A 2013 article in Psychological Medicine reported the conclusion of a study showing that persons involved in “caring personal service” occupations showed more common mental disorders than people in other lines of work. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3615626/#). It’s not hard to list “caring personal service” occupations: Nurses, Therapists, Physicians, Counselors, even Clergy fit in. No occupation shields a practitioner from mental illness. During my decades of missionary service in Taiwan, I saw it in some colleagues. I don’t doubt that it was seen in me.
Today I reflect on something I heard from friends in similar service; the phenomenon of us as “crazy magnets”. Between 1995 and 1999 I worked to start a new church in the Kaohsiung neighborhood of Lin-ya-liao. I failed. My job was assigned by a local Presbytery (district) of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. Apart from my salary, all support for the project came from within Taiwan.
During those years I talked with foreign friends doing similar projects around town. One man ventured that he spent 80% of his time on 20% of the people who had been attracted to what he was trying to do. On further discussion, he mentioned that his “new church” had only a handful of adherents, one of whom regarded his “foreign missionary” as a full-time on-call friend. Across my 4-year pursuit to set up a storefront operation, I noticed that more and more people with social adjustment or mental health problems found their way into my orbit. Listening to some of these precious people, I’d hear about earlier, sometimes YEARS earlier, associations with foreign missionaries. More than once I’d field what sounded like a sincere “faith question”. But my responses were rarely accepted. I’d be met with a contrary opinion, delivered as being the very word heard previously from someone else. I fell for the bait all too often.
My project ended in (mercifully) 1999. After a year of sabbatical I was reassigned to a publishing house in Tainan. I commuted by train. On one trip I sat with Wu Hsin-an, who had been the director of Kaohsiung’s Lifeline (suicide prevention call-in center) for decades. As the train passed Long-fa-tang (龍發堂), a folk-religion temple that offers treatment to the mentally ill, I asked Mr. Wu to comment on my “foreign missionaries as crazy magnets” hypothesis. He confirmed it. Asking “why?”, I was told that “you’re perceived as friendlier than Taiwanese clergy.”
I don’t know if I was friendlier, but I sense that I was more desperate, naive, and perhaps deluded. Maybe my own craziness is what attracted people.
David Alexander now resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.