Over the years it has been my lot to read many biographies and autobiographies of missionaries. A career in missions makes it almost obligatory. In too many instances I have found these accounts to be either dull or, shall we say…depressing. One can only take so much “look what I gave up for Christ” before moving on to something a little more bright and cheery—like an anthology of the works of Edgar Alan Poe. Is it any wonder more young people don’t go into missions?
On the other hand, one of my favorite pastimes is to sit in on a group of older missionaries and listen to them tell stories. Inevitably their eyes light up and they lean forward in their seats, waving their hands excitedly as they recount their many adventures. Often they recall the tragedies and disappointments, yet there is an enthusiasm and joyful sense of purpose—even as tears fill their eyes.
When I opened Growing Up Yanomamö (2009, Grace Acres Press) I encountered a refreshingly different kind of missionary biography. It was as if author Mike Dawson—“missionary kid” and veteran missionary in the Amazon rainforest of Venezuela—was sitting across the table from me, regaling me with story after amazing story from his past. His style is engaging and conversational, and his stories are spell-binding.
Born in Venezuela in 1955 to missionary parents, Mike Dawson grew up with the Yanomamö people. (His command of the language was such that he was once able to convince the somewhat-hostile men of a village he was visiting that he was himself a Yanomamö whose mother had kept him out of the sun.) After graduating from high school he continued to work among the Yanomamö for two years. He then attended Bible college in the United States, returning with his new bride to Venezuela and the Yanomamö shortly after graduating.
The majority of Growing Up Yanomamö could be described as a vigorous romp through jungle. One reads of hunting for tapirs and spider-monkeys, of encounters with alligators and giant anacondas, and of spiritual showdowns with tribal witch-doctors. (This last fascinated me to no end. When I was “growing up Gothard,” it was accepted doctrine that demons were attracted to music with the “worldly back-beat.” Yet, according to Dawson, the demons have a terrible aversion to Southern Gospel and Michael Card. Perhaps it wasn’t the drums after all…) Yet through all of this adrenaline-pumping high adventure run the themes of divine protection, the triumph of the gospel, and the sovereign purpose of God in the midst of tragedy.
Dawson’s style is conversational. There are interruptions, rabbit trails, and third-person accounts. Rather than distracting, these add to the authenticity of the narrative and make it hard to put down. And not everything is “happy-go-lucky.” I challenge anyone who has a soul to read chapter twenty-four—in which Dawson records the home-going of Reneé, his wife of twelve years—without a tearing up. Even in the telling of this, his greatest personal tragedy, Dawson avoids the major pitfalls of missionary literature: he speaks with authenticity without descending into self-pity.
Another refreshing aspect of the book was Dawson’s treatment of the Yanomamö Indians themselves. Once again, there are two extremes that many missionary tales fall into. On one side are those that seek to put down the host culture to the extent that they see nothing of value in it. For these types there are no redeeming qualities, nothing whatsoever to be learned from it.
On the other side are those who perpetuate the myth of the “noble savage.” These well-meaning souls take a page (or several pages) from the script of movies like Pocahontas or Avatar, depicting innocent natives as living in a utopian forest paradise until the evil white man comes along to destroy it all for fun and profit.
Dawson, thankfully, strikes an even balance. He is openly admiring of the Yanomamö culture as a whole. He loves them. They are his people, and he is one of them. And at the same time, he is brutally honest about the more unsavory aspects of their culture that he has witnessed over the years. Readers should be prepared for some graphic scenes. Permeating the whole account is the desperate need of the Yanomamö (and indeed all men) for the salvation that comes through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. One of the most profound moments in the entire book is the eloquent response given by a believing Yanomamö tribesman after being told by an American “academic” that he had been brainwashed by the missionaries.
If there was one thing I could change about the book it would be that there are wide swaths of time that are skipped in the narrative. I get the feeling that we are missing some great stories. Then again, at 317 pages, I’m sure some things had to be left out. Perhaps some of these are included in the author’s newly released sequel, entitled I Can See the Shore.
I also found myself wishing for a section of photos, although the included occasional artwork is quite good. Still, I would have liked to have that visual reference to the people and places I was reading about.
But this is a minor detail. Michael Dawson does such a superb job of describing the events and surroundings that many times I felt like I was there with him.
I can imagine this book being the perfect antidote for the teen or young adult who has spent all his or her life singing the astonishingly depressing hymn So Send I You and listening to missionaries piously intone “Don’t tell God you’ll never go to Africa, because that’s exactly where He’ll send you.” Michael Dawson, in sharing his own personal stories of action, adversity, and adventure, can give them an entirely more realistic picture of what missions is all about.
In writing Growing Up Yanomamö Michael Dawson has done missions endeavors everywhere—and the Kingdom of God as a whole—a tremendous service.