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Missionary work shows the worth of compassion

March 25, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

How should we approach those people of different cultures, whose religious beliefs are different from our own?

That question has taken on increasing importance since Sept. 11, but since I've lived in Maryland nearly all my life, I really have no personal experience to draw on.

And so, because I'm working with a group to put on an interfaith program April 11 at Hagerstown Community College, I sought out some people who have done missionary work overseas, to hear firsthand how it works.

Through the help of a good friend, I found Chester and Mildred Sollenberger, a Smithsburg-area couple who spent a total of seven years in the African country of Zambia.

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They agreed to share their experiences, but weren't sure at first they wanted their names used, because as Mrs. Sollenberger said, "We don't want to blow our own horn."

They were recruited as what Mrs. Sollenberger called "supportive" missionaries to help the people of an established Brethren in Christ church there. She taught the women to sew, while he used the skills he'd learned in the building trade to supervise construction of things like homes and outpatient clinics.

"And I taught the young fellows those trades, electrical and plumbing work, that would help them be more self-sufficient," Mr. Sollenberger said.

To hear the Sollenbergers tell it, it would be difficult for most Americans to face the sort of poverty most Zambians live with daily.

"The bulk of the people are subsistence farmers. The average wage of a working person is probably less than $1 a day," he said.

"I had one fellow so eager for work he walked two hours to get there in the morning and two hours to go home at night," Sollenberger said.

While they were not there to preach - others in the church did that - the Sollenbergers say they did have opportunities to share their faith, once they'd gained the trust of the people they worked with.

"You have to win people's confidence and let them see Christ in you before they're going to accept him," Mrs. Sollenberger said.

"Our denomination is doing a lot of this, going into countries where there is not an established church. Our people get jobs there, live in apartments and begin to reach out, with teas and coffee klatches. Eventually they start having Bible studies. This has been very successful," she said.

Those outreach opportunities came with people on Mr. Sollenberger's work crew and with women that Mrs. Sollenberger taught to sew.

They told the story of one man who'd become involved in witchcraft and had put his life at risk.

"Even though they profess to be Christian, some of them get into witchcraft and such," he said.

"We prayed for him and God delivered him - the God that we know and worship. And as a result of this, we led him to the Lord," he said.

"If you want to work with people and convince them, you have to earn their trust," he said.

And earn it they did. Their seven years' service was not continuous, and their comings and goings were an event, the Sollenbergers said.

"When the men know we were coming, they'd line up and when they knew we were going, they would cry," she said.

But their missionary service is over now, because after they returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1999, Mrs. Sollenberger was diagnosed with multiple myloma.

"The doctor didn't want me to go out of the country," she said. But she has recovered, although she knows she will have always have the disease.

"God has touched me and put me in the place I'm at," she said.

Not that they've given up on helping others. They're active in church work, with Mrs. Sollenberger heading a sewing group that, among other things, makes comforters for the poor in Afghanistan.

As I said earlier, I sought out the Sollenbergers because one letter-writer reacted to an earlier column on the interfaith event by calling tolerance "a mixture of compromise, weak loyalties and unstable commitments."

I would agree that there are things that no American, religious or not, should tolerate, like racism and criminal behavior. But to imply that those that worship in a different way than most in this community are somehow inferior human beings would be wrong.

What we are doing April 11 is a religious event, but it's also as a demonstration that America is not the Balkans or the Middle East, where people kill each other over religion. Americans may disagree on many things, but the one thing they should be able to agree on is that we have progressed beyond settling our disputes with violence.

The April 11 event will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Kepler Theater. It's free and no pre-registration is needed. It will be followed by a reception, complete with refreshments.

For more information, e-mail interfaithofwashington county@yahoo.com, or call (301) 790-7700.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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