Life as missionaries-Part4

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 fourth and final part of the interview, they will tell about their experiences, how people relate to the Gospel in different societies, and what their message would be to Christians around the world.

You lived in various societies: one where Christianity is the major religion and you lived in a country where Christianity is a small minority. How do you perceive the situation of Christianity and Christians in these countries and their relation to the gospel?

Emily: It’s interesting because in Pakistan, the problem was that the churches were too full. There wasn’t enough space; we had to build more church buildings; we had to expand. In a persecuted culture, people rely on their faith. It’s like, when they pray the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” they mean it. They don’t know where their bread is going to come from. Not all people within the Christian culture group are real believers, but there is a great dependence on faith, the faith community, and a sense of belonging. Any event at a local church is an event for the whole community, which is always together all the time. Here, when we came, there were maybe eight people in the local congregation, and it’s a huge church building. There we had little church buildings that were full of people from the area, and here we have this huge church building with almost no people in it. Churches went through a lot of struggles during the Soviet era. The building didn’t belong to the congregation when we moved to Kaunas. It was only four or five years ago when the church building was revived. When we first started, we had access to the church building for two hours on a Sunday. We weren’t allowed to change or fix anything; during the winter, the water was turned off, and we didn’t have toilets. It was very difficult. Anything we wanted to do to grow the congregation, we had to do in our home because there was no building to do events in or have Bible studies or fellowship times. It’s made a huge difference to have the church building returned to us.

It has been quite a challenge that Europeans think of themselves as Christians. It is almost like you were born a Christian, so you don’t have to go to church.

Frank: It is much more of the idea not to have to go to church, maybe three times a year.

Emily: Yes, Christmas, Easter, for confirmation, a wedding, or something. It is not a regular deep community, a fatih community of believers, that worships together and encourages each other.

Frank: In Pakistan, people go to church minimum once a week. In Lithuania, it’s a maximum of once a week. It’s a very different mentality. In Pakistan, half of our people couldn’t read or write, but all of them knew their Bibles much better than here in Lithuania. They had memorized each portion of it. When I would preach, I would mention a verse from the Bible, and I would begin the verse, and the congregation would finish it off for me. They knew so much of the Bible by heart.

Emily: When we got here, that was one of the biggest shocks for us—how people in the church didn’t know the Bible.

Frank: Often, they didn’t even know what the difference was between the Old Testament and the New Testament. But in Pakistan, it was much more knowledge of the Bible, and if I could show them that something was in the Bible, there was no question about it: “Okay, that’s God’s word, I have to do it.” Here, if I show people something in the Bible, “Well, so what?”

Emily: “Something is true, but something is not. You have to make your own decision.”

Frank: There is a much different mentality here in Lithuania, a smaller community. In Pakistan, coming from America, you had to send reports back about how many people were believing and all that things. We had no problems with the numbers game in Pakistan. We just had a large number of people. Here in Lithuania, it’s one at a time. But I think we feel more productive now, right, Emily?

Emily: There has been so much joy in Lithuania. We love it; it’s one person at a time, and each person is so precious. To see God’s work in their hearts, and they change. It is a miracle. We often talk about all the small miracles that happen all the time.

Frank: In Pakistan, you could talk about big miracles instead. You know, here in Lithuania, it’s very personal. It is really a wonderful situation.

Emily: We have been welcomed here in Lithuania, and it is difficult. We are in a very traditional church community, and we are very different culturally. For them to accept us in and to put up with, how we have strange ideas, it was so gracious.

Frank: It’s been wonderful. I do remember after about a year here, I asked one of the ladies to help me with the button on my preacher’s garm, and the lady said, “Oh, I can’t touch this; it is too holy.” At that time, I decided that I am going to start hugging people. In Lithuania, you go up and shake hands, but you never hug anybody. So I said, I am from America, and in the south, we hug everybody everywhere all the time. “Come and give me a hug.” I panicked about it for the first couple of times; you know, I would have gotten shot in America with the me too movement. But older ladies really started responding. Up until COVID came, we were the huggiest church in probably the whole of Lithuania.

Emily: For people that don’t grow up in a culture where part of the culture to show affection is welcomed or demonstrated, there is such a hunger for being loved and encouraged.

Frank: When COVID came in, I messed it up and went back to shaking hands and hiding behind masks again, but now I am getting back to it. Being very affectionate towards one another, I think, is a very big part of what we do. International students pick it up it easy; for Lithuanians, it is always a surprise for the first time, but they do seem to respond very positively.

Emily: You think about how much actual loneliness there is in this world. People are always wanting to be loved and to belong somewhere, belong to somebody. Lithuania, when we first arrived here, had the highest suicide rate in the whole world. The post-Soviet stuff has gone on, including not trusting people, alcoholism, and family breakdowns. There is just such a need for the love of Jesus, and it’s so appealing to people when they realize what it is about.

Frank: It worked out extremely well. I am an extrovert, so I can go grab a whole lot of people. Emily is more of an introvert and works pretty much individually with small groups. Together, we complement each other in terms of work and personalities.

Emily: We talked a lot about the differences between cultures and ministry here and ministry there, but there is one unifying thing that is the same no matter where you are in the world. That is, the people need the love of Jesus, and each culture has its own set of problems, struggles, and unique sins. I used to be quite judgmental when I went to America, and the people seemed so wealthy, and the people in church had it all together and looked like they were such good Christians. I realized something when one day I was talking to the lady sitting next to me in church. I asked her what does she do, she explained that she used to be in this or that business, but then her husband got Huntington’s disease.

Frank: It is a disease of the muscles. They deteriorate.

Emily: Then she said that” my 21-year-old daughter was diagnosed with it.” So now she is a full-time caregiver for both of them. Without any bitterness, she said it was real joy and thankfulness that God was caring for them and was giving her strength. And here I am judging those people who have it so easy. I realized that everybody in the world struggles, and everybody in the world needs Jesus. That is just the basic truth that is the same, no matter what culture.

I believe this was a beautiful thought towards the end of our interview. The only thing I would ask is, do you have any messages for Christians all over the world?

Frank: I think sometimes people look at missionaries and think they are making huge sacrifices, and I think we’re having the most fun in the world; we meet great people, and we have a feeling that we are needed and that we are able to be useful. In the church, we have quite an extreme range of experiences, from the violence in Karachi to coming here and discovering a church that is 500 years old and working with the church that has such a tremendous history. As missionaries, we have a more interesting life than if we just went back to New Zealand. New Zealand is a beautiful country, but it would have been a bit boring compared to what we have gone through. Times are stressful sometimes, but it is a life worth living. It is worth living because the things we do here matter for an eternity, and we are grateful that we have that. We are always challenged by the range of things coming from America to a place with a high suicide rate, trying to understand it and say what we can do here to help these people in their despair. Despair is common in Pakistan and Lithuania; despair without the Lord.

Emily: There’s a sense of hopelessness and fear, and I think it’s more so since the war with Ukraine. There is just this heaviness, this could, and when your confidence is in a God who is with you and loves you even when life is hard, then there is a rest that comes with that, that it is going to be okay.

Frank: So that is what we have for the wider world.

Emily: That’s it. We said our bit.

Thank you for your time, and thank you for this interview!

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