On A Mission

written on 02 August 2021 by Melanie Mack

Art by Benjamin Hollway

When did you first feel a call to mission work?

I don’t think I can remember a point in my adolescence when I didn’t plan to be a missionary. I interpreted the Bible very literally, partly because I grew up in a fundamental church, and partly because I’m naturally quite a black & white thinker. I considered ‘go, and make disciples of all nations’ a command.

Where did you go, and why?

I lived in Ogugu in central Nigeria for almost a year. I was studying medicine at the time, and envisioned being a missionary doctor ‘when I grew up’. There was an opportunity to take a year out between the pre-clinical and clinical stages of my degree, and I found an organisation called Mission Africa where I could help open a rural health clinic and provide HIV testing, counselling, and medication. I wanted to test myself by working somewhere completely different culturally and medically, and prayed for God to challenge me. Be careful what you wish for!

What were the lowest points?

My lowest point was when I was critically ill with malaria and hallucinating, in a small Nigerian hospital which I knew was under-resourced. Just weeks before while working at this hospital, I assisted in an operation for a very unwell woman, who sadly died the next day. I was the only staff member present, so it was just me, her, and her son when she passed. As part of my HIV counselling, I tested many people who had become close friends, and delivering bad news was very painful. I do believe that there were many people I/ we helped, but I found the guilt about those I couldn’t overwhelming.

Another challenge was the prevalence of the ‘health, wealth, and prosperity gospel’ messages being taught. One of our pastors said that the true meaning of testimony is ‘test de money’ - the more money you give the church, the more you will be financially blessed! An especial conflict was that as we were counselling our HIV positive clients to get medication and check-ups, many ‘pastors’ were offering faith healing, extorting money for prayers and then telling them not to get re-tested but just believe that they were better. If you know the progression of HIV, that it can be asymptomatic for years until your immune system deteriorates, you’ll understand how dangerous this is. Of course, people wanted to believe that they were healed and often went on to pass the virus to others.

I had prayed that God would challenge me and give me clear guidance that I was ‘meant’ to be a missionary, and I hadn’t prepared myself at all for how it would feel if I actually wasn’t. I ran an outreach evening for Muslim women once, which was basically me trying to convert them to Christianity, and it just felt awful. Reflecting on it and realising that I didn’t think it was appropriate or even necessary really fractured my identity as an evangelical Christian, and I felt I had lost my purpose. I had a very misguided idea that I could ask God for help and no one else because I had to reflect divine joy to everyone around me, which stopped me from reaching out for support.

What were the highlights?

Immersing myself in such a different culture was exhilarating. After a few months, I learnt Igala, wore traditional clothes that my friends made for me, stayed at their houses, and spent hours sitting in groups just listening to the rhythms of conversation. These were the happiest times, feeling that our hearts were open and no matter what our differences were, we all wanted to be loved and laugh and eat good food together! As individuals and as a mission, the local community recognised that we wanted to help and embraced us. I joined the church choir and when we sang together I felt an incredible connection to the church and to God. I also started a study group for students who were interested in biology, and being able to teach and see how hungry for learning they were was very rewarding.

I really value this part of my experience, living as an outsider. I was just so, obviously, different. I could wear Nigerian clothes and speak Nigerian languages and carry Nigerian babies on my back but absolutely no one would ever look at me and think that I was ‘from there’. I was revered, prioritised, always given the most comfortable seat, invited to weddings of strangers and seated with family, photographed constantly. It felt deeply uncomfortable and there was nothing I could do about it. I vividly remember a man with appendicitis turning up at the health clinic one Sunday morning before church. I rushed to see him and told him and his friend to go to a local hospital that allowed me to refer patients. His friend asked if I would perform an appendectomy because ‘there is no white doctor there’. I replied ‘there’s no white doctor here!’ I understood why I was on a pedestal to an extent, but I knew I wasn’t worthy of the angelic status I had.

I had read about the incredible empires of west Africa, and while I don’t believe myself responsible for past colonialism, I think it’s important that I recognise the racism and privilege I’ve grown up around and internalised, and challenge myself. In this case, it made my role as a kind of local celebrity really, really uncomfortable. I had a conversation with a Nigerian friend of mine from choir who I became very close to, and I asked her how the community could be so welcoming when the original ‘missionaries’ had decimated their country. She told me that Kogi state, being inland and away from the oil fields, had suffered less in some ways. However, she had family living near Lagos who had taught her songs about white men stealing everything they see.

Ogugu was spiritually very diverse, with Christians, Muslims, and those following traditional African religion living alongside together and often within the same families. This has really stayed with me, the memory of absolute harmony within such different belief systems, in stark contrast to northern Nigeria where religion is intertwined with politics, often to the point of violence.

Do you still feel called?

I was taught at university that the BAME population were genetically more likely to experience psychosis and mental health issues. I’ve since learnt that this is not genetic, but a result of feeling alienated from society. I was working in a very small mission team, only 2 or 3 of us, and we were literally the only white people in the village, and I was constantly aware of my unawareness of social norms. Greetings, which hand you use to pass someone something, etiquette when you enter someone’s house - I was continually learning and caused offence regularly - I knew this was normal but felt it was a barrier to the work we wanted to do, where building trust and relationships is so vital. I started a community group for unmarried mothers, and remember talking about the Samaritan woman who is drawing water from the well at noon - they were shocked that anyone could feel so socially isolated that she would carry water during the hottest part of the day. Generally, between 12pm and 2pm everyone was at home or in the shade - it’s too hot to function! This had never occurred to me before and was such valuable knowledge.

I think that I learnt a lot in Nigeria, but I felt ill equipped to teach in many of the contexts I was in. Who am I to tell someone how to practise their faith, raise their children, or respect the traditional medicine they’ve grown up with? I came home more humble. I think we all feel that when something is working for us and making us happy, we want to share it with others, and this kind of loving, respectful evangelism is a beautiful thing. However, I try now to listen more, and ‘become all things to all people’, releasing my preconceived ideas and loving unconditionally.

How did it affect your journey with God?

Powerfully! Growing up our church community really was an extended family. They took us in when my parents were away and fed us in every possible way, and I had never recognised before that church could be flawed. I was very fundamental in my evangelistic outlook, I saw the world as ‘church good, everything else bad’, and I now feel God took me to Nigeria to shake me up and force me to really scrutinise my beliefs. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been deconstructing my faith and rebuilding it, which is challenging work but I’m so grateful that it happened.

At that point, I had only been to evangelical or baptist churches, which were for me a very lonely place to deconstruct in. The few Christians I spoke to about the extent of my doubts advised me to be exorcised, and prayed for me many times that I would ‘get back to my old self’. I knew, and I knew God knew, that my ‘old self’ had been faking a smile and trying to say the right things without really believing them for a long time, but I didn’t feel I could share that. My Christian friends already thought I was being attacked by demons, and my non-Christian friends didn’t understand why I was even engaging with church anymore. I ended up in a psychiatric hospital a few times after suicide attempts. I didn’t know who I was or even wanted to be.

It was really my love for my parents that kept me existing, albeit miserably, for the next few years. I dropped out of uni, moved in with them to an area totally new to me, found a new evangelical church and tried to just fit in and avoid any conversations that might expose me as a heathen for a while.

Despite the pain caused by experiences in church and as an evangelical Christian, I never lost faith in God and Their goodness. (I use They/ Them pronouns for God, I feel strongly that God is expansive and all-encompassing and not restricted by gender roles!)

Even when I really tried to, I couldn’t not believe in God. God and I have been in constant communication throughout my life, and I’ve always felt heard and provided for by Them, even/ especially when I didn’t feel that in church. As my relationship with God has deepened, I’ve found that my spirit is repulsed by lying, selfishness and cruel or angry words; and thrives when surrounded by love and honesty. I’ve felt my will and God’s will align over time and seen the fruit that it bears in my life, and this has been a divine comfort in difficult times.

However, while deconstructing, I became more and more aware that homophobia, transphobia, and the exclusion/ othering of different religious communities does NOT sit comfortably with me. I spent almost 2 decades trying to speak and act ‘in faith’ against what was really in my heart. These were my lowest moments, when instead of feeling in relationship with God and all Their goodness, I felt corrupted, arrogant, and worst of all ‘not a real Christian’. I repeatedly cried out to God to change my heart and convict me of the truth, I’ve had countless conversations on these issues which I instigated praying to be convinced, and I was always even more progressive at the end of them!

The affirming church community I’m now found in Nottingham, as well as friends like Deli, have helped me to love and accept myself - and believe that I am fully loved and accepted by God. God lives in me, is continuing Their divine work in me, and I trust Them.