Charlotte Ishkanian recently stepped down from her travel-fueled job editing the Adventist Church’s Mission quarterlies, because of health reasons. In this exclusive interview, she reflects on her career with Mission and shares some insights about the places she has been and people she has met.
Question: You recently stepped down as editor of the Mission quarterlies for adults and children as well as the “Inside Stories” that appear in the Adult Bible Study Guides. How long did you serve in that role?
Answer: 20 years. It was never supposed to be that long, but, well, time flies when you’re having fun.
Question: What did you like best about editing Mission?
Answer: The people I met along the way are incredible! Whether a successful businessman in Portugal or a woman with a pan of vegetables on her head in Cameroon, they exhibit God’s incredible love through their lives.
One couple moved to a poor village, where the wife was the only one who could read. She began teaching first the children, then the adults to read and sign their name. She taught them using the Bible, and in teaching them, she led many in that village to Christ. Her husband worked with the men in the fields, hoeing and harvesting as he told them stories of Jesus. What a difference this simple couple has made in the lives of an entire village!
Question: What did you find the most challenging part of the role?
Answer: There are challenges on all levels. Travel isn’t fun. The mission editor goes to places tourists never visit. The roads are bad (think of spending hours riding in the back seat of a four-wheel-drive vehicle on roads that are so rutted it feels like a four-hour workout). And accommodations often are rudimentary. I’ve slept in African huts with a sheet for a door, in bare-bones dormitory rooms with pillows as hard as Jacob’s rock, four-legged night visitors that help themselves to anything edible, and “roommates” that skitter across the floor or the ceiling.
But it’s always the best that the locals can afford, and I remind myself that the next day I leave, but they live with these challenges all the time. I remember one “upper room” (a room above the local field office) that I got to by crossing between two buildings on a narrow wooden plank, was startled in the shower by one of the largest roaches I’d ever seen, and awoke to a shrill shriek that sounds as if someone was being strangled! (It turned out to be a rather large lizard’s call.)
Question: You traveled all over the world to collect the stories that went into the quarterlies. How did you track down stories? How did you verify their accuracy? What criteria did you use in deciding which stories to include?
Answer: Most of the people I interviewed were there at the invitation of my counterpart in the local church headquarters. These leaders know their people, and their testimonies were so inspiring. Occasionally I’d stumble onto a great story on my own, but usually the people came to me. Probably 25 percent of the stories I heard were never printed. Some simply didn’t meet the criteria; others were people who just needed to talk to someone who didn’t know them. And some simply didn’t ring true. In that instance, I would ask the people who knew that person to verify their story. If I wasn’t satisfied, I didn’t use the story.
Criteria for the mission reports were that they be mission oriented, relate in some way to a current or past Thirteenth Sabbath Offering project or to the ongoing mission work of the church. Children’s stories were a little freer. Kids have taught me so much about sharing God’s love with others. Their stories are inspiring, and the tie to mission can be a bit looser. Children’s mission is about going, giving, and praying. The “going” can be to a family member or a neighbor; the mission field doesn’t have to be far from home. In fact, it should be wherever we are.
Question: What was the most remote place you ever traveled?
Answer: That depends on what you consider remote. I’ve been to a small Adventist school in the Sahara Desert, outside Khartoum, Sudan; to the heart of Mongolia where a Global Mission pioneer was working to establish a group of new believers; to unnamed villages in China; and an orphanage on the tip of Myanmar. But everywhere I go are believers, and suddenly they don’t seem so remote.
Question: Where did you like the best?
Answer: I think my favorite trip was to South Sudan. I had just left Israel (the 2002 war was about to break out), and I flew into Uganda. Missionaries Carl and Bev Koester picked me up, and we drove to northern Uganda (a dangerous trip in its own right, as the Lord’s Resistance Army controlled much of the region). From there we took off in the mission’s little Land Rover and crossed into Sudan. We took the “main road” (a one-lane dirt road) through Southern Sudan to Maridi, where we have an Adventist school. The civil war was still raging in parts of Sudan, and we had no communication by phone. We were on our own. The only vehicles on the “road” in South Sudan were trucks carrying aid materials and four-wheel drive vehicles, most of which were also NGO and aid vehicles.
Sudan is named for its vast swamps, called “sudd.” And when the road crossed these swampy areas, the trucks often became bogged down. The drivers hacked new roads around the blocked area, but they, too, became too rutted or blocked by other vehicles. The drive, which may have taken only a few hours in any other country, took two days on a good trip. But we felt God’s presence throughout the trip.
Question: How many air miles did you collect?
Answer: As far as I can determine, I flew well over 1.3 million miles. But before someone comes asking for miles, let me say that well over half of it was on obscure airlines that didn’t offer mileage—or anything more than a seatbelt. And more than once I flew in small cargo planes that could be reconfigured to hold seats. Our baggage was squeezed in between bolted-down seats, and there was no such thing as “cabin pressure,” so we had to fly low. That’s not a bad thing, unless you’ve just learned that the guerrillas had begun fighting in the region you’re flying over, and you know you’re within range of their artillery.
Question: There must have been many cultural hurdles you had to jump as you listened to people tell their stories. Did meanings sometimes get lost in translation?
Answer: Translation was always a big factor. And yes, meanings did sometimes get lost in translation. Often I’d realize it when things started not making sense. We’d have to go back over points until I could figure out what I’d misunderstood or what the translator had misinterpreted. Most often the translators were simply local workers who knew enough English to struggle through the translation. That’s when God steps in and provides insight, and speaks to hearts when words won’t work. I saw that happen many times.
Question: Were there some stories you found it very difficult to adapt for a worldwide audience? What did you have to do to make the stories equally meaningful to a reader from Scandinavia, a reader from southern Africa, and a reader from North America?
Answer: Yes, some stories were difficult to tell to a worldwide audience. And I’m sure I failed more than once. But because I, too, was unfamiliar with a culture, I tried to explain what I’d want to know that would help me (and I hoped others) know to understand the story. And God’s stories seem to flow through no matter what the culture.
One issue I recall was the difficulty Europeans and Americans have with dreams and visions. I realized that in certain cultures (such as Russia), dreams and visions are an integral part of their lives. And God uses what’s important in a person’s cultural understanding to speak to them. I avoided mentioning the dreams and visions in stories where the person couldn’t relate their dream directly to the mission story they were telling. But if it was directly bound to the story, I used it. The same is true of people who were miraculously healed or who died and came back to life. These are foreign to many of us, so I did my utmost to verify the details and left the rest to God.
Question: Did you find stories of people leaving the church in disillusionment, as well as people finding God and joining the church?
Answer: Because the local church leaders arranged for the interviews, I didn’t meet many ex-Adventists during interview times, but I did encounter some on my own. Most had left disillusioned and disappointed, many over the way other Adventists had treated them or a loved one. It’s sad when we’re our own worst enemies, when we allow our words or attitudes to drive people away from Christ. I discovered that a listening ear was all that some needed to gain the courage to try God again.
Question: Did you find places where it seemed that the “missionaries” were benefiting more from their mission than the locals? Or places where evangelists or missionaries or global mission pioneers did more harm in the local community than good?
Answer: The “traditional” missionaries, or IDEs, I met in my travels (and there are only about 1,000 full-time interdivision employees compared to many more “local” workers now), were fiercely dedicated to their assigned missions. They work hard (much harder than most locals) to fulfill their commission. I never met one who wasn’t sensitive to the culture in which they were working — not one.
I realize that no matter how hard we try, when we seek to work in a culture into which we weren’t born, we’ll always be “third culture” — neither here nor there. But when I saw patients lining up in a modern (by their standards) eye hospital in Zambia for cataract surgery, I saw the trust, the gratitude on people’s faces when they were treated kindly, attentively. I can’t crawl into their skin, so I don’t know what they were thinking about these doctors and nurses who worked as much as 16 hours a day to help people who couldn’t pay and weren’t asked. I don’t know how they responded to the kindnesses other than the open gratitude they expressed.
But not once did I hear a comment expressed about how the locals weren’t doing for themselves, weren’t following “health rules,” etc. Instead, the missionaries gently taught the people (or taught women from the villages how to teach the people) how they could have a better, more healthful life by doing certain things for themselves: building latrines away from their gardens, placing their children under mosquito nets at night, etc.
I haven’t met every missionary or every Global Mission pioneer. But the vast majority are self-sacrificing, hard-working, people-loving Christians who seek to be Jesus’ face and hands and feet and heart to those who don’t know Him yet.
After a long enough time working somewhere, it is no longer “overseas,” but home. And this is something I would want everyone to understand: We don’t have to “go over there” to be missionaries. We need to be missionaries right here where we are. Even missionaries “over there” are sharing their faith with their neighbors. They’ve just had to enter a new culture, learn a new language, suffer with the people to do it.
As for short-term mission trips and student missionaries, that may be somewhat different. Often students have things other than self-sacrificing sharing of the gospel in mind when they sign up for a 10-day mission trip. Most, if they’re honest, want to see another part of the world, “save souls,” or just have an adventure. They usually come back changed, and that’s good. Whether the locals have benefited from their visit varies with the project they’re working on. But the young people usually have.
Question: How did the Adventist concept of mission change and evolve during your years working on the quarterlies?
Answer: I began working as mission editor just after Global Mission was established, so seeing that program grow to thousands of volunteers working for Christ in their own or in neighboring countries has been astounding. I’ve interviewed dozens of them and been amazed at how God has blessed their efforts.
More traditional missionaries (IDEs) continue to make a big difference around the world. While doctors and nurses still save lives in some of the most primitive places in the world, other IDEs teach at Adventist universities. They provide the quality of training that may be difficult for locals to get without their work.
And every IDE I’ve met has several projects on the side — not to earn more money for their own pockets, but to lead others to Christ. One IDE, the wife of a computer professor at Valley View University in Ghana, teaches community health. She and her husband take students into the neighboring villages and towns to provide simple health assessments, medical treatments, and referrals that these people wouldn’t get if the missionaries didn’t lead out in doing it. Often these secondary ministries are every bit as important as their primary assignment.
May I add here that we often hear the phrase, “from everywhere to everywhere.” It’s true. We have missionaries from Kenya serving in Ghana and Cameroon, missionaries from Brazil serving in Cambodia and Mozambique, and so on. We’re not a North American-based mission outreach anymore. In fact, there are missionaries from other lands serving in North America right now.
Question: Do you feel that the Adventist church still has some way to go in getting the balance right between proselytizing on the one hand and helping people while respecting their local culture on the other?
Answer: That’s a tough one. I guess it depends upon who’s defining “proselytizing” and “respecting local culture.” My mind immediately goes to Benin, a small country in western Africa that is known for its voodoo (vodun) worship. Religion is such an integral part of every fiber of their lives. When someone becomes an Adventist Christian, it means that he/she must give up their voodoo practices. This often means breaking with family traditions and risking being cursed for their decision to follow Christ. When a child becomes sick, the relatives put incredible pressure on the family to consult the witchdoctor. They may even kidnap the child to take it to the witchdoctor, and most surely spells will be cast. While some Christian denominations have syncretized their beliefs with those of voodoo, new Adventist believers cannot follow Christ and still take part in what are deeply cultural practices. They must choose. The culture is centered on voodoo. Leaving that faith means leaving much of their culture behind.
Question: What are the most important lessons you feel you learned during your years as Mission editor?
Answer: Wow, how does one answer? This position gave me a 20-year study in cultural anthropology, faith-building, generosity, and humility. I often explained to people that while other General Conference workers came to their area to teach (or to administer), I came to learn. And that was an amazing experience.
I learned that we in the developed world have so many options that aren’t available to many; when we’re ill, we go to the doctor. They may not have that option. So they pray. And their faith is strong. God often steps in and heals without medicine. They live by faith, where we often try to “fix” things ourselves, asking for God’s help when we can’t do it ourselves.
People with nothing would give me everything — a meal that would have fed their family, a lovely piece of cloth or another memento to take with me. It was often hard to accept their gifts, for I knew that I should be giving to them. They taught me to give with an open hand and an open heart. They taught me to be Christ-like. That’s a lesson I’m still working on.
Question: Will you miss it?
Answer: Yes. Perhaps not the travel, not the long drives on bad shocks on rutted roads, but I do miss the people, hearing their stories, being revived by their faith. Imagine the joy we’ll have in heaven when we meet again!