic, and more radicalized in certain areas. But not everyone, of course. We had lovely neighbors who were Muslims, but everyday people have this idea that is not accurate of ordinary Muslim people.

Frank: Most of them are very gracious, very hospitable, and very proud, but a handful of fanatics are enough, and they set the tone for the rest of the country. Especially because the leaders almost try to outdo themselves by being more Islamic.

Emily: It was politically correct to be.

Frank: And Saudi Arabia was founding a lot of the schools in Pakistan to train Muslim teachers. These young boys were sent out by their parents to school, and the schooling in Pakistan is root memorization. So you don’t understand anything; you learn it and repeat it. They came into the training of these young boys, brainwashing them in a way. They just had a standard answer: that is how things should be done. Especially with the boys training them from a young age, as young as six or seven, and if you have that during all of your schooling life, you become, by nature, almost, more fanatical.

Emily: Christian children who went to public schools had to learn Islam.

Frank: We tried to start Christian schools; we had Christian schools, but then the government nationalized them. For a whole generation of young people, only Islam was taught in school. This, of course, affected their thinking a lot. They were despised as a Christian minority.

It was a very different culture; it was so much in its culture, like the culture of the Bible. If you read the Bible and see the way people talk to each other, hospitality is important. Honoring people is so similar to the Bible.

Emily: Honor is really important. It is an honor-based society.

Out in the villages, the ox carts, the hand threshing, the mud huts—you can imagine what it was like.

Frank: When Jesus told a parable about the bridegroom being late for the wedding, the ways we come think of that—I was always early—but the bridegroom comes to pick up the bride. In Pakistan, it was always like this, every time. Because they do not think in terms of the clock.

Emily: It is an event-oriented, not a time-oriented culture. It is the event that is important. If you go on time, you have to wait two hours until the event starts.

Frank: They would always tell me you have to come on time, but then when I arrived at the church, they would be seen going out to the loudspeakers and say, “Everybody, get ready for church; the pastor has come; the missionary has come.” They sat there and drank tea, and then we had a long worship service. But they look at us and say, “Westerners are living with gods on their wrists, always looking at their wrists and saying, Oh, I have to do this, I have to do that.” So it is a very different mindset. They want us to turn up on time.

Emily: But that’s just a guarantee that the event will happen.

Frank: A lot in their lives is out of control, so that’s why they don’t necessarily plan very well for things because so many events get canceled by a riot or canceled by weather or something like that. That’s why they don’t do so much planning until the event happens; they throw it all together, and they are very good at it. It looks chaotic, but it is actually a response to the situation. Especially when you are in a poorer class, where we worked. Because they did not need us in the higher educated communities, so we worked in slums where they needed us and needed encouragement, especially the Christians. For them, they could have a job and have it gone by tomorrow, their children could be alive this morning but dead in the evening because of cholera typhus or something like that. A lot of it was out of control.

What do you think about the current situation in Pakistan? I know that you are currently not living there, but I believe you have more information than an everyday person would have.

Frank: The amazing thing is that a pattern seems to go the same way. Because of corruption, the new government comes and starts, saying we are going to clean up everything, then they themselves become corrupt. Then there are big riots, and a new government comes. I believe that in the last 50 years, there has been only one peaceful transition from one civilian government to another. Otherwise, every transition has been a forced transition by governments. Half of the time, it is under martial law. Now the military is getting more sophisticated. They run the country from behind the scenes. And generally, they keep order much better than a civilian government.

Emily: People feel safer when the military is in charge.

Frank: I guess the military runs on a Western model; they run things well. But it always comes with much less freedom of expression.

Emily: The concept of Western democracy is very foreign to many cultures around the world. It is a society that honors elders, and you also vote for the person who is from your tribe. They have a very different concept from what people in the West used to.

Frank: We look at it and theme the thing as corrupt, but it’s more just a completely different way of thinking. People there vote for their community, and they vote for the representative of their community.

Emily: People there are not individualistic.

Frank: Yes, you stick with your community. The Christians are sort of tossed between different Muslim communities because they are a minority. They are basically trying to guess which of these majority groups is the one that will protect them. That is a huge concern for them. At the present time, you have these different groups, and it’s all chaotic, yet there is a system where they negotiate; it is a give-and-take system, and sometimes they sort of join together. It is also a revenge culture. You did something against my people last time, so I’ll make sure you’ll pay for that.

Emily: Actually, it is very much tied to honor. You dishonor your tribe if you don’t take revenge. It is all very tied together.

Frank: A pastor once came to me and proudly told me that his brother had just killed a man. I said, “How could he do that?” He says, “Well, 20 years ago, that particular man murdered our father. So we waited until he came out of prison, and the day he came out of prison, my older brother went up to him with a knife and killed him on behalf of the family. Going to prison wasn’t enough; we had to avenge him.” I said,”Don’t you know that killing is wrong?” He said, “Listen, in our culture, if we didn’t do that, people would despise our family.” That is what Emily means in terms of an honor culture. It just does not fit within our mindset.

In the upcoming part of the interview, the focus will be on their current work in Lithuania and building church communities.

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