Latin American Missions

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“And a ruler asked him, Good Teacher,
what must I do to inherit eternal life? …
When Jesus heard this, he said to him,
One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have
and distribute to the poor, and you will have
treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
(Luke 18:18-2)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

As my time at Cornell University grew closer to an end in 1979, my anxiety grew because I had accepted admission, I thought, to the doctoral program only to learn later that my admission was contingent on maintaining a straight-A average. As the son of an economist, I knew that I would spend the rest of my life living in my father’s shadow if I did not finish a doctorate and I had no contingency plan for finishing up. I therefore explored options that would allow me to improve my Spanish and continue in Latin American studies. My uncle John suggested that I consider spending some time overseas working in missions with the Reformed Church in America (RCA).

The RCA sought missionaries that would live and work in Latin America so I was eager to apply. The interview required a psychiatric examination so I made a day-trip to Princeton, New Jersey to meet with an evaluator. There I took a series of written tests, including a Rorschach test and an opportunity to draw a recreational scene. In going over the Rorschach test, the evaluator seemed surprised that I noticed an increasing use of color in ink blots, as if no one had previously noticed. He also seemed interested in the tennis game that I drew, because it pictured me with my best friend who was also considering ministry.

In the interview that followed, no mention was made of my examination, but focused more on the ministry requirements, should I enter missions. The interviewer pointed to the relational component required for effective missions work, while I was more concerned with the technical requirements, having just finished graduate work in agricultural development. When we discussed salary, I flinched—working full-time for the RCA I would earn less than in the internship that I had had the previous summer working for the federal government. If I had completed a seminary degree, he explained, the RCA could offer me a higher salary. However, the conversation broke down when the interviewed told me that the RCA required at least a ten-year commitment of missionaries.

Ten years!

I had been thinking of working in missions for two or three years, but ten years was outside the scope of my thinking. In 1979, I was single and only 26 years old. I had never planned activities more than about five years into the future. What woman would consider even dating me knowing that I earned only a meager income and would disappear to parts unknown for an entire decade? No wonder that the interviewer passed over my examination results quickly; the idea of a ten-year commitment freaked me out and I could not continue the discussion. I left the interview distraught over my school situation and the prospect of never enjoying a decent job and normal family life.

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