A Leopard Tamed, Eleanor Vandevort, Missionary Biography

The Missionary Experience: A Path of Faith in the Midst of Paradox

Starting in the book of Acts, the history of missions is characterized by controversy. It may have begun when Paul and company set out with freshly-minted instructions from the Jerusalem Council, defining the parameters of the message they were sharing. It was certainly evident when the citizens of Lystra decided to fold Paul and Barnabas into their eclectic assortment of deities–and then to take up stones against them. And remember the story of New Testament heroes of the faith clashing over personnel issues and going their separate ways for a season? Throughout history, according to His own counsel and sovereign wisdom, God has chosen to put the transmission of the Gospel into the hands of His fallen and often short-sighted children, and the effects of that have made for some fascinating reading.

A Train-Wreck of Two Cultures Colliding

Over fifty years ago, Eleanor Vandevort came home from South Sudan in the wake of political unrest. Her thirteen years of language acquisition, Bible translation, literacy work, and relationship building were cut short with no certainty as to their effect or ultimate impact. When she set down the account of her struggle and her achievements in A Leopard Tamed, she was a woman ahead of her time, asking questions few in the golden age of U.S. missions were asking and even fewer wanted to entertain.

Vandevort’s narrative centers around her work among the Nuer, a remote and primitive culture eking out a living on dry, flat, hard-packed land bordering on the Sobat River in South Sudan. She was fortunate, early on, to connect with Kuac (pronounced /kwich/, rhyming with quite), a young man who had been educated at the mission-sponsored village school and was, therefore, a valuable informant for learning the language and reducing it to print.

What followed from Kuac’s conversion, subsequent education, and eventual call to pastor the church in Nasir is a glorious triumph of light over darkness–and it is also the story of a train wreck of two cultures colliding in one frail human soul. With vivid descriptions of the Nuer way of life, this 50th anniversary edition transported me to a land of unique beauty alongside unimaginable hardship and hopelessness.

As Eleanor learned to respect and collaborate with national believers who did not share her affinity for logic, efficiency, or planning, she also gained a sharper image of God in the context of heathenism, for He has made it clear that He loves the entire world, even the parts a North American Christian cannot comprehend:

“Try, if you can, to fathom Him, to draw His picture with clear, solid lines, to pin Him down. Just when you think you have God in focus, He moves, and the picture blurs.” (11)

A Bridge that Spanned Two Cultures

In 1949, at the tender age of 24, Eleanor Vandevort embarked upon her career as a Bible translator, joining the ranks of Wheaton College classmate Elisabeth Elliot and her peers who put their hands to the plow with no thought of turning back. It was an era in which the boundary between Christian culture and Western culture was decidedly blurred, so Vandevort was nonplussed to find that she had arrived in Africa bearing a message that would meet a need the Nuer did not even know existed.

With Kuac’s help, Eleanor slowly acquired a working command of the language with its fourteen vowels, three levels of tone, and absolutely no Christian jargon. Learning her way into those speech patterns helped in building the bridge that spanned the two cultures. However, observations throughout the book reveal a growing awareness that along with the Gospel, she and her fellow missionaries were sharing a full menu of lesser messages, some merely lamentable and others disastrous:

  • “I was incredulous that after fifty years of missionary work among these people, there was no striking hunger on the villager’s part to hear the Gospel. I wondered where the people were who reportedly were crying out for the Word of God.” (34)
  • “As far as I could ever tell, Christian behavior patterns were outlined by the missionaries and were not born out of the Africans’ own experience with God.” (22)
  • “It was painful and disappointing to be making friends with people for whom my ideas were nonsense. The more I came to know them, the more I realized the barrier of taboos between us. But my disappointment went deeper. It stemmed from the fact that God was not shining in the darkness as I had prayed and hoped for and expected.” (39)
  • “Is my scientific orientation to life, which has removed me from the constant threat of death, the factor which stabilizes my faith? Or, in that I need not fear God physically as the heathen do, has this freedom set me adrift from God, missing Him altogether?” (46)
  • “How does a person decide that he’s not going to be afraid of death?” (83)
  • “The many problems of translation exploded my theories of Bible translating, and precluded the possibility of producing an exact and therefore inerrant–as Evangelicals used the term–translation of the Scriptures. (95)
  • “We did not foresee that our things would become more important to the people than our Gospel, that they would want them. No one was to be blamed for this, but as it was turning out, were we not becoming more of a stumbling block than a help to the people?” (187)

Leaving the Results in God’s Hands

As a young missionary, Eleanor Vandevort began to realize that the methods she had inherited from her forebears were an imposition upon the culture. From the tone of voice used when speaking aloud in prayer to the denominational distinctives around church government, Christianity and its trappings became an ill-fitting garment in a world that required Christians to address issues such as polygamy, marriage to the dead, animal sacrifice, and grisly coming-of-age ceremonies.

The prevailing idea among Presbyterian missionaries was that “what was good for Calvin was certainly good for the south Sudan.” Within a context of very isolated and individualized people groups, the concept of “a congregation” was strange enough, but then they must “call” a pastor and provide for him. “It would hardly have occurred to the people to pay a man just for talking about God. . . In that as Christians they were now to believe that God works by the faith of His people, it would seem likely that they would wonder at having to pay a pastor at all.” (82) Then, they must submit to the leadership of the Presbytery with decisions handed down from the UPC of the USA.

Nearing the end of her time in South Sudan, it was evident to Eleanor that Kuac was floundering in his role as “Pastor Moses.” (Upon ordination, national pastors took on a biblical name which, in Kuac’s situation, was never adopted by his people because it was unpronounceable and meaningless to them.) With the introduction of a money-based economy and the acquired need for clothing, furniture, blankets, soap, and utensils, Kuac was under pressure to become something for which there was no precedent in his experience or in his history. When the mission withdrew their support and yet continued to expect Pastor Moses to pay the expense of travel to official church meetings, it became clear that the white man was dictating “what was to be done from behind the Bible without having to submit to the discipline involved himself.”

Therefore, when Eleanor received word from the Commandant of Police in December of 1962 that she was no longer welcome in South Sudan, she wondered, with a sinking heart, what would become of her translation work and of the ministry. The Arab military government had already imprisoned Kuac numerous times in an effort to stamp out Christianity through fear. Like Elisabeth Elliot in These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?she was called upon to leave in God’s hands the results (or lack of same!) of any work to which He had called her.

To Know, to Believe, and to Understand

From her home and new career in the United States, Eleanor heard of war coming to the Sudan, and then coming again.  Her story challenges many of our western assumptions about missions, while underscoring the sovereignty of God. He is free to work in a nation –or in a young, white, and slightly perplexed former missionary–in any way He deems fitting. As believers who are committed to the fulfillment of the Great Commission, let us also read and love God’s words to Isaiah, setting forth the purpose of our witness on this planet:

“You are My witnesses,” says the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
That you may know and believe Me,
And understand that I am He.”  (Isaiah 43:10)

In our witnessing and serving, the path of God may cut through mystery and paradox. Sometimes the greatest test of faith is to know, believe, and understand the power and presence of God, even when the evidence we receive is not what we had expected.

Many thanks to Hendrickson  Publishers for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase A Leopard Tamed or These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?, simply click on the title (or the image) here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

45 thoughts on “The Missionary Experience: A Path of Faith in the Midst of Paradox”

  1. I didn’t know this story; thank you for sharing it. Van went on a short-term missionary trip to Kenya four years ago. One of our church’s missionary partners is Empowering Lives International (ELI) whose goal is to equip the poor to live sustainable lives that honor God. They have 2 orphanages in Kenya and a trade school so when the children reach adulthood they can have careers that keep them from poverty and despair. Van helped build the woodworking training center they added. There was already training centers for cooking, tailoring, and agriculture. They do much more than this. We know the founder, Don Rogers, and he truly wants to empower the lives of others.

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  2. I’ve been in a situation that has felt very much like Eleanor’s. So this book really intrigues me, Michele. Even what you’ve shared so far whet’s my appetite for more of her story and struggle. Thanks for sharing and I’ll be sharing in Pinterest and Twitter, my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As I read the first part of your post, I thought there were some parallels to Elisabeth Elliot’s These Strange Ashes, so I was glad to see you reference her book as well. I think missions has come a long way since that time, but people still struggle over sharing truths from the Bible and figuring out how they apply to different cultures without imposing our American ways of looking at and doing things into the mix. It’s daunting. But God has promised that people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will someday be “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes” (Rev. 7:9).

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    1. Yes, and I found this review to be difficult to write, because I am an absolute fan of our missionaries, knowing that they are carrying out the work of our Missionary God, so I was hoping all along that the pessimistic overtones in Eleanor Vandevort’s experience and the big picture weaknesses in strategy would not convey a negative attitude toward missions. I do think we (the church) are at a cross roads with missions in trying to enter a culture and pass on a biblical world view without Americanizing the Gospel. That verse in the Revelation is such a good basis for what God has called us to do, and He loves the languages and the cultural backdrop of other lands.
      Thanks, Barbara, for your thoughts here. It was so great to read Elisabeth Elliot’s intro. and then, in this 50th Anniversary edition, Valerie Shepard (EE’s daughter) wrote an updated intro.

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  4. Grateful to know of this candid missions account which brings a needed balance to missions stories. There are often not easy answers. Sometimes these realities are hidden in order to promote the appearance of ‘success’ (which is too often needed to acquire funding!) Won’t the fully revealed tapestry of what God has accomplished through us and in spite of us be amazing?! Thank you for sharing this challenging review!

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    1. Oh, thanks for weighing in, Linda. I have been a bit concerned about how this review and, consequently, the book would land on the hearts and brains of readers, because I am a firm believer in God’s “how will they hear . . .” and His “make disciples” words, and yet I also grieve over the “stuff” that gets attached to the Gospel on its way to people’s ears. Eleanor’s book (like Elisabeth Elliot’s These Strange Ashes which is, by the way, my favorite of her books) ends with questions instead of certainties and glowing numbers and the standard newsletter fare, and I do wonder if our definition of “success” on the mission field is the reason why we have fewer and fewer who go.
      I love that generation of missionaries, and had the joy of knowing a few before they went to glory. Praying for you in your challenges.

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  5. I don’t know how you do it, Michele … this is a wonderful review of what sounds like a fascinating book. Do you have any idea what has happened in the area where Eleanor served since she left?

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    1. I’m so glad you asked!
      (I try to keep these reviews under 1500 words, so I left out the details of the after story!)
      In all the killing, a remnant from Kuac’s village survived and found their way to the U.S. and finally to Eleanor! One of the survivors was Kuac’s daughter, and through her, Eleanor was able to connect by phone with Kuac who was still alive in Sudan at the time, but there are no details given as to whether he stayed in ministry. There’s another book called Sioux Center Sudan: A Farm Girl’s Missionary Journey that gives the full account of all this, but I have not read it.
      Thanks for inquiring! I feel as if you gave me permission to write a P.S. to my post!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember visiting missionaries speaking at my church when I was younger. I thought the story was “nice” but on some level never quite believed they were true. I’m fascinated now as an adult what strength and perseverance is needed to be a missionary. The testing of faith is one I think I might succumb to.

    Thank you for linking up friend!

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    1. I’m always so thankful when missionaries shed their armor and share the struggles along with the victories. And I get it. It’s hard to be vulnerable when your standing in front of a congregation that supports your work financially. Donors look for for “success” stories so they know their “investment” is wise. Some of the best insights I’ve gained from missionaries have been right around my dining room table or in small groups, because I always try to invite our church’s missionaries to speak to our women’s group whenever I can.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Many of today’s conservative evangelical churches could take a lesson or two from ministry leaders and trailblazers like Eleanor and Elisabeth … God can use 100% of His people to lead His church, not just the male species.

    Appreciate this review, Michele.

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    1. Wow, I hadn’t even thought of this bio from that perspective, Linda. It’s true that the history of missions would look VERY different if it were not for the contributions of some very courageous women.

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  8. Michele, I am grateful to read this review of a missionary I had not heard of before. Being a part of The Lulu Tree, I thought I would just share a small line from our vision statement > “Preventing tomorrow’s orphans by equipping today’s families through the local church.” We are called to share the Gospel, raising up churches to then continue the work. We are not called to “Americanize” others. Thank you for reminding me this morning of this most important truth. I am going to add this one to my list to check out.

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    1. Yes, my heart just ached at all the “Americanization” that happened on the field during Eleanor’s day. I’m trusting that things are a bit different, at least culturally, but I have a sneaking suspicion that church and Christianity are still being squeezed into a North American mold.
      Thanks for sharing that beautiful vision!
      Amen and amen!

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  9. Thank you for your review of this book about an amazing woman. I must put it on my list. I love books that make me think and ask difficult questions. This one seems to fit the bill. I wonder if I would have had the courage and grace that Eleanor did.

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    1. Eleanor came from an era that was so much wiser than ours in many ways. Those pioneer missionaries didn’t have Twitter or even regular furloughs to transform them into heroes. They just leaned into the traces and did the next thing.
      I loved this book for its clear eyed admission that missionaries do not have all the answers even to their own questions, never mind the ones that come up along the way from baby Christians on the field!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This is really interesting and not entirely surprising – as the idea of meeting people where they are, learning from them, building relationships etc – would have been completely revolutionary at the time.

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  11. When I was attending school to complete a missions major, I remember hearing bits of this story and reading excerpts of this book. It led to many challenging but enlightening discussions! Thanks for sharing about this Michele!

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    1. That’s wonderful that you were exposed to this line of very realistic thinking as part of the missiology major. That gives me so much hope for the future of American missionaries overseas.

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  12. Great review Michele, once again God has a theme message going. 😀

    I have been both an observer & a worker in missionary work. Also having a double major in Anthropology/Sociology as well as Psychology, I have found it both interesting & concerning how Western Christianity has been packaged to the different people groups of the world over the past 100+ years.

    You may enjoy my post where it all began in “Penang, Pearl of the Orient” 😀
    Jennifer

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  13. There are so many shining lives out there that I’ve never heard of! This one is definitely new to me. i can’t imagine living in the places she has.

    Love this insight, Michele: “God has chosen to put the transmission of the Gospel into the hands of His fallen and often short-sighted children, and the effects of that have made for some fascinating reading.” Indeed!

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  14. The quotes you shared still hit a little too close to home for me, especially some of the disappointments! I have shared so many of those experiences and reactions! I should probably read this book, but at the moment, I’m not sure my emotions could handle it. Will definitely remember it for later though! Thanks for linking up at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com!
    Tina

    Like

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