Reviewed by Elisabeth Kvernen
Sightline Books: The Iowa Series in Literary Nonfiction, 2015, 264 pp.
People often read memoirs to find pieces of their own story. In my increasingly introspective and reflective mid 30’s, I find the genre fits my state of mind. But it’s uncommon for me to find a memoir that contains as much overlap with my own life as I found in Running to the Fire: An American Missionary Comes of Age in Revolutionary Ethiopia, by Tim Bascom.
Bascom is the teenage son of missionary parents in Ethiopia during the 1970’s, when the country is undergoing a Marxist revolution. While his parents work to bring the gospel and medical care to a remote outpost in the south, he attends boarding school in Addis Ababa. Here, against a backdrop of political and social unrest, Bascom struggles to reconcile his desire to live a sacrificial Christian life—abandoning the world and the flesh—with his growing need for physical connection and intimacy. He must also deal with his increasing skepticism towards the cause that brought his family to Ethiopia in the first place.
My own experience in Ethiopia as the daughter of medical missionary parents bears an uncanny resemblance to Bascom’s. My parents worked for the same missions organization, and like the Bascoms, we were posted to a rural area many miles south of Addis Ababa. We both have belonged to that exclusive club of MKs—missionary kids—and both have experienced the adventures, joys, challenges, and sometimes traumas that come with growing up on the mission field. I lived in Ethiopia as a preteenager, and while the questions Bascom asks in his book came at a later age for me, we share many of the same basic assumptions and beliefs, and were influenced by a similar evangelical worldview (Karl Marx? Bad guy whose picture was displayed all over town. Emperor Hailie Selassie? Good guy and friend of missionaries, who also kept lions.)
I recognize the courage it took, then, for Bascom to write this book. He says in his introduction, “It would seem that, by telling the true underlying story of my life (even the parts I might be inclined to hide beneath a neat clean story line), I risk angering the people of my youth, my parents too. Yet I know that by not telling that naked narrative, I risk losing trust. As a result, even though I fear becoming a laughingstock, here I stand.” In a community where supreme value is placed on living by faith, it takes a brave soul to openly offer doubts, fears, and questions. For many people, the fear of rejection would be too great to risk such a venture.
Yet in telling his story as a memoir, Bascom chooses to trust that his family, and the missions community in which he was raised, can suffer his doubts—and with this trust, he honors them. He is not dismissive of their faith; his admiration for their commitment, self-sacrifice and dedication to their cause is clear. He openly wonders whether he, like they, would be willing to die for any of his professed beliefs.
And while Running to the Fire offers a thoughtful critique of the missionary endeavor in Africa and its history of unwitting collusion with colonialism, Bascom does not reject mission work outright. Instead, he provides an alternative vision:
We could stay home, I suppose, and build high walls, trying to let others have their own realms. But what a lonely world that would be—full of castaways on static, never-changing islands.
Or perhaps we could cross the borders, doing it as humbly as possible, attuned to every meaning that might already exist, trying to encounter the landscape as an already defined place. We could try to see through the eyes of one who is already there, staying as receptive as possible, given the powerful compulsions of our own beliefs, our desires, our hope to make it home.
Timothy Larson, a professor at Wheaton College (where both Bascom and I attended), wrote recently in Faith and Leadership, “More and more I have come to value those who model how to no longer hold to the exact version of faith they grew up with while still finding ways to be grateful for and affirming of the community of faith that raised them.” Perhaps this is what I most appreciate about Running to the Fire: it’s a memoir that articulates the movement from one vision of faith to another. I’m grateful for Bascom’s willingness to tell his story, which offers encouragement to those of us on our own related journeys of faith.