Missionary Empathy- 4 things I learned in the Philippines

I know that last time I said I was going to write about my marriage by faith, and I promise that I will post that in due time. I planned on posting it this time, but I realized it should be viewed by another important party before it goes to publication. So this time I will write about a major topic from my time in the Philippines: cultural differences and how they changed my view of the Korean Missionaries in my chapter.


  1. Words have different definitions and meanings, especially food

A common irritation the whole time I was in the Philippines was that words had different definitions. It was most common with food. For example, when I got to the Philippines I was asked if I wanted spaghetti. I said yes and was given some spaghetti. As soon as I tried it I said “What is this? This isn’t spaghetti. It’s too sweet.” Nothing tasted like what it was. This wasn’t always for the worse, the eggs were fried in palm oil and they were amazing. But it made a common joy of life, eating, fraught with anxiety. On more than one occasion someone would spend a lot of money on food for me after I told them I liked that food, they would bring it to me and I would struggle to eat whatever it was I supposedly liked. But it wasn’t just with food. The term “every now and then” which in English means “occasionally” means “constantly” in the Philippines. This led to confusion a lot when I first arrived. I learned very late that if you want to politely ask someone to do something you say “Would you like to…” it is the American equivalent of “You should…” Once I was asked “Would you like to use a spoon?” and I just said “No.” The person was likely put off. I actually talked to a missionary last Sunday. She told me that it was the same when she arrived. She would enjoy a certain food but the American version would be so much saltier, so she would just eat Korean food. I wonder how many missionaries have come the US thinking they like American food and when they get here realize they hate the real thing.

  1. No matter how hard you think you are adjusting you never are in their eyes

As much as I felt like I had adjusted and was adjusting. I could tell people didn’t think I was. Off hand comments about me that were not intended as insulting, but always referenced that I wasn’t really adjusting were common. I can only imagine being in America for 30 years and feeling like you are truly American. Then you say one thing a little bit wrong or make some Korean gesture and suddenly you “aren’t adjusted”. It would infuriate me, and it really gave me a realization for how hard it is to be a missionary. Many times I see and feel like because Koreans are not speaking English in my presence they havn’t really adjusted, but when I realize they could if they chose- never speak English. They would probably prefer it that way.

  1. You resist changing because you know what is “right”, and because you are “right”, you are “elite”.

More than a few times I had conflicts. These conflicts often occurred because I expected something according to my standard, and then Hope, my fiancé, would explain “It’s not America.” But inside I wouldn’t want to change. That is how things are done. People get straws with the purchase of large Coke. You should be able to order a pizza without the tomatoes on top. I should be able to bring my soda into a store that doesn’t sell soda. I should have hot water in my shower if I pay for a hotel room. I should eat dinner by 5. If there is a conflict I should straight forwardly tell people about it, not just say nothing. Every time I had a conflict I was explained that that is not the way it works in the Philippines. I would agree but in my mind say “But that isn’t how it should be…” It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to see how Korean ideals and culture and this idea of “how it should be…” could cause an issue. My culture and its ideals dictate “how it should be…” What is more, it lead me to feel elite. Because I know how things “should be” it made me feel better. As much as I tried to repress, repent, and not act on this. Even when I acknowledged it I couldn’t drive it away. I don’t know what can be done. Can it be that the missionary must give up their culture to join another? Is this the true calling of the missionary? More and more I think that the missionary life requires throwing off one’s culture for another, otherwise pride will always blind a person from being a true example of Jesus.

  1. Love is complicated by conflicting cultures.

Many missionaries marry the native people they serve. I know of at least 2 couples in UBF. To be clear I am using missionary as UBF sense of “any person in a different country who is also in UBF”. One thing I found was that cultures have pretty strict rules on courtship. These rules are so deeply imbedded in people that it can cause huge issues. Filipino courtship is all about serving the other person. The man is expected to carry objects for the girl, hold an umbrella, etc. The woman is expected to serve the man by making food, caring for him in sickness, looking out for his wellbeing, etc. Amercian courtship has all but eliminated chivalry. It is seem as “clingy” or “desperate” to constantly be fawning over and looking after a person. The issue is love is shown by these actions, so it appears that I don’t love her if I don’t so these things. I wonder how many early marriage by faiths failed because of this. How many still do? I don’t have an answer but it seems like a remarkably hard thing. Marrying someone in the same culture is much easier. Remarkably I understand how frustrated missionaries must be when they are trying to show love. I know for many missionaries to love someone is to lord over them, this seems cultural. The concept of love is so deeply imbedded that it causes huge issues, as it does in courtship. I understand now how hard it is. You feel like you are loving someone and then suddenly they are upset. What did I do? I was just trying to love you! Jesus told me to!

And that is a basic summary of what I learned with regards to missionaries. I am interested in what you all think. Remember, to explain something isn’t to justify it. How can we work towards missionaries, should we even do so? How much should a native person change and bear with a missionary? These are all good questions.


  1. Thanks, Forests. This is the most empathetic post I’ve read, which I am sure all UBF missionaries would love and appreciate. I mostly agree with what you wrote. I’ve stated often that some ubf missionaries are among the most hospitable, well-intentioned and genuinely loving people I’ve known. Yet cultural differences exist and are deeply rooted. I wrote a blog not too long ago about the differences between eastern and western culture.

    My kickback to your post is that missionaries are supposed to adapt to the foreign culture, like Hudson Taylor did, which all missionaries think they are emulating. Missionaries are not supposed to make the indigenous people adapt to their culture, which has been the “failure” of missionaries, including British missionaries who tried to evangelize India, Africa, Asia based on British values and culture (which Hudson Taylor did not do). In my opinion I do not think that some ubf missionaries are able to acknowledge this or see this.

    • forestsfailyou

      Oh yes. I agree, as I said “More and more I think that the missionary life requires throwing off one’s culture for another”. I am just saying it’s so hard. Not that it shouldn’t be tried, or cannot be done, but I empathize more.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I remember having nearly the same revelations in 1992 when I spent 3 months in Russia. Based on Isaiah 6:8 I was all fired up for Jesus, ready to devote my life as a missionary…. But then the arranged marriage stuff happened.

  3. Joe Schafer

    Forests, thanks for this article. It reminds me of a pair of articles that we published back in 2010:



    For me, the take-away messages were:

    (1) Being a cross-cultural missionary is a highly specialized calling. It is very hard for Christians to separate the essential message of the gospel from the specific ways that they experienced the gospel in their own culture. Only a small minority of Christians have the necessary gifts, background and discernment to do it properly. None of the original 12 apostles could do it. Even Jesus did not attempt to do it during his public ministry.

    (2) Even if missionaries are gifted at cross-cultural evangelism, they ought to do what Paul did: turn leadership of their ministries over to natives as soon as possible and get out of the way. If they hang around and try to run the show, they will prevent their own ministries from growing.

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      Joe, a resounding Yes! on both points. For some reason, point (1) is considered a bad thing in UBF, for it might imply that not all have to obey Matthew 28:18-20 as missionaries and 1:1 Bible teachers. As for (2), such discussions were still not welcome while I was still in UBF, as of last October. Rather than being able to openly explore this obvious conclusion, which you mentioned Paul also practiced, the same old, “trust God,” “be quiet and wait for God’s time,” were pushed on me. I wished we could explore the good and wonderful side of the different gifts of the body of Christ ministering in the world.

      Once, at a USA/Canada staff conference, the director of Korea UBF at the time, Samuel H. Lee, gave a presentation on the Nevius method, highlighting the importance and quick time frame of turning over leadership to natives. Without delay, as soon as the presentation was over, a USA senior staff member rushed to the podium and said, “Please don’t misunderstand his presentation. I feel like my job is threatened.” I was horrified and hugely disappointed. His insecurities seemed to me to be prevalent among directors and leaders.

  4. Charles Wilson
    Charles Wilson

    Thanks for sharing about your experience, forests. By the way, I think Filipino style spaghetti is delicious! It’s my preferred style of spaghetti.

    You asked, “How can we work towards missionaries, should we even do so? How much should a native person change and bear with a missionary? – See more at: http://www.ubfriends.org/2015/01/13/missionary-empathy-5-things-i-learned-in-the-philippines/#sthash.JSO1Hmdc.dpuf

    I’ve traveled and visited with UBF chapters in many parts of the world and have seen how many people were suffering from living in a different culture. Adjusting can be especially difficult and defeating since many missionaries carry a “bury my bones in the mission field” mindset. They’re trapped in a difficult place. At first, I too was sympathetic. I thought that they were braving on in their mission. But I noticed other patterns throughout the years, which you touched upon, such as resisting change, assuming their way is the *right* way, and passing the blame onto every other thing except their own failure to adapt (blaming students, blaming culture, blaming the campus environment, blaming iPhones, blaming internet, blaming dating, etc.). It gets worse the higher the position a missionary had, peaking with directors and senior ______.

    Anyway, to answer your questions, of course there ought to be mutual respect and acceptance from both sides, in a humble, loving and Christ-like way. But I don’t think it’s right or fair anymore to ask natives to adjust for the missionaries. It becomes a slippery slope so that the servants become the ones being served. (I’m speaking very generally here.) Missionaries approach the natives. They say something to effect that God sent them in this land and so on. Natives aren’t asking the missionaries to come to their lands or to approach them or to change them. Missionaries ought to be true to what they are telling natives God has sent them to do. Missionaries ought to find out how to change themselves for those they are serving. I believe it is the very model found in Christ who is “the Word [who] became flesh.” It was also Paul’s MO, as he described in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21. But in UBF, the model is completely flipped around. Those who are recruited are demanded to be like those who recruited them, and the recruiters have no concern about themselves being changed in order to reach their audience. So we get the standard “Shepherd X” identity, the “UBF man/woman” which Brian has written about in his own case, which is prevalent and obvious.

  5. Charles, I’m assuming you left UBF based on your statement: “…while I was still in UBF, as of last October (2014). …the same old, “trust God,” “be quiet and wait for God’s time,” were pushed on me.” – See more at: http://www.ubfriends.org/2015/01/13/missionary-empathy-5-things-i-learned-in-the-philippines/#comment-16180

    Can you share with us how that transpired?

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      Ben, yes, I left that October. Some reasons include what you articulated well, here: Refusing to face the facts and the obvious glaring stark reality as well as censorship of truths that you disagree with or dislike is the surest sign of being driven by one’s ego and the guaranteed way to live in delusion and self-deception. It is also the way to never correct oneself, improve, make progress, or truly change for the betterment of our progeny and descendents. – See more at: http://www.ubfriends.org/2015/01/03/why-ubf-should-read-brians-books-and-know-his-story-well/#comment-16191

      The short form is that I was finally told to be quiet and end “negativity and criticisms,” at times directly, and at times in subtle, back-handed ways, as I’ve already mentioned, such as, “trusting in God who is sovereign (therefore, just trust your director and leaders in full submission).” A few people know how I tried my best for improvement. But without a place to speak, I didn’t have a place at all. My conscience was too bothered by what has happened and what is still going on and, in the face of losing my voice regarding these wrongs and the refusal of leadership to honestly and openly address them, not only in my chapter but from those I spoke with at the Chicago HQ as well, I felt that the only right thing to do, for the sake of my family and others, was to leave. From that time I could not in good conscience support what UBF is doing and has done. Maybe I can write a longer form version soon.

  6. Yes, I don’t like Filipino Spaghetti either and I’m Filipino. It has condensed milk in it. I wonder what Italians would think. I really enjoyed reading this article. Intercultural skills are very necessary. They need to be taught. I’m taking a class on Intercultural ministry and today we discussed the Black/White difference; it’s not only about the physical pigment of someone’s skin color. Race is a social construct that is connected to power, status and expectations. It’s interesting to notice that even among people of the same nationality, religion and skin color there are so many differences. And there can be more conflict among those who are more “alike” because they all assume that everyone else thinks like them. It’s good for people to live abroad; it takes us out of our superiority complex. American culture is not the best/worst, it’s just different.

  7. forestsfailyou

    Mirriam Webster announced that “culture” is the word for 2014. It had a large increase of searched over the internet this year. It seems it’s on a lot of peoples minds.


  8. I belive it is a good way to look on this by asking oneself: i might one day leave my mission field, for good or for a while. Shall i be remembered as the one who gave
    people love, friendship and respect or will i be remembered as one who Claims to know things better all the way? Watch your footprint may be a good Motto ;)

    • forestsfailyou

      I like that motto. I should think of that when I think of footprint. I am used to thinking of carbon footprint usually, but that one is much better?

      Are you a missionary? Or thinking about it Libby?

  9. hey forest, indeed i had the chance, by God’s grace to experience glimpses of mission, in Germany, USA, Korea, China and Lebanon, as well as Morocco. My view on going abroad for mission has changed in the course of time, by re-thinking my motives. Actually i feel thirsty to know what God is doing especially, as i experienced in Lebanon and Morocco, countries where many or most people belong to Islam, and how people react when they are confronted with the gospel. In case of Lebanon, i felt also a need to help others, such as Syrian refugees. But the Lord turned my view upside down: it was them who helped me, but i took time to realize that. My encounters with them were so different andfed my hunger of real relationship to share the gospel with difficult, often miserable people who just want to survive. their warmth was Jesus belessing on ME