As a youngster growing up in small-town Hokah, Paula discovered the right stuff to build a global career. So global in fact, that she can no longer use her last name publicly due to terrorist groups operating in close proximity to her work. As a missionary, she’s both teacher and target.
“They have full-time IT people looking for recruits as well as targets,” she said in a recent interview. A spate of attacks on aid workers beginning about 10 years ago has left mission agencies jittery and the police helpless. “We can no longer protect you,” police told her as she and her husband left for their current furlough in the U.S.
Despite the danger, Paula’s equanimity is stunning. She leans on Psalm 46 as God’s care and comfort in the face of terrorism. “Stuff happens here too,” she said, referring to the states. “We don’t have to be afraid, but we still try to keep a low profile.”
In her formative years, however, Paula’s small-town experience was anything but low-profile. Her parents had bought the grocery store in Hokah across from the firehouse which today houses five apartments.
Back then it was a hub of activity. Paula pitched in and worked alongside family members, helping wherever she could. And she got to know people. She helped many of the towns-folk as they shopped.
Paula’s faith was nurtured by her family, but particularly by her mother. When Paula reached the field, it was her mother who made her dresses and published the mission newsletter. The family attended several area churches and Paula recalled her mother playing Christian music inside the store. In December, passers-by were treated to Christmas carols wafting from speakers strung outside the store.
As student at Luther High School in Onalaska, Wis., Paula expanded her interest in community. Once a month, Hokah held town meetings across the street at the firehouse. So Paula volunteered to cover the meetings for the Houston County News.
After graduating from Luther, Paula was off to Duke University where she majored in nursing. Later, while she worked at the National Institute for Health, she pursued her Master’s degree in Pediatric Clinical nursing. Then came her missions moment. One day at a church missions conference, she felt the tug to teach nursing in Haiti.
To prepare for teaching in Haiti, Paula moved to Quebec City in Canada in 1986 and studied French at La Val University. There she met Ray, her husband-to-be. Ray had already worked for Wycliff Bible translators and was likewise studying French. But his destination was mission work in Africa. Marriage would require some changes.
Things started out rocky when Ray called Paula’s father to ask for her hand in marriage, as well as inform him they’d be going overseas. “He thought I said we would be going to Cambodia,” smiled Ray. At the time, Cambodia was writhing in the throes of a bloody civil war that had claimed the lives of millions. But once they ironed out the geography, permission was granted.
Spending time with her parents before moving overseas was a priority for Paula, so she headed back home to Hokah for two years, teaching nursing at Western Technical College. Then it was time for the next step.
For the two new missionaries, setting foot on the African continent was unforgettable. Paula recalls that they first lived in a house without electricity or running water. The “home” had dirt floors and a latrine out back. Roads were non-existent and the area lacked any form of communication to the outside world. Workdays sometimes stretched to an exhausting 16 hours. And to make matters worse, she lost her wedding ring.
When asked if she ever felt like leaving the mission field, she replied, “often.” Yet they stuck it out and set up four clinics for a Baptist health program and translated Bible stories orally for the many who couldn’t read.
Recently the couple stopped at one of their support churches, La Crescent Free Church to update their ministry. They still sometimes teach in churches with mud floors and navigate ruts that might resemble roads on a good day. And workdays sometimes still stretch to 16 hours; that much hasn’t changed.
But their mission has slightly a new twist. They now train local pastors and laypeople in church planting as well as sharing the gospel of Christ. They are also finishing a translation of Bible stories into the local African tribal language.
Despite the dangers, if their visa issues are resolved, they plan to return to Africa for another three years.
“There’s still a job to be done,” said Paula. “God hasn’t closed the door yet. Whether we get back is all in His hands.”