Interview with Shawn Wang
When I first picked up the book, A Country of My Own — a courageous voyage of a young man who travelled across the globe to Quito — I was riveted from the get-go. With each turning page, I was drawn into Shawn Wang’s foreign world as he supported the work of two Singaporean missionaries. It was as if I was right beside him, experiencing the highs and lows of a missionary, traversing through the Pichincha volcano and valleys of the Guayllabamba River.
In an interview with Shawn, he shares honestly about his first foray into long-term missions, and the difficulties that beset him. This time spent in South America has not only exposed him to a completely different culture, but revealed to him the expanse of God’s love — one that knows no skin colour, status, or tongue.
This book has taken years to be published. How was this idea conceptualised and actualised?
To be exact, it has taken more than two years for it to be published. God first spoke to me about writing A Country of My Own when I was in an Ecuadorian sister’s living room. We were trading stories from the week and I had felt the genuine beauty of the the local church. I wanted to bring my Singapore cell group to Quito to witness all that I was experiencing.
It was then that the Holy Spirit impressed upon my heart that instead of lamenting about bringing my friends to the mission field, He told me that I could bring “a piece of the mission life back home.” My heart has been pregnant with writing this book ever since.
It has always struck me that while we pray for the missionaries labouring the mission field, most of us hardly have any idea what the daily challenges, joys, and struggles of a missionary are. My own experience on the mission field was vastly different from what I had imagined.
What made you decide to go ahead with leaving your journal entries largely in their original form?
A majority of mission books that I’ve come across have been written in the narrative voice, exhibiting the highlights and breakthroughs the missionary had experienced on the mission field. Rarely are we afforded a glimpse behind those victories: the internal struggles in obeying God and drudgery of the day-to-day life in the mission field.
I am grateful to have kept a spiritual journal throughout my stay in Quito, Ecuador. Since the entries were penned without the intention of them ever being read by anyone other than myself, it details my struggles and joys on the mission field in a raw, unfiltered form. Leaving them largely unedited, I hope to present the reader with an authentic picture of my missionary journey.
How did the book’s title come about?
The title, A Country of My Own, draws its inspiration from Hebrews 11:13-14 (NIV), on how the heroes of faith lived as “foreigners and strangers on earth” because they had their eyes set on a “country of their own.”
My taste of the missionary life in Ecuador bore a similar impression. The missionary is a ‘foreigner and stranger’ in an unknown land reaching out to the lost, and deep in his heart he carries a yearning for the home he dreams of finding and returning to — Christ’s Kingdom.
How did you end up in Quito, Ecuador?
A year before leaving for Quito, I had dedicated my student exchange programme to God for missionary work. Despite telling God repeatedly that I was prepared to go for long-term missions if He wanted me to, I had never actually prepared myself for such a call.
If I was going to spend such a considerable amount of time overseas, I thought, “Why not use this time to serve God in frontier missions?” After months of tarrying in prayer for His guidance, God directed me to Quito, Ecuador.
What made you decide to live with two missionaries (whom you did not know) instead of finding a place of your own?
I wanted a glimpse into the missionary life and contribute to the efforts of the team that was already there. Staying with Timothy and Phoebe — Singaporean missionaries in Quito — allowed me to understand what went on during ministry time and what went on “behind the scenes.” It also gave me quick and easy access to find answers to my questions, or enabled me to ease into discussions as I learnt from their journey.
Having helped out at Hope Quito, the Ecuador church plant, were there differences from your home church that you found difficult to manoeuvre?
Though we had brought good practices from our home church to Quito, many things still had to be adapted and done differently in the South American context. One of the biggest challenges I found was in distinguishing between what was biblical and what was cultural. The former we could not compromise, while the latter we had to be open and willing to adapt and change.
One big cultural difference was the emphasis on relationships in the Latin culture. Family and a sense of harmony were very important to the Ecuadorian. There were times where the locals will rather not show up than to inform you that they were unable to make the appointment. People were a lot more conflict avoidant than Singaporeans.
What were the biggest struggles in ministering to the locals?
It definitely has to be the language. Even if you could raise someone from the dead, it doesn’t count for much if you cannot communicate that it was God who did so. It was discouraging to say the least to have flown halfway across the globe only to realise that my only tangible contribution to the church was to play the guitar for twenty minutes a week at service.
I had to either work really hard at learning the language, or risk not being able to make much headway in the depth of my friendship with the locals. At the same time, I learnt to find other ways of “speaking” with the locals, such as through music or soccer.
What have you learnt about missions work?
I have learnt that missions work is not that much different from local ministry, in the sense that the motivation undergirding both is a heart of discipleship. What we do in Singapore — reaching the lost, building the church community, discipling others towards Christ-likeness — are the same things a missionary does wherever he/she is. In fact, I would say that the heart for missions work is best grown in the local ministry.
The struggle with loneliness is a recurring theme in the book. Could you share with us more about this aspect of the journey?
I think the struggle with loneliness that missionaries face is something that we seldom talk about, simply because it isn’t glamorous and is often brushed off as “something to get used to.” But the truth is, this is something that every missionary continually struggles with.
The missionary misses his friends and loved ones, but fears to communicate this for worry of imposing on the other’s already busy schedule. This becomes especially pronounced after retiring home from a hard day’s toil, only to find that you have no one to share the joys and sorrows with.
Even if there are loved ones back home who are willing and ready to listen, the nature of ministry given its context of relationships make it hard to communicate and for the listening ear to understand. And as such, the missionary often holds his emotions in his heart or, in my case, pour them out before God in the pages of my journal.
Practically, I’ve found that different people have different ways of handling the homesickness. I know of missionaries who would schedule weekly video calls with their family back home, and that sometimes would be enough to keep them going. Another frequents a Chinese restaurant once a week to be comforted with a taste from home. As for me, I carefully rationed the few letters my sister wrote to me, marked “to be opened when you’re feeling homesick.”
You also touch on the importance of friendship when you were away, especially in relation to encouragement and accountability. Could you share with us the significance of having others to press alongside you?
The isolation from the church community on the mission field places the missionary in a perilous situation. Not only is he starved from needed encouragement of like-minded comrades serving alongside him in the local ministry, accountability of one’s actions and thoughts is low as well.
I had the privilege of close friends and mentors who would check in on me from time to time, not to mention Timothy and Phoebe running alongside me, pushing and spurring me on. Many missionaries do not have this support system. Building the Kingdom so far displaced from home, accountability has to be intentional and fought for.
I won’t deny it, without anyone to be accountable to, it is a lot easier to compromise on one’s spiritual values for the pleasure of the moment. Temptations loom larger when you face them in the dark. Having someone whom you can borrow some faith from in the “valley moments” can be a huge help.
How has this 160-day voyage changed your perception of God?
My 160 days in Quito, Ecuador humbled me to the realisation of just how vast God’s love is for the entire human race. Each of us is so very different, yet God’s love is so personal that He would call each and every one of us His favourite.
There were times — such as squeezing together in the dusty, old car late into the cold night with the Ecuadorians amid much laughter and good cheer — when my heart was full with the beauty of God’s church. I felt in those moments a glimpse of the glory of heaven. There is indeed such fullness and pleasure knowing God on earth.
In what way have you grown the most?
I now know that missions isn’t really as daunting a thing as I’d imagined it to be. It is not a ministry that is best fitted for the lion-hearted or the spiritual giant, but for those with a simple-hearted obedience in wanting to obey God’s Great Commission.
My time on the mission field has taught me to deeply appreciate the work of the local church. Each time we persevere in believing in someone, investing in someone, interceding for someone, our capacity in understanding the Father’s heart expands.
How does your experience in South America continue to shape your life today?
One thing I can say though is that I can no longer live without being occasionally reminded of God’s heart for the world, regardless of race or culture or social status. It matters not the circumstance with which we find ourselves in; God’s love is not content in leaving us in our brokenness.
Isn’t Christianity such a beautiful thing? I remind myself that most things in this life are temporal at best, but life is truly lived when one holds eternity in the forefront of his heart.