Singles in a Moslem Context

crowd_aloneOur blog two weeks ago about the challenges facing single mission workers in Moslem contexts has prompted some of you to ask what the answers are.

Well you won’t be surprised to find that there are no easy answers!  That is because people are different, contexts vary, and the living conditions differ considerably across the Moslem world.  What may work for an introverted woman living openly as part of a Christian team in Cairo may not work at all for an extraverted man living in an isolated setting in Malaysia.  Yet there are three key issues which need to be addressed for singles to stand a chance of thriving:

1) Good preparation.  Training and placement are crucial.  An agency must take time to get to know their candidate and consider how he/she will respond in a given culture or team context.  They need to put them in a team setting that is right for them, and above all make sure that the candidate is warned about and prepared for the challenges of working in a Moslem context.  Just knowing in advance that it will be difficult can help the single mission worker.

2) Good field support.  Team leaders need to be aware of the challenges facing singles, so that they can provide adequate in-field support, make sure the whole team is equipped and motivated to provide a nurturing and supportive environment, and ensure that decisions about field placement and housing are taken appropriately.  Having a good supportive team, where there is a significant level of social and spiritual engagement, and a good mix of single and married people, helps with a sense of community.

3) Good ongoing care from family, church and agency.  Awareness of the specific issues, and providing focussed care and support will help the single mission worker cope with the difficult situation.  Taking particular care to be there, whether in person or by using social media, for people at times like holidays, Christmas and Valentine’s Day when they can be particularly vulnerable will be of great help.

Having said that, there are some particular practical suggestions we can make for thriving in a difficult environment.  They may not be appropriate in every location, particularly for those people working in creative access nations, but we hope that they can stimulate a conversation about finding a way forward.

Establish a ‘religious’ identity – in some countries priests, monks and nuns are treated with respect, and are accepted as singles who have devoted their lives to religious service.  It may be possible in some places to wear a clerical collar, a pectoral cross and allowing oneself to be addressed as called ‘Father’ or ‘Sister’.  Protestants often shy away from religious clothing and prefer to dress in plain clothes, but does this lead to the impression that we are just ordinary people instead of religious workers?  Accommodation needs could also be met by having a same sex singles house or compound modelled on a monastery or convent so the community can make the religious connection.  Some people however consider this might be giving a fraudulent impression that we are something we are not.

Establish a married identity – many single mission workers divert unwanted attention by wearing a wedding ring.  This can reduce molestation and cut the number of unwanted marriage invitations.  However, although some people report significant success with this tactic, others think it’s fundamentally dishonest, and can lead to problems when we have to admit that we’re not actually married.

Spiritual support – single people may benefit from having more spiritual support from the team, perhaps establishing a ‘home group’ for them or encouraging them to find mentors and prayer partners.

Transport – since many people find buses and taxis threatening places, their transport needs should be considered, perhaps by employing a team driver and a team minibus, or ensuring people live in the same part of town so that people can easily be escorted home.

Self defence – many singles report feeling vulnerable walking home by themselves after dark.  Knowing they have the ability to protect themselves if attacked may help them feel less vulnerable.

Practical support – teams should be aware of the need to provide practical support to newly-arrived singles.

Social activities – team should organise social events where it is possible for singles to mix freely with children, marrieds, and people of the opposite sex. Regular retreats should be organised in places where it is safe for singles to be seen together.

In summary, singles working in the Moslem world face some significant challenges which can exacerbate the usual challenges single mission workers face.  However, of all the people we have spoken to on this subject, most of them are positive about serving God abroad as a single person.  Few of them said it had been easy, and many reported significant emotional challenges, but most said that it was still worth while.

Ever since the time of St Paul, single mission workers have been going into challenging situations to share the love of God, because they love God more than they love comfort, security and home.  They have made a huge contribution to the spread of the gospel, and we honour them for it.  We pray that with better support the current generation can stay in the field even longer, and be even more fruitful in their lives and ministry.

Singles working in a Moslem context

dark portraitThis week finds Syzygy in Turkey, taking part in the Global Member Care Conference.  This event brings together people involved in supporting mission workers from all over the world.  The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Member Care in Hard Places’, and we will be looking at how we can effectively support people working in a variety of contexts including:

  • countries where it is extremely dangerous to live openly as a Christian
  • places where disasters have occurred
  • helping people who have suffered significant persecution

Syzygy’s contribution to this useful debate is a workshop entitled “Single Mission Workers in Moslem Contexts”.  We will be looking at the unique pressures on single mission workers that living and working in the Moslem world can cause, and consider ways in which they can be prepared and supported more effectively.  Our research shows that many single mission workers serving long-term in such contexts continue to serve faithfully for many years, though they can suffer significant levels of stress which can impact on their physical and emotional well-being.  We have found that the most significant issues they struggle with include:

Lack of social status: Single people living outside their parents’ home are an oddity in the Moslem world.  Whether they are thought of as strange, or pitiable, or just an object of curiosity, mission workers of both sexes can struggle with standing out from the crowd.  They may even be suspected of being spies!  Having a spouse and children (particularly boys) adds to social status.

Lack of opportunity to make single friends: Whether it’s local people or other mission workers, it can be a challenge to have social relations with other singles.  For those keen to meet potential spouses, it’s even more so difficult as some societies will place significant restrictions on single people’s opportunities to meet.

Being vulnerable to abuse: Many women commented that their singleness makes them open to being stared at, commented on, propositioned or harassed as they have no man to protect them in a macho world.  Several considered their status to be little more than that of prostitutes and suggested that local men think they are available.

Loneliness: While this is common to many single mission workers, it’s exacerbated in a social environment where it can be unsafe to go out alone, and where social mixing with married colleagues can be open to misunderstanding.  Being the only single person on a team can add to a sense of isolation.  Additionally, in a context where there is a powerful spiritual dynamic, not having a partner to pray with and encourage can increase the sense of loneliness.

Lack of security: Several women commented that they felt unsafe going out at night.  This had an impact on their ministry and social lives.

Together all these issues add up to one key factor: isolation.  While some mission workers are naturally better at dealing with this than others, and some learn to develop effective strategies for dealing with isolation, they can still feel deeply the effects of isolation.

There are clearly implications in all this for selection, preparation and in-field support that need to be thought through carefully before sending single mission workers to Moslem cultures.  Needless to say, their wellbeing hinges on receiving effective support from family, church and agency.  In fact, if these three groupings are simply aware of the challenges single mission workers face by ministering in a Moslem context, they may start to implement more effective solutions.  In a couple of weeks’ time, we’ll post some of our suggested solutions.