As I formulate my thoughts, I’m currently in a hole in the ground. It’s -40° Celsius, the depths of a North Asian winter, and I’m stuck in a hole in the ground trying to thaw out a frozen pipe. It’s freezing, cramped, and I’m pretty miserable.
“Why am I in this hole?” is the question that immediately springs to mind. Why would anyone volunteer to leave their home to move thousands of miles away to learn a new language and culture? Why would anyone live in a country that that requires you to start a business to live there? Clearly, the only underlying reason to do that is the kind of love that counts loss for the sake of the cross as gain, the kind of love that makes people willing to get waaaayyyy outside their comfort zone.
So yes, the overarching reason why I’m in this hole is that I love the people of Tu-land, the place I’ve chosen to call my home, enough to undergo some discomfort in order to reach them for Christ. The more immediate reason is that I run a pine nut factory here, and the pump that provides water to our facility has frozen, meaning someone has to go down into the well box and hold a little Bunsen-burner-like flame to the pipe until the ice has melted enough for the water to flow again. That someone is me.
Now, at first glance, you may think “Yeah, I get the bigger reason – I’m on board with that as well. What I don’t understand is how that connects with the smaller reason. Why does this guy need to run a pine nut factory in order to plant churches?”
Arriving in Tu-Land
When I first arrived in North Asia, I will admit that my thoughts about businesses were basically, “Let’s do the absolute minimum required to satisfy a visa application and then get back to the ‘real ministry work’ that we came here for.” I know, I know, we were told specifically not to think that way, but if I’m totally honest that’s the way I really felt. Starting a business was a distraction from real ministry in my mind, and my approach to it was to do as little as possible so I could focus on ministry.
Together with my family, we moved to Tu-land and joined a humanitarian organization. Perfect, I thought – we did one or two small projects a year, it took very little time or effort, and the authorities seemed perfectly content to ignore us altogether. We set about hiring language helpers and studying the culture and language.
Except it was weird – we had a really hard time getting into situations where we could interact with people. I grew up in the Amazon jungle, and there you could simply walk across the airstrip to where Josué was gutting an animal and watch him do it and maybe help out a bit. Get right into the culture, you know? In contrast, we lived (and still do) on the 8th floor of an apartment building, and all of our friends and neighbors spend all day at their jobs. How were we supposed to spend time in other people’s contexts for hours each day?
We soldiered on until, one day, there was a sudden change in the laws that governed our humanitarian platform. The rug was pulled out from under us with regards to our non-profit humanitarian work, and we were taken completely by surprise. For the first time, we started to think about a for-profit business.
A complete re-think
The changes prompted a complete rethink – if we have to have a business, why not try to set one up that could be a benefit to our ministry rather than a hindrance? And what about our culture and language learning? And relationships? We were finally free to figure out which business would put us in a position to affect the whole people group rather than just one or two villages. We thought big, reasoning that the job we were called to do was an important one and why should we settle for having a small impact when He was not willing that ANY of the Tu people should perish?
In the end, we came to the conclusion that the best fit for all of our needs was a factory that could process pine nuts. The main obstacle was funding – the building and equipment needed to get this kind of thing off the ground was incredible. However, we asked the One who “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” to herd a few our way and surprise! He did!
Once we secured the required investment, we set about signing construction contracts to pour foundations and put up the building, ordering equipment, purchasing tons of pine nuts…our lives, on the surface at least, suddenly seemed to get further and further away from our original purpose in being here.
Benefits of the factory
And yet I can say in all honesty that, even with all of that going on, it has been the absolute best thing that ever happened to us for our culture and language learning, for our relationships, and for our standing in the community. Our acquaintances who used to wonder “what kind of humanitarian organization sends people to another country, pays their salary, and then is satisfied when they do small projects once every 6 months?” don’t wonder those things any more. They see me going to work, just like they do, and our relationship feels perfectly normal.
I suddenly have an answer for the question, “What are you doing here?” that makes perfect sense. Of course I couldn’t do this job at home in America – the right kind of pine trees don’t grow there! It doesn’t seem odd to anyone that someone would move to the heart of pine nut country to run a business to export them.
Another benefit is that never has there been a better way to learn a language and culture than running a business. Whether I’m sitting with my sorting ladies chatting about their lives while we work through a load of nuts, admonishing a guard for showing up late, or ordering more coal on the phone from a supplier, all of this takes place in the native language. You want natural exposure to the language and culture of the people in your area? Start a business and hire a few of them. All of a sudden you have an “in” to the culture that will expose you to their values, habits and worldview in a way you’ll NEVER get from someone you hired to sit in an office with you for 2 hours a day as a language helper.
The best thing, though, has been the relationships. We went from having a few friends (mostly neighbors or people we were introduced to by our language helpers) to having a very broad spectrum of people that we connect with all the time. People in government offices, people in suppliers’ offices, remote village people who gather the nuts from the forest – all of these were suddenly interacting with me on a regular basis.
A sweet friendship
One lady was helpful in getting our land documents in order as part of her job as a minor government clerk in the land office. She got to know me a bit and one day asked to meet my wife to practice her English a little. They discovered a common interest in cooking and became friends. Pretty soon she was over at our house twice a week, and after a while she started to ask questions about our worldview and what made our family so different from the ones she had known previously. Well, about a month ago, after a lot of foundational conversations had taken place, she decided to accept Christ’s saving work for her!
Now, of course we know that the Holy Spirit orchestrated everything about that relationship to bring one of His chosen people to a saving knowledge of the Son, but the business was instrumental in opening and deepening that relationship. This woman was able to interact with me in a professional sense, got curious, met my wife and then from there saw how our family acted (again, for her it was perfectly natural to see me head out to work like everyone else around here, as opposed to those who knew us before who used to ask questions like “what do you really do?” as they got to know us).
And she’s only one of several whom we’ve been blessed to meet and with whom develop relationships through the business, all with the goal of eventually inviting them to a foundational Bible teaching study as soon as I can communicate reasonably in the language. I am genuinely very excited to see what God is going to do in Tu-land; the people here are thirsting for His grace and truth and I can’t wait to see what will happen when we’re able to share it with them.
I now look back on the frightening idea that I would need to get involved in a business and see it as a tremendous asset to our ministry. There are some challenges, but overall the costs are greatly outweighed by the benefits, to the point where now, even if I had access to a missionary visa that didn’t require work with a business, I would start one anyway. It simply wouldn’t be worth the cost to the relationships we have now or the cost to our church-planting goals. To effectively reach the Tu-Land people with the Gospel I think working in a business is a tremendous asset, and I hope you’ll keep an open mind about doing something similar in the future wherever God may send you.