Vivian Palmer Harvey is a missionary kid and boarding school survivor who attended Mamou Alliance Academy from the time she was five and a half years old. I just finished reading her book, The Missionary Myth, and found it to be powerful, troubling and yet hopeful. If you went to a boarding school this book will bring back lots of memories, as it did for me. Sewing on name tags and packing for school, the sirens and bells, the dining halls and food, the morning room inspections, the queasy feelings and the panicky feelings, the sound of a dorm parent’s footsteps coming down the hall at night. I think we must have gone to the same school! Be prepared for lots of unpleasant memories to come to the surface when you read this book. Vivian talks of these memories as covered giants that will only grow larger, colliding with your needs, until you confront them.
Vivian tells the story from an adult viewpoint, and then she slips into a child’s point of view in boxes throughout the narrative titled “My Child Self Speaks.” Each chapter of the book ends with “talking circle” questions. The Talking Circle is a Native American tradition which she explains in the book, and the questions are meant to be discussed in a group setting or meditated on privately.
The Palmer family was stationed in Ivory Coast, serving under Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society (CBFMS), starting in the 1940’s. Life was hard for the family and yet this book tells of the rich and vivid memories of Africa. Then, it came time for Vivian to start attending school, she went off to Mamou, and everything changed. The stories of abuse that happened to the MKs at this school are nothing short of horrifying.
Interestingly, later in the book, Vivian describes the process her parents went through when they were selecting a mission. They considered SIM, but learned that (at that time) SIM did not permit children to live on the mission field after the age of six, because it would hinder their parent’s work.
All was not smooth sailing during vacations and furloughs either, when the Palmer family was together. Her father’s strict belief was that he must do his missionary work at all costs, even of great pain to his wife and children. This belief is encouraged by the mission system. It creates feelings of resentment toward the family, the mission, and even towards God, that can last a lifetime.
Vivian examines the origins of the evangelical mindset, that our way is the only way, and we must impose our beliefs and our way of life on people for their own good. You can still see the impact of Pax Romana, feudalism, the Papal Bull and colonialism in the policies of some missions today.
The Native Americans provide an example of the harm that has been done in the name of converting and colonizing indigenous people. Native American children were kidnapped from their parents and forced into boarding schools by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and this continued over half way through the twentieth century. These religious schools inflicted severe punishments on the children and along with attemping to convert them to Christianity, they tried to erase their Native American identities by doing things such as punishing them for speaking any language except English. Vivan has developed close relationships with many Native Americans and tells their stories in her book.
Vivian pictures the patterns of abuse as a “perverse tree.” The roots of the tree are the foundational elements, such as deep-seated beliefs, that justify the abuse. The branches represent the abusers, with their personality traits and methods to inflict wounds on the vulnerable. The fruits of the tree are the consequences and damage that occur in the heart of the victims. These fruits bear seeds that will repeat the pattern in the next generation. Some fruits of the abuse tree are silence, anxiety, fear, anger and hate, apathy, depression, obsessiveness, paranoia, and more.
So what is hopeful about this book? Is reconciliation possible between abuse victims and their abusers? Yes, but it is a long and difficult road. We are taught not to show anger, but it is necessary for anger to surface before true reconciliation and healing can happen. Next, there must be acknowledgement by the abuser of what he or she has done. It seems that most missions today will only acknowledge abuse when the admission is dragged out of them by public pressure. Finally, there should be restoration by the abuser, an attempt to repair the damage to the person who has been broken. There are many ways that abusers can act compassionately to provide restoration to victims, and this book gives some examples of success and also failure in this area.
Is it possible to serve God and fulfill the Great Commission without damaging families and entire populations in your wake? Yes, this book tells about missions, organizations and individuals who have achieved this. Vivian shares her own faith journey, which requires her to challenge long-standing beliefs and come to know God and Jesus in a completely different way than she was taught as a child. For victims of spiritual abuse, recognizing that your abuser does not represent God, and is not a “gatekeeper” to God, is a crucial part of healing. An abused MK will always be afraid to trust others, yet Vivian has given us an incredibly honest and open story of her life and her beliefs. That, to me, is hope.