Far from home

Many will celebrate the Christmas season and share faith in new cultures
November 30, 2003

Along with spicy-smelling pine trees, glowing Advent candles and choirs singing "Silent Night," family gatherings are among the most anxiously anticipated activities of the Christmas season.

But worldwide, people are celebrating the holidays achingly far from home. For many, the separation is self-imposed; they are missionaries and chaplains who spend much of the year in war-torn or poverty-stricken countries, sharing their faith with people who might otherwise lose hope.

While their daily experiences can be trying, many ministers and missionaries find the holiday season to be a special challenge. Some must find ways to incorporate their familiar traditions into those of a new culture; others are preparing to celebrate Jesus' birth in unconventional settings. Some find their new communities cannot afford to prepare for Christmas festivities, while others are forced to celebrate in secret. Some are refugees or families displaced by war, their hearts longing to spend Christmas with their friends and loved ones back home.

While these Episcopalians are immersed in different cultures and face drastically different daily challenges, their strong faith and enduring spirits shine most brightly during the holidays. Whether they live in the Holy Land or Cape Town, in each there gleams a Christmas star, a shining light leading their neighbors to Christ.

'We won't be thinking about presents'

Col. Frank Wismer will celebrate Christmas Eucharist in the ornate palace where Saddam Hussein lived before being driven out by U.S. troops early this year.

The service will take place in the room named for the biblical "city of peace" -- Hussein's Jerusalem room, so-called because of the murals on the walls and ceilings depicting scenes of the holy city.

Wismer, a senior army reserve Episcopal chaplain, is on an extended assignment in Baghdad, where he has lived since retiring from St. Michael's Church in Worcester, Mass. His congregation is a blend of servicemen and civilians, of Iraqi, American, British, Spanish, South African and Korean worshipers.

While the congregation at a typical Diocese of Western Massachusetts church would arrive at a Christmas service dressed in their holiday best, Wismer said his group would wear desert fatigues, pistols still attached. Some will have their rifles in hand.

The service will be a mix of languages and cultures, Wismer said. A Fijian men's choir will sing in the choristers' native language. Readings will be in Arabic and English.

Wismer said he had forged strong ties while serving a country struggling to stagger to its feet -- ties that go far beyond the people with whom he worships each week.

"On Christmas day, a unique bond will develop between us and all those military personnel who have been deployed away from home in war zones over the years," he said. "We will become mystically connected to those who spent the Christmas of 1944 in the Ardennes and those who spent the Christmas of 1969 in the jungles of Vietnam."

But thoughts of home will weigh on his spirit, Wismer said.

"We'll have a wonderful turkey dinner with all the fixings and, as we sit down together at the table, we'll make small talk, but our minds will be focused upon our loved ones at home," he said. "We won't be thinking about presents or Christmas trees."

Although his holiday feast may be devoid of more traditional Christmas trappings, Wismer said, Christmas spirit will be abundant.

"We will be marveling at all the gifts we already enjoy, the simple things like an abundant life full of promise and opportunity," he said.

His Christmas will be particularly special as he watches his new congregation -- worlds away from his former parish in Massachusetts -- celebrate its first Christmas, Wismer said.

"I will be the only non-Arabic-speaking person at prayer on Christmas Day, and yet, I will feel at home with my Iraqi brothers and sisters in Christ," he said. "Though the congregation is not yet four months old, [the church] will be packed. There will be 70 or 80 children in attendance, and they will fill my day with joyfulness."

But Wismer knows many Americans who lost loved ones in Iraq will face the most difficult holidays of their lives -- and that the real spirit of Christmas can prevail only when combat is truly over.

"Christmas will be a most blessed day when, at the end of it, I can update my journal by saying that no one died in combat operations," he said. "Christmas will be a wonderful day when I learn that no family at home was notified on Christmas morning that a loved one was killed here in Iraq, the 'cradle of civilization.'"

'My hands will be aching to spread joy'

Wilbert Clarke, a businessman, who serves on the board of directors of the Liberian Episcopal Church, will spend the weeks leading up to Christmas in Monrovia, the capital of the war-torn country.

Clarke and his family lived in the turbulent country before they fled to the United States and settled in New Jersey. Now, Clarke returns to his former home to help rebuild his country, at once separated from his family in America and embraced by the community that was once his own.

After more than a decade of devastating civil war, the nation's tumultuous politics are yielding to a more peaceful way of life. But the destruction and grief of the years of war will bring a Christmas of both abundance and loss.

"This Christmas, after at least one decade of open civil war, the hope of Liberians will be mixed with heartaches, their song made hollow by suffering and low-keyed strife," Clarke said. He noted that battles still raged in Liberia, even after former President Charles Taylor stepped down in August. Soldiers and rebels also are exploiting and stealing from the weak, he said. But, in the true Christmas spirit, the Liberians' hope never fails, Clarke said. Although they remain far from being freed from oppression, the Liberians will celebrate Christmas in a new nation.

"Christmas is expected to underscore their enthusiasm for that liberty and unity which only the Lord of truth and peace can give," Clarke said. "It is always heartening to see the soul of joy Liberians would show despite the hardest trials and the sternest suffering."

This year, Clarke said, he will return to America and celebrate the holidays with his family.
"But my yearning will be to stand with the armies of Christians in Liberia, not celebrating in songs, but ministering in the provisions of peace," Clarke said. "My heart may be singing this Christmas, here there or yonder, as God wills, but my hands will be aching to spread joy around the world."

'The simplicity of it was beautiful'

Many Episcopalians sent to serve overseas as missionaries experience far different Christmas celebrations while abroad, said the director of the church's mission personnel office, the Rev. Jane Butterfield.

But they also can be more profound, she said.

Almost everyone sent on a mission serves in a poor country, which drastically affects the trappings of the worship service, she said. Their budgets don't allow for glittering trees dripping with ornaments or Christmas pageants featuring ornate costumes. The focus is on worshiping the Christ child's birth as a community.

"Many missionaries remark on how being in that kind of situation makes vivid the reality that Jesus came into a community of poverty and simplicity," Butterfield said. "They have a much more vivid sense of the incarnation than ever before. There is very little emphasis on gift-giving."

This was especially true for Butterfield herself when, as a young mother of four, she and her family spent Christmas as missionaries in rural Zimbabwe.

"We had a big village Eucharist where people from all over the village came by," Butterfield said. "The simplicity of it was beautiful."

The highlight of the day was a nativity play the village children acted out, she said. They performed the play in the middle of the village, with vibrant poinsettias blooming everywhere.

"The young Shona children absolutely love putting on plays, so there was much singing and laughing," she said. "It was a typical nativity play except it was much more fun ... lots of joy. The young woman who gets to play Mary is very special and feels quite honored. And the baby is always a real baby."

Butterfield said the Christmas story took on deep meaning in the village that embraced her family that holiday season. "All these rural, subsistence farmer people that are so like Mary and Joseph. ... They relate to the story immediately."

When Butterfield lived in Zimbabwe, the country had been free for three years from oppressive minority rule. For a newly free people, Butterfield said, "re-incarnating the Jesus story ... wasn't, for them, a stretch."

"For our children," she added, "it was an opportunity to see just how Jesus came into the world."

'It becomes real in a different way'

For some missionaries, Christmas will be a solitary time, marked only by packages from home or occasional phone calls, said Tad de Bordenave, executive director of Anglican Frontier Missions.

Missionaries from Anglican Frontier Missions serve in "high-risk" areas, such as Asia and the Middle East, and many must cloak their celebrations from potentially hostile community members, he said. In this holiday season, support comes mainly from family and friends back home.

De Bordenave said he encourages members of the missionary's home parish not only to send packages, but also to call when the holidays draw near.

He said his missionaries' communities -- all non-Christian -- react to Christmas celebrations with hostility, curiosity or indifference. Adverse reactions to such a meaningful holiday can make Christmas difficult for missionaries, and friendly greetings are some of the most treasured gifts.

But some celebrations can be "enormously enriching" for the missionaries, de Bordenave said.

"Missionaries develop deep respect in the [new] culture," he said. "Because the people we work with are never Christians, there have often been opportunities for missionaries to invite the people they live with into their homes. It is often the first time that the non-Christians get a glimpse of Christianity."

"It's not teaching, and it's not a Bible study," he said. "It is rehearsing the events of the birth of the Messiah, and it becomes real in a different way."

'A perfect place to spend Christmas Eve'

The city where Christ entered the world is in an area marked by devastating conflict -- the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.

Nancy Dinsmore, a missionary in Jerusalem, will celebrate Christmas Eve with a diverse group of worshipers. Christian, Muslim, Jewish -- including a few Palestinian Christians who are allowed to visit Bethlehem -- will worship together at the church said to be built where Jesus was born.

"It is a deeply spiritual place for me," Dinsmore said. "As I say prayers, sing Christmas carols and light candles, I cannot think of a more perfect way to spend Christmas Eve." Dinsmore said her Christmas prayers this year would be for peace, "most especially in the Holy Land, which is my home."

'One chair at the table is left vacant for those who are absent'

The unique experience of celebrating Christmas with a foreign community endures a lifetime, said Denise Cox, missionary partnership coordinator for the South American Missionary Society.

Cox has fond memories of a trip to Venezuela 20 years ago. Christmas is a day of rest for Venezuelans. Throngs of Christmas Eve shoppers, a sumptuous midnight meal and a gift exchange marked the holiday's celebration.

A missionary couple from the society, Juan and Maria Sanchez from Colombia, celebrate their Christmases where they serve in Honduras in a memorable way, Cox said.

"Juan directs a nativity play. Then, after the service, he invites many people back to the couple's home for dinner," she said. "One chair at the table is left vacant as a reminder of those who are absent -- family members and friends in Colombia and individuals who support their missionary work."

'We haven't the time to think about Christmas'

The Rev. Walter Brownridge and his wife, Tina Nader, are preparing for their first holiday season as missionaries in Cape Town, South Africa. But this year, while snow falls in their hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Brownridge and Nader will hardly have time to think about celebrating the season.

"We haven't the time to think about Christmas," they wrote in a letter about their experiences in Cape Town. "The poverty in Africa is incomprehensible."

Brownridge and Nader may not exchange traditional gifts this December, but they say they are learning invaluable lessons about Christian love and charity.

Faced with a constant stream of impoverished beggars that go door-to-door pleading for food and money, Brownridge and Nader know they cannot give to everyone. But they realize they can share a smile and a prayer with those in the deepest distress -- an uplifting gift of love and peace.

And what better gift to give on Christmas than what the Christ child gave the world

Related Topics: