Should I Stay or Should I Go? Two Missionaries’ Perspectives

Two missionaries give their accounts on how they wrestled through the decision to stay or leave the field during crises.

From Message magazine issue "Christ in the Crisis"

The question of whether a missionary should evacuate or stay on the field when a crisis emerges is a highly debated subject in the arena of missions.

Here are two examples of dangerous situations that led ABWE missionaries to different courses of action.

Deciding to Stay

Melissa Baccarella had just finished a two-week study in the UK. After landing in Italy, she and the other passengers had their temperature checked before disembarking the plane.

The Italian government was beginning to impose mitigation restrictions in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and on March 9, enforced a total lockdown. As Italy’s coronavirus cases skyrocketed over the subsequent weeks, the field team considered the possibility of evacuation by preparing an emergency contingency plan.

There were three main reasons to stay.

First, reports at the time suggested Italy’s healthcare system would be adequate in dealing with the virus. Second, most team members were seasoned missionaries, having called Italy home for the last 15-30 years.

“Other than going to my parents’ home in California or seeking shelter from my sending or a supporting church, I don’t have a home to return to in the States,” Melissa said. “My home, routine, and primary community are here.”

Third, the status of Italy’s future immigration system was uncertain.

“The Italian economy will be unstable for the foreseeable future, and we don’t know what impact that will have on Italy’s immigration policies,” Melissa said. “If we went to the US, we couldn’t be sure when we would be allowed back.”

Melissa has used her quarantine time in Italy to help her community by learning to sew masks and make hand sanitizer. She gave them to a local doctor, who shared his gratitude on social media. The extensive quarantine also enabled Melissa and her team to conduct additional Bible studies through video conference with Italians on weekdays, which they had not previously been able to do because of Italians’ work schedules.

In choosing to stay, Melissa and her team found open doors to impact the lives of the nationals that otherwise might have remained closed.

Deciding to Leave

Andy and Diane Large had been serving in Nicaragua for 16 years when political upheaval erupted. In April 2018, massive demonstrations broke out in response to changes in government policy which Nicaraguans felt impinged on their rights. By August hundreds had been killed in the escalating confrontations involving public protests and combative authorities.

Given Nicaragua’s violent history of overthrowing governments, the Larges and their team were overwhelmed with concern. Their team was in the capital city of Managua, the epicenter of the chaos.

“There was uncertainty about everything,” the Larges said. “Would we get caught in the crossfire of the violence? There was minimal healthcare if someone were to get hurt. Food and gas were getting scarce.”

The US embassy urged all non-essential Americans to evacuate, but a mountain of prep work prevented the team from immediately evacuating.

Ministry responsibilities required delegation to nationals, children had to be unenrolled from school, and missionaries needed to arrange caretaking plans for their homes in their absence. The team was divided about the financial and ministerial prudence of departure.

“Missionaries didn’t like the idea having to pay rent for homes they weren’t going to be living in, and finding nationals prepared to carry on the work of their ministries was difficult,” the Larges said. “What’s more, we didn’t know at the time if we were going to be allowed back.”

After returning to the US, the Larges discovered that close family members needed support—something Andy and Diane would not have been able to offer if they had not left Nicaragua. Another team member found out she needed a kidney transplant. In these ways, God revealed his sovereignty to the team by exposing problems on the home front that required attention.

Once the political unrest cooled, the team returned to Nicaragua.

The Apostle Paul’s ministry provides some insight on this topic.

In one instance along his ministry journey, Paul willingly faced stoning by an angry crowd (Acts 14:9); another time, he evaded persecution by fleeing in a basket over a city wall (Acts 9:23-31).

And although no circumstance is identical, these examples from Scripture indicate that both avoiding danger and enduring the fray can be equally biblical responses to imminent perils.

So, should a missionary stay or leave or leave during a crisis? The biblical answer is: it depends.