MISSIONARIES MAKE NEW CONTACTS and reach the lost through marriage enrichment programs. But counseling couples in foreign countries rarely is as simple as His Needs, Her Needs.
Jerald Heiderich and his wife, Gail, direct the Family Institute of Latin America in Curitiba, Brazil. The couple conducts marriage and parenting classes.
“Marriage seminars hold promise for both the church members and for reaching the lost,” Jerald Heiderich said.
But there’s more to counseling couples in a foreign country than reading His Needs, Her Needs, the bestselling book by Willard F. Harley Jr. Beyond the small issues — like whether flowers or rats make better gifts — societies differ on marital expectations, parental involvement and the definition of marriage itself.
DATING AND ‘MALE-BASHING’
David and Janina Tiner, members of the Brentwood Hills church in Nashville, Tenn., traveled to Venezuela recently to conduct a three-night marriage conference at the Barquisimeto church.
“People are thirsty for family development,” David Tiner said. Couples drove from more than two hours away to attend the conference.
In Brazil, most church members acknowledge the need for marriage enrichment, but many husbands find it threatening, Heiderich said.
“Too easily we fall into male-bashing,” he said. “Our approach balances changes needed by both wives and husbands.”
In the U.S., many marriage-building courses suggest couples rekindle the romance by going out on dates without their kids. But “dating is not necessarily a universal nor a biblical truth,” Heiderich said. And baby-sitting is a foreign concept.
“One time I was interrupted during a seminar by an irate husband who basically said, ‘How do you expect us to do this … when most of us barely have enough to pay our bills and buy food?’” Heiderich said.
COUNSELING THE ‘UNMARRIED’
In Vanuatu, ask a man if he has a wife and he’ll say yes. But ask him if he’s married and he’ll likely say no.
“Confused? So were we,” said Eric Brandell, a member of a mission team in this tiny nation in the South Pacific.
“Most couples are ‘not married’ because the man is unable to pay the exorbitant cost of a marriage, which includes piles of gifts, food for hundreds and a hefty bride price,” Brandell said.
In Europe, many couples live together in a trial arrangement.
“For most, it’s not a question about rebellion against God, but simple ignorance,” missionary Arlin Hendrix said.
In the past two years Hendrix and his wife, Pamela, have traversed the French-speaking world conducting marriage seminars based on the Marriage Matters series by St. Louis church members Jerry and Lynn Jones. Many couples attend, and many aren’t married.
Instead of condemning their actions, the Hendrixes teach God’s plan for marriage, and let students reach their own conclusions. One unmarried couple, after several studies, decided to be baptized. They also decided to live apart for two months until they were legally married.
“We make it understood that marriage is God-created and should follow his guidelines,” Arlin Hendrix said. “Should they miss it, we lovingly and frankly explain what God intends.”
FAMILY TRADITIONS, GOOD AND BAD
In addition to his job as a minister at Zimbabwe’s Nhowe Mission, Nhamo Marunga has played the role of “go-between” for no fewer than 10 couples.
Representing the groom-to-be, he enters the home of the bride’s parents and quietly claps his hands to show respect. He sits cross-legged on the floor and negotiates the lobola, or dowry.
“I will be in the same position until the process ends, which may take two to three hours depending on the hardness of the in-laws,” Marunga said.
Family involvement can bless or curse marriages in Kenya, said George Onchangwa, minister for the Nyachenge church. In the past two years he’s seen three marriages end because the husband’s parents found the wife unpleasing.
Onchangwa tried to bring the couples back together, but said his efforts were met with hostility. Community elders denounced him “as a young man out to mess up our long-cherished community norms,” he said.
To help couples in Africa, Lousiana-based World Radio Gospel Broadcasts recently launched a program across the continent on marriage and family issues. Fielden and Janet Allison, longtime missionaries to Africa, host the program.
The program will address divorce, sex, parenting, polygamy, AIDS and many other issues that African couples face, World Radio director Ken Bolden said.
MARRIED TO A DEAD MAN
Radio broadcasts, counseling sessions and marriage-building books can’t prepare missionaries for everything they face in the field, said Monte Cox, associate dean of the College of Bible and Religion at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
A group of missionaries in Kenya, where Cox once served as a missionary, found themselves in a matrimonial quagmire when Selly, a young Christian, asked them to perform a funeral for her husband, Philip.
She also asked the missionaries to marry her to her dead husband before they buried him.
Selly’s people practice Old Testament-style levirate marriage, Cox said. She had to marry her late husband’s brother — whom Selly said was an alcoholic — to carry on the family line. Selly could refuse, but she would lose custody of her children.
The only way out was marriage in a Christian ceremony, complete with certificates and wedding rings. Then the Kenyan government would recognize Selly as the legal guardian of her children.
“In the end, one of my missionary colleagues performed the ‘wedding’ as part of the funeral, simply by saying that Philip and Selly were married in the eyes of God and faithful to each other until death parted them,” Cox said.
“And yes, at some point in the proceedings, someone slipped a wedding ring on the dead man’s finger to make it official,” he added. “We didn’t cover this one in Missionary Principles and Practices class!”