A Single Missionary in China by Leslie Verner
Cowering behind the faded window curtain, I tentatively peered out into the darkness. Another explosion sent me inching deeper into the tiny cinder block apartment for safety. Slowly, logic began to overlap my irrational thoughts. Perhaps the “gunfire” outside wasn’t a group of Chinese militants coming to kidnap the brand new single woman missionary after all. Could it be that maybe – just maybe – it was simply fire crackers to celebrate a traditional festival?
In my five years of living in China, the first night was the most frightening. But as anyone who has done the brave thing has ever experienced, reality often ends up being much tamer than our imagination. So once I began to adapt to my surroundings, many irrational fears fled and left me with confidence. In 2004, God had led me to move across the globe from the U.S. to live alone in China as a single woman missionary.
Here is my story.
If I told a psychologist three of my literary role models, they could probably psychoanalyse me fairly well. Anne from Anne of Green Gables, Maria of The Sound of Music, and Jo from Little Women were my heroes. Though each woman eventually married, marriage was never the goal of their lives. Instead, they were strong, independent women who knew what they wanted and refused to let a man barricade the way to their dreams. Like these women, marriage was never my endgame.
I went to a Christian university, where I learned that my roommate’s father had warned her that if she couldn’t find a man there, she would have a hard time finding one anywhere. Horrified, I vowed I wouldn’t get married during or immediately following college because God had called me to serve Him overseas and I didn’t want anything – or anyone – to get in the way of that call.
My Call to Missions
When I was sixteen years old, a missionary visited our church to share about his family’s work in Uganda. Complete with a slideshow of his children growing up learning how to throw spears and wear war paint, I was enthralled. At the end of his fiery sermon, the pastor did an altar call asking if anyone wanted to “give their life to missions.” Heart burning and hands sweating, I made the trip forward to answer the call.
From that time on, I read every mission-ary biography I could get my hands on and absorbed myself in the lives of Amy Carmichael, Bruce Olson, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, George Mueller and Hudson Taylor. I copied Jim Elliot quotes into my journal and practically tackled visiting missionaries so I could find out about their lives. I was enamoured with the romantic notion of throwing my whole self into God’s service.
In college, I led the Africa prayer team and signed up for a six month internship in Africa, where I was sure God was calling me to spend my life. My first experience abroad was in Uganda, where I faced culture shock and came up against many of my unrealistic ideals about being a missionary. I was less useful and life overseas was harder than I had anticipated. After returning, I decided that if God wanted me to live abroad, then He would have to make it unmistakably clear. A few years later, God showed me that it was time to go. He led me as a twenty-five year old single woman to a three-year commitment (which turned into five) to teach English to college students in China.
Advantages of Being Single
Fear, excitement, hope, anxiety and wonder swirled internally as I prepared to leave for China in July of 2005. I sold my car, quit my teaching job and said goodbye to friends and family. Though I had moments of doubt when sceptical family members would question my decision, I was confident that if God called me to China, then He would be the one to sustain me there.
Once there, God proved that He was more than enough. I was surprised that though the loneliness was acute at times and my marital status was a mystery to the Chinese, who almost always married by the time they were thirty, there were so many advantages to serving God as a single woman.
Compared to my married teammates, I had the gift of time. As I only taught about sixteen hours a week, I was able to spend the rest of my time learning Chinese, meeting up with fellow teachers and teammates, having students over weekly to teach me to cook Chinese food, exploring the city, visiting my students in their homes in the countryside, and seeking Jesus in the long mornings.
I noticed that many expat married women with children were much more isolated as their time was spent homeschooling and creating a cocoon for their family. They often seemed to be much lonelier than I was as they didn’t have time for many other relationships outside of their families.
I soon realised that I felt much more comfortable as a single woman in China than I did back home in the United States. In China, I was a part of a team that felt like family and was always welcome at the table of my Chinese friends. They eventually assumed that single women were the norm in my country, so they didn’t put pressure on me to conform to society the way my friends and family back home did. After summers at home, I was often eager to return to China, where I felt a sense of belonging and like I was more accepted than I was in the church and society during my short stay in the U.S.
Missions: Sacrifice or Privilege?
My teammate and I had many visitors over the years I was in China. Some were friends, others were on “vision trips,” but some came for the sheer purpose of encouraging missionaries on the field. Many times these trips were made up of older married men in ministry with good intentions, but a narrow view. Sitting down to bowls of spicy noodles, they would ask my teammate and me about the “sacrifices” we had made in giving up everything and going to China.
I knew they referred to not being married or having a family, the comforts of home and missing out on weddings, births, deaths and life events back home. I could tell they felt sorry for us. Yes, there were sacrifices, but I felt like these men were missing the point. Being in China felt more like a privilege than a sacrifice. There is a supernatural peace that settles in your soul when you know you are right in the centre of God’s will. And you don’t want to be anywhere else.
The street I walked down every day.
Luggage, Logistics and Loneliness
In spite of the overall peace and joy I felt, of course I had my moments of wishing I was married. Dealing with luggage on long journeys home and simple life logistics were often pity party triggers. On cross-country train rides, I joked that I wanted a husband so I didn’t have to haul my suitcase up and down the staircases at the train station. On plane trips, I wished I had someone to watch my luggage so I could run to the bathroom instead of having to lug it into the stall with me. It seemed life would be easier with a companion.
But I also longed for a “constant” in my transitory life. If I had someone who knew both my China and U.S. self, I wouldn’t have to go into long explanations with pictures and diagrams to every single person I knew. At least there would be one person who knew me on both sides of the globe.
The biggest internal struggle I had as a single woman was feeling like I was giving up all prospects of marriage by moving to the middle-of-nowhere China. Like Mary Magdalene, who broke her alabaster jar of perfume at Jesus’ feet, I felt that I was sacrificing all hope of marriage. There were only three other foreigners in our entire city: my female teammate and another single male and female from the U.K. – both in their sixties. Our organisation didn’t allow us to date Chinese men, so I knew marriage would have to be a miracle if it was what God wanted for my life.
Missions vs. Marriage
“In your way, in your time, if it’s your will” was always my prayer when I talked to God about my desire for a husband. But in a fight for contentment, I stopped praying about meeting someone. I noticed prayer was sometimes a nice excuse to indulge in fantasising, so I trusted my mother and other close praying friends to bring my desire before the throne.
When I returned to the states for my brother’s wedding in the middle of my fifth year in China in January of 2010, I had no aspirations of meeting a man.
Some friends and I planned to spend the weekend at a cottage and I ended up carpooling with a guy who had mysteriously been included on the guest list. Convinced that if God wanted me to get married, then he wanted me to marry a missionary, I chattered away with this actor from Chicago the entire three hour drive with my guard completely down. No way could he be “the one.” But by the car ride home two days later, I knew I was in trouble. I was falling in love.
A view of the countryside on the outskirts of town.
Questions about Calling
I flew back to the states in July of 2010 for a year-long furlough, but got married six months into it. Though marriage itself has been easier and better than I expected, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about what it means to be “called,” guilt over leaving the mission field and grief over giving up the life I thought God was leading me to live.
Though God made it very clear that this was His new plan for me, I still struggled with the fact that marriage and missions seemed to be mutually exclusive in my life. It is much easier to step in to ministry than it is to step out of it. It is even harder when you are trading in your independence and commitment to your call for a man.
Amy Young, a woman in leadership with our organisation at the time, was gracious as I apologetically confessed that I was leaving for a man. “Life is long,” she said.
In a book she wrote titled “Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural Service,” she elaborated on this idea and said, “This transition will not become the sum of your life… It’s natural for people to mark things in terms of before or after events: graduation, marriage, a certain job, a baby, a painful breakup, a big move, or a serious health issue. But those events don’t become the story. They become a page in the story or possibly the beginning of a new chapter. They join a plot larger than the transition each one creates. Part of staying fertile, then, involves reminding yourself of the bigger picture–the bigger story–that came before and will live on after it.”1 “You will outlive this season,” she said.1
I once met a couple in China who had been leading short term mission trips every summer for twenty years. They were seventy years old, which meant that they began their ministry when they were fifty. They were enjoying the fruits of a long life of walking with Jesus. We have no idea what God wants to do in our lifetime of following Him. The older I get, the more I appreciate the rear view of life more than the forward view because of all the glimpses I see of Jesus on the road with me when I never even realised it.
Looking back, I am thankful for the years that I was single. I am now in my sixth year of marriage and pregnant with my third child. I miss those long mornings in China spent in the presence of Jesus. I miss the days of exploring, wandering and taking time to get to know people without tiny hands pulling me and high pitched voices demanding my attention. I am grateful that I had adventures and grew into my skin before I met my husband so that I knew who I was and who I belonged to before I committed my life to someone else. And I see the wisdom in God leading me home. He knew I had begun to worship my call. In the past few years, he has shown me that I am not called to missions, teaching, art, writing, marriage or motherhood. My first call is to intimacy with Jesus. And nothing compares to intimacy with Him.
Through going, returning, singleness, marriage and motherhood, God has been my anchor. He has consistently reminded me that though my circumstances change, He remains the same. His love is steady and my identity in Him is secure. Just because I am not serving Him as an overseas missionary right now does not change His character or the way He sees me in any way. He is still moving, breathing His Spirit and whispering His plans just as much at home in the states as He was when I lived in China. And it turns out that He – not a man – was my “constant” all along.