Please enjoy this insightful piece written by a GSC scholar who returned home to Canada in June 2020 after more than 20 years of teaching and reaching the people of Asia, both on campus and in the community. No photos are included to continue with safety protocols for this scholar and their family.
We have had the privilege of serving in Asia under Global Scholars Canada for over two decades. We arrived many years ago with two small children: our son was 4 years, and our daughter was 2 years old. Throughout our time in Asia, I worked continuously at the same university teaching a variety of English courses. After working at the university for 4 years, God led my wife to teach at the only Christian international school in our city. What began as a way to provide (free) education for our children, turned into a ministry to those serving the kingdom.
Along with teaching and influencing students and colleagues at the university, I had the joy to exercise my PhD training in hermeneutics by teaching seminary classes to indigenous pastors. We also were heavily involved in the international church in the city. I served as both a deacon and then an elder for a large congregation of over 3,000 expats for 12 years. Later we were called to help shepherd a church plant in a different location in 2012 that grew from 20 to over 100 by the end of our time there.
Looking back through the years we can see how God was faithful in bringing us through joys and trials, triumphs and disappointments. The things we have learned, the lives God has impacted, and the blessings we have received will continue to echo into eternity.
Our family of four got off the plane after 17 hours of flying through three countries dragging eight 70-pound suitcases with all our worldly belongings. We were exhausted and jetlagged but happy to finally arrive in the land to which God had called me twelve years earlier. We were met at arrivals by a very excited Miss Smith, a junior staff person in the Foreign affairs office of the university. She was holding up a sign with our name and picture on it jumping in place like we were some important celebrities she was going to meet. We got into a little “bread van” with all our suitcases and travelled for about thirty minutes along the main highway to reach the university campus.
When we arrived, we were shown to our apartment which was actually part of a hotel that belonged to the university. The room was filthy with the smell of cigarettes and mold in the air. The furniture was old and broken and a coat hanger had been strung across the bathroom to serve as a makeshift clothesline. The apartment had no hot water except for two hours per day-from 7pm to 9pm. What had we gotten ourselves into?
The next day Miss Smith took us to another apartment to see if we would be more comfortable there. It was the housing for university teachers. It was a one-bedroom apartment with 24-hour hot water, a small kitchen, and living room. By North American standards it was extremely basic, but we eagerly accepted this gracious gift from God. We lived in that apartment building for 5 years.
Still, my wife had a rough time at the beginning. She struggled with feeling isolated as she cared for two small children. She was homesick, yet we were unable to call long distance from our apartment, and the dial-up internet was very slow and limited. She was unable to form friendships with local people because of her lack of language skills. In addition, the environment and culture were completely unfamiliar—unlike anything she had experienced. I, on the other hand, was able to immerse myself more readily in the environment. I could talk to the students and some of my colleagues who knew English. In time, I was able to learn some rudimentary language skills. It took my wife almost two years to feel comfortable and at home.
During that time, we committed to have every student we taught come to our home for a meal. By the end of each semester we had fed over 150 students in our home and had several opportunities to talk with them about our faith and the Good News of the Gospel.
After our first year at the university we returned to Canada to report to donors and to spend time with family and friends. Upon our return to Asia, we were scheduled to host a Global Scholars winter retreat for three days in a downtown hotel. We enjoyed the retreat but when we returned to our apartment, we were shocked to discover that our apartment had been broken into and we had been robbed. Two computers, a video camera, and several smaller items had been taken. The thieves were also looking for money, so they had thrown everything in the cupboards and the drawers on the floor creating quite the mess. Sadly, my half-completed dissertation was completely lost, and I had to start it again from scratch. It took another 13 years to complete. The worst part was that, along with the video camera, the thieves had scooped up all our home videos. These precious tapes included the births of each of our children, their first steps, and many other happy memories that could now only be replayed in our mind’s eye. That was a bitter pill to swallow. We felt violated and unsafe in our own home.
Still, all things do work together for good (Rom 8:28).
Wendy van Zyl at Pexels
The International Office staff were mortified and embarrassed that this had happened on their watch. They fully expected us to resign on the spot and leave Asia forever. When we did not get angry with them or blame them for the robbery, it had a profound effect on our relationship with the university and with Asia. Miss Smith apologized profusely, saying there were so many bad people in Asia. I replied that there were bad people everywhere and not to worry too much about it.
From that moment on, the level of trust and support for us grew by leaps and bounds. Miss Smith could clearly see that we really did love Asia and Asian people and that a robbery, as painful as it was, could never change that. In a culture where relationship is everything, God was able to use this setback to strengthen and deepen our relationship with the university.
Move to Foreign Language College
In 2004, the university built a dedicated Foreign Language College. Up until that point, I had taught English classes like management and business negotiation techniques in the Economy and Management School to International Trade majors and research methodology to graduate students. Now, there was an opportunity to teach classes closer to my own studies in Bible and hermeneutics. My favourite class to teach was British and American Literature. This gave me the opportunity to discuss themes and character types that were explicitly Christological without fear that I was violating the school’s policy against “proselytizing.” My dissertation research examined how all of Western literature is actually sourced in the Bible. Themes of depravity and sin came out of Lord of the Flies or Gatsby’s father coming for his son 3 days after his death in The Great Gatsby became building blocks to share the Gospel.
Joint Venture College
In 2014, I was moved again to a new college on campus—a joint venture program between a European university and my university which had started a few years before. All instruction is provided in English and when students graduate from the four-year bachelor program, they receive a degree from both universities. From its inception the program had had a difficult time recruiting quality English teachers to help support these students with academic English skills to facilitate their learning of engineering courses taught in English. I was brought in to help clean up the mess that had been created and to recruit more qualified and responsible English teachers. Today, the program is running much more smoothly, and the English teaching staff has grown from 6 teachers to 15. It was a great deal of work, but God was faithful in making a way.
At first, I was strongly resistant to the idea of moving to the joint venture college. I was happy in the Foreign Language College. Everyone knew me and I had a good relationship with faculty, staff, and students there. I had honed my course content to the place that I did not have to spend much time preparing new lessons. Why should I change now?
God always knows what is best for His children. Despite my protestations, Miss Smith who was now the Head of the International Affairs Office moved me from Foreign Language College to the joint venture college. This joint venture had the highest priority for my university, so she wanted me to help them. What I did not realize was that moving to the joint venture would also bring a significant increase in salary. Over the next 6 years my salary tripled from what it had been at Foreign Language College. This gift from God came just as our children were about to head to university. Today, both our children have graduated from university debt-free because of the gracious provision of God through this switch to the joint venture.
The Christian International School
The first 6 years of the Christian school were exciting and encouraging as the students and staff grew both spiritually and numerically. Before the start of the 2011-2012 school year, however, my wife received news that there were big problems at the school. The owner/legal representative was feuding with the headmaster and the chairman of the board. When we returned, the situation was not only unresolved, it had escalated. The school year began, but the fighting resulted in a very tense time for the teachers. They were getting conflicting and worrying messages from those in leadership, and all salaries were suspended. By January it was unclear whether or not the school year would finish properly in June. As a result, there was a mass exodus by all administration, some of the families, and most of the teachers. The teachers who remained were left to run the school and deal with an unpredictable owner.
At the same time, my wife remembers a sense that God was at work providing for the teachers, sustaining them when it was hardest, and giving them the strength to complete the task to which He had called them. There were, in fact, times when they could almost palpably feel the Holy Spirit walking the halls of the school.
Teachers enjoyed sweet times of singing and worship during daily staff devotions. On several occasions, parents brought in food for the teachers, encouraging them to bring some home for their families. One mom came to the school and led a worship time focused on healing and forgiveness. Students prayed with teachers and wrote notes of encouragement. Her AP Literature class students invited her to dinner at a local western style restaurant so they could pray for her and the family. Several students came to faith that year because of the testimony of the teachers. Many other students were strengthened in their faith. It was very much a growing, stretching time.
The school went on to change license holders and locations 3 times between 2012 and 2020.
During their time in the Christian school, my wife and both children were able to participate in several Enrichment Week trips. These trips were an opportunity to travel with an emphasis on education and service hours. The trips took them all over Asia including Korea, China, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Time to Go
After so many years in Asia, it was assumed by everyone we knew from school and church that we would be in Asia forever. I often joked that we would be in Asia until they killed me or kicked me out. However, starting in 2016, we began to see God closing the door on Asia and opening up a new as yet unknown calling for us.
We came to Asia for three reasons: (1) to minister to Asian students in the university; (2) to train indigenous pastors for the ministry; and (3) use my wife’s gifts to provide a quality accredited education for the children of missionaries. One by one, these doors began to close to us.
First were the seminary classes. With the ever-increasing surveillance of cameras on the streets, the leaders of the seminary finally had to ask me not to teach for them anymore. It had become too dangerous for the local pastors/students. As a Westerner, it was very easy to track my every movement on the street and the secret police would arrest the pastors who met with me for classes. Regretfully, I agreed. All classes are now taught only by people with Asian faces.
Next to go was the university witness. By 2018, the government had become very concerned with foreigners using the classroom to proselytize students. All university teachers would have to declare their religious affiliation, if any, to the International Affairs Office. Christians were specifically targeted. I was not too worried about this because I had made no secret of the fact for many years that I was a Christian and that my relationship with God was central to my life. The buildup of trust and relationship with the administration at the university over the years had allowed me to escape any scrutiny or backlash. Now the edict had come down from the highest levels of government to avoid hiring any new teachers who had a religious affiliation. As well, each class was assigned a dedicated spy whose sole job was to listen for and report anything that foreign teachers said that was negative toward the government or positive toward religion. Sharing Christ became almost impossible on campus.
The last straw was my wife’s work. After the increased harassment towards foreigners and Christians (especially under the present leader), the number of missionaries in the city had been greatly reduced. This had a direct impact on the enrollment in my wife’s school. The price of a Western style education in Asia is astronomical, and her school was the only affordable alternative. Teacher salaries were low to keep costs down and the school survived on the tuition of nearly 300 students. The student enrollment in 2019 dropped to half of that. The school was no longer sustainable economically and was taken over mid-year by an investment banking group who had no interest in retaining the Christian focus of the school.
At that point, COVID-19 hit and we were trapped in our apartment for the next 5 months. All of these factors together showed us that God had a new calling for us. We left Asia at the end of the school year for Canada and are waiting to see what door God opens next.
She wanted to learn as much about English as she possibly could, so she began to voluntarily attend all of my classes and all of my wife’s classes too. After class she would come to office hours and call us for long chats on the phone. God was moving in her heart. Sometimes we would talk about faith and spiritual things for hours. On Easter Sunday morning of 2007, we received another phone call from Bonnie. She had watched the Jesus film the night before. During the night she had a dream. In the dream Jesus spoke to her and told her that she needed to make a decision, would she follow Him or not. She awoke from the dream and gave her life to Christ. Since then she has grown rapidly in her faith. If Bonnie were the only person affected by God calling us to Asia, it would be worth it.
She was one of the students my wife met at the university. Summer first came to office hours in late spring, and was painfully shy, skittish, and unable to make eye contact. She asked my wife if she could come to our home to get advice about a paper she was writing. The day she came, they talked for several hours. At one point, Summer was visibly struggling, agitated, and depressed. My wife was moved to read from the Psalms and to present the Gospel. It seemed to help. In the fall, Summer called and asked if she could come over again. When my wife was headed to meet Summer at the gate, she almost walked right past her. She was looking for the troubled girl she knew in the spring, but instead the girl was clear-eyed, joyous, and walking with excitement in her step. As soon as they closed the apartment door, Summer blurted out that she had become a Christian during the summer vacation. She had gone back to her hometown, had begun reading the Bible, and asked GOD to change her. During that summer, Summer had been transformed.
Cherise, Mama Lowe
At the church plant we started, a young woman named Cherise came into the service room one Sunday. She was very interested in church but knew almost nothing about Christianity. As a woman in her late twenties she was under tremendous pressure from her family to get married. She had no idea what to do and had many questions. Later she told me that she was impressed that we patiently answered all of her questions without ridicule. She continued to attend the church every week and after a few months she gave her life to Christ and was baptized. Today, she is married to another congregant in the church plant and her parents are very happy that she has found a husband.
Another local lady began attending the church. She had become a Christian while studying for her law degree in the UK. She was very concerned for her 78-year-old mother, Mama Lowe, who was not a believer. Even though her mother could not speak English, she would bring her to church every week and do simultaneous translation of the sermon so that her mother could hear the Gospel. After several months, her mother became a Christian and asked to be baptized. When she started to come to church, she was impressed by the care and concern that everyone showed to her. However, there was a problem. Because her husband’s government pension she received was tied to his party membership, she would lose her apartment, her pension, and her health insurance if she became a Christian. Becoming a Christian would truly cost her everything that she had. After thinking about it for several months, she decided that Jesus was worth more than any of those things. When she told the party official for her district that she had become a Christian she was surprised to hear his response. “You are an old lady, there is nothing you can do to hurt the party. Keep your apartment and your pension. We will not bother you.” God always takes care of His children.
One of my favorite students at the seminary was a pastor named Moses. He was a tall barrel-chested man with a long beard, kind of like Moses. In the country where we served, local pastors are not paid a salary. They survive by working a 9 to 5 job during the weekdays and minister to their churches on the weekends. Our seminary classes were held on 3 weeknights and all day on Saturdays. It is a very serious commitment. Moses’ job required him to travel on business almost every week. There were many times he would stroll into class having come straight from the airport. I will never forget one particular class we had. It was near the end of the course and we were running out of time to cover all the material.
As the clock approached 10 pm and it was time to finish, I asked the students which of the three remaining topics they wanted me to cover. Moses led the students in a brief discussion in their native language and spoke very fast so that I would not understand. Then he said, “Teacher, we really value your teaching. It helps us understand God’s Word. We don’t want you to leave out any of the topics. We don’t care if it takes all night. Please cover all the topics you planned to share.” I was pleased but humbled and ashamed. When I was a seminary student, I would never have dreamed of asking the teacher to extend the class for me to learn more. After working all day, Moses and his classmates were eager to learn more of God’s Word. I will never forget their passion and zeal.
When doing cross-cultural ministry, there is much to learn from the host culture. When you live outside your own culture, you begin to see your own idols in ways that you could not have before. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: A fish does not understand the meaning of water until you take the fish out of the water. You also are confronted with cultural values that in reality reflect Christian principles to some extent better than your own.
In Asian culture filial piety is not a Biblical mandate but a Confucian one. Still, I learned so much by observing the patience and respect afforded to parents and grandparents in Asia by their children. It taught me that I needed to consider my parents’ feelings and wishes when making decisions. I am not the captain of my fate, nor am I an island, able to act independently. God must direct my life and what I do reflects not only on Him but on my family as well.
Importance of Relationship Building
Asia is also a place where people are concerned with context and the feelings of others, much more so than in the West. It helped me increase my empathy by being forced to think of the implications of my statements or actions on those around me. Relationship is everything in Asia. Trust is built through loyalty and respect. I cannot count the number of times when having a good relationship with the university and the administration gave me wide latitude to do things for the sake of the Gospel. They knew that I would never do anything to embarrass them or bring trouble to them. I knew that they would help me in any way they could because of that relationship.
East Meets West
Daniel Maforte at Pexels
When you live cross-culturally for a long time, you begin to understand that culture, but you can never escape your own cultural heritage. Sometimes there is an advantage to that. When we had conflicts at the university that were caused by cultural differences, there needed to be someone who could be the bridge. After so many years of living in an Asian culture, God privileged me to be the bridge of reconciliation on many occasions. Just before we left Asia, the president of my university gave me a mug inscribed with the university’s logo and a very humbling inscription. It had my name and then a colon followed by a simple phrase, “the place where East meets West.” The pithy statement captured what I had desired to do and be. I was truly honoured.