This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of Debbie Dortzbach (CN 402, T3) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. No spoken words have been omitted, except for any non-English phrases which could not be understood by the transcribers. Foreign terms which are not commonly understood appear in italics. In very few cases words were too unclear to be distinguished. If the transcriber was not completely sure of having gotten what the speaker said, "[?]" was inserted after the word or phrase in question. If the speech was inaudible or indistinguishable, "[unclear]" was inserted. Grunts and verbal hesitations such as "ah" or "um" were usually omitted. Readers should remember that this is a transcript of spoken English, which follows a different rhythm and rule than written English.
... Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence on the part of the speaker.
.... Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Words in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments by the transcriber.
This transcript was made by Christian Sawyer and completed in October 2001.
Collection 402, T3. Interview of Debbie Dortzbach by Paul Ericksen, September 27, 1988.
ERICKSEN: You were saying that the eroding family....
DORTZBACH: ...is a tremendous limitation in urban areas today in developing countries. It hasn't been there traditionally, but it is certainly a part of the culture today and something the church has got to deal with even as it needs to deal with it in our own culture here. I think AIDS [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome] will continue to play a devastating effect on the church, on missions, on health, on the whole society in...in developing countries. And if you listen to people involved in global health, those at CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or WHO [World Health Organization], they are forecasting just devastating results with the AIDS epidemic in the developing world. So Christians have got to address that. And fortunately, we have all we need to address it. We...we have...we have an answer that medicine can't give. And [pauses] I don't know all the reasons that God has...has kept a cure from being developed for that disease, but I do know that we have opportunity right now to present an eternal cure and we need to seize upon that while people are desperate and see the need.
ERICKSEN: Now, how much AIDS is...have you seen in Nairobi already?
DORTZBACH: It's just beginning to surface right now. Part of our problem in knowing the scale of AIDS is that the surveillance techniques are not there. We...we don't have wide-spread testing. It...the test is expensive to have, etc. But it's beginning to come and we see it more clinically; we see the wasting people. And it's beginning to be felt too in children. There are a lot of practices which facilitate the spraid of EDS [spread of AIDS]. Partly, it's heterosexually transmitted in Kenya or in the developing world. And practices such as using common needles for immunizations or for tattooing or, you know, those pr...or circumcision. They're all...they all easily spread AIDS, so there's potential for widespread growth of the AIDS epidemic there. And especially in the slum areas because a lot of...there are many prostitutes there, there are many men who leave their families in the countryside and come to the city. A lot of opportunity for the church to reach out and begin to address the problem. And if we don't, I believe that we're sinning.
ERICKSEN: Now, are mission boards [pauses] ready to take the initiative or how do...how do things look in Kenya?
DORTZBACH: Well, I don't think that missions yet comprehend the impact it's going to have, but they're beginning to. And MAP [MAP International, formerly Medical Assistance Programs] is making a concerted effort to pave that way. They have an AIDS education team now that is...is working on some long-range educational tools and even awareness-raising tools. So they're...they're pacesetting for the rest of us. And I...and that's needed and will be useful.
ERICKSEN: What...how are the things that you're now studying on your furlough [pauses], I guess, preparing you for what you're going back to or fitting with what you've seen?
DORTZBACH: Well, my...my desire has been that I interact with others who have been overseas. Some of th...many of them are physicians, national physicians or ministers of health. And we have great rap [discussion] sessions where...where we really are open about what's been tried and kind of brainstorming together. Part of it is just that exposure. I'm learning a lot more from my fellow classmates probably than even lecturers. The exposure to reading, to research, to...to articles is something I could never have while in Kenya. And so I'm trying to soak in as much of the latest understanding about...or studies that have been done, especially in urban centers in the developing world. So I'm focusing all of my study and research on urban...urbanization and urban health problems. So I feel that it will at least give me a lunge ahead for the next term with some ideas to pursue. I'm not assuming that I'm going to find the answer. I think there are a lot of things that have to be tried and even failed, but I hope that I have a...a perspective that reaches beyond that little community of Mikuru in the city of Nairobi.
ERICKSEN: How do...from your experience both in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, how do find that missionaries get along with each other?
DORTZBACH: Well, missionaries are people. And we're not saints in the sense that...that we know it all or...or have all the answers. In fact, we rub shoulders pretty closely together and our...our warts come out. And sometimes we rub so hard that we bleed. And that's painful and it's wrong. At the same time, we learn a lot about humility and...and unity in Christ too. And when we allow those open sores to be exposed and to...to deal with them together, I think the potential to grow and learn is there in ways that...that you don't even have here necessarily because you're not so...we're not so involved day-to-day in our ministries together in the [United] States as you are overseas. [plane overhead] You're not so dependent on each other in an alien culture here. So while there's, again, the...the open sores that come, there's also the healing that comes and the.... I think that was really demonstrated to me when...what in my last moments with Anna (when I was kidnaped and Anna was kidnaped) because we had bickered. Anna and I saw things very differently in the hospital. And I was a rookie and I thought I knew it all. And she was a seasoned missionary from another culture. She was Dutch. And right there there was potential for discord. And we had our differences to be sure. But there was an exchange of unparalleled understanding and love when we were taken together. And...and the hand clasp that...that we had as we...as we were beaten and forced to run into the woods, into the wilderness behind our hospital and to hear Anna say so strongly and firmly, "Don't be afraid Debbie. God is with us." The foundation for that was all those Bible [laughs] studies we'd had together, all those talks, even all those disagreements because God was still with us. And I guess all I can say is that God is merciful. And He utilizes all those disagreements and discords and misunderstandings and sin even to...to bring us about, to change us, to melt us and to remake us. If it weren't for Him, I couldn't do it. I wouldn't want to be there. I wouldn't want to face all of that [pauses] crucible of experiences, but because He's there [chair shifts] I know I can and I know He'll utilize and they re...and...and He will change those things in me that need to be changed. So I...I feel while it can be a fiery furnace [laughs], it can also be a...a haven of peace.
ERICKSEN: Does it seem that there are any particular things that missionaries tend to conflict with each other about more than others?
DORTZBACH: I think ideology and lifestyle. It's...[pauses] to be sure, we have the same Lord and the same faith and the same baptism, but we have very different ways of expressing it sometimes. And communication can be a big play in that, you know, listening to each other and how we really communicate to each other. That's true in any church situation too. So it's not just unique to missionaries. But because we're thrown together for such extended periods of time and through...under such stressful situations at times, it's all compounded. But how we...and that's one of the things that Karl and I are trying to work on this term...this home...while we're home on furlough is our communication style and how we naturally express ourselves, how w...and where we need to change in dealing with people who communicate very differently. Another area of concern for me is conflict avoidance because by nature I am a conflict avoider. And...and that's not healthy. I need to know how to face conflict in a...in a biblical way, so that these little [cup knocks] problems do not grow into mountains because I've avoided them. So there are ways I think that missionaries can overcome through awareness, through understanding each other better, through communicating better, through really making clear where we stand and where our ideologies, our strategies are and...and seeking like-minded people. I...I don't think that we're all meant to work side by side in an interwoven way. I think that there are some personalities and some gifts that help us groove and there are others that...that we don't groove as easily with. And to maximize our gifts, I feel that we need to...to find those with whom we work the best. And God can give opportunity for that.
ERICKSEN: Did the mission boards provide vehicles for conflicting or ways, I mean as you suggest...
ERICKSEN: ...not putting people together...
ERICKSEN: ...who are destined to clash?
DORTZBACH: To clash. Well, I...traditionally that's not been recognized, at least as I read mission biographies. Th...also, traditionally missionaries have been very fiercely independent. And it's not easy to work with an independent person. So perhaps for a time that was okay, but now where we're wor...we tend to be working in teams or together. I think there's a real need to sort each other out first and to kind of test out styles of living and communication. And slowly I think missions are coming to that awareness. It's been a process for us. And we've made a lot of mistakes in how we came across, even unknowingly, how we threatened people, how we were perceived, what we said, how our experience turned against us with new missionaries, for instance, how insensitive we were because we've already been through it long ago and didn't understand, you know, enough. And I...so I...I believe that the vehicles are there and they're coming through journals, through magazines, through maybe even oral histories such as this, through a variety of ways. Missionaries are more open to recognizing where they fit in and how they can be most productive.
ERICKSEN: How did you find out that you were non-confrontational? [Dortzbach laughs] Maybe you've known it all along, but...?
DORTZBACH: I...well, I suppose it's deep-rooted in me. I...I've never really tried to analyze where it came from, but, you know, if I were very confrontational in my childhood, I would never have survived. There were...there was...survival itself in a big family was...was a priority. And if you had to confront everything that you came against, well, you just would melt. I mean I never would have made it. So one way to deal with that is to...is to take the punches as they come. And that's not necessarily good all the time. You know, there are times you need to stand up and make a difference or...or confront lovingly a brother who's in...in...in need or doing something wrong. And I find that very difficult. Part of it's just my personality and I...there are ways that I need to overcome some of that.
ERICKSEN: How have you found it raising a family on the mission field?
DORTZBACH: Delightful. [pauses] I'm very proud of our kids. I feel that they have opportunities to be exposed to experiences and people that the highest university in the [United] States could never afford. And I don't worry about all the things they're not getting like gymnastics classes or opportunities to be on a swim team. I think they're rubbing shoulders with people very different from them and they're beginning t...and they appreciate it. They...they're exposed to the...to the body of Christ [pauses] in ways that I wish every Christian could be exposed because there's nothing more exciting than to...to sing of God's grace and mercy in a language that's very different from your own. So I...I think it's a fantastic opportunity for my children. And I think they see that too. Now, they're at different developmental stages (new needs arise) and the challenge for a missionary parent is to understand what those needs are and not to assume that just because we are maturing in our missionary experience that our kids necessarily are. There might be challenges that they face which are...are difficult, especially in their adolescence, where do they fit in. [plane overhead] You hear about third-culture kids and it...it really is a reality. How do you minimize that? So I'm not assuming that it's all easy or that it doesn't take a lot of planning and conscientious effort to help your kids through some of these experiences. But I think overall the benefits far outweigh the liabilities. And I know that God will use their background in whatever vocation or opportunities He brings in the future.
ERICKSEN: What's it like [pauses] growing a marriage on the mission field?
DORTZBACH: [laughs] It's interesting that you use that term "growing a marriage." I...I agree. I think marriage needs to be a growth process. You know, in some ways it's easier and I guess I'll talk about that first. We...we have to communicate. There aren't a lot of distractions in terms of nightly meetings or television or, you know, myriad of responsibilities in the church. There are demands, of course, but we do things together a lot more. So I think the vehicle for communicating is...is there. But it does take nurturing. And like any marriage you need to evaluate where you are consciously. And Karl and I try to do that. We don't do it as...as well as we ought to. But we try to get away without the children periodically to kind of set some new goals, re-evalu...re-evaluate where we are and spend time together. And I really cherish those times. I think it's essential. So that's part of growing in marriage. But I...I don't have all the answers. Our...our home tends to be a real mixture of people and that can be a liability in a mission home where the sense of family preservation is challenged constantly. And so sometimes we have to look back and say, "We have to be just us for awhile," because there's too much danger in spreading ourselves too thin even for our children as well as our marriage. So there are tho...th...th...there is the workaholic problem, you know, that we constantly face. We try to overcome it with some diversities that we enjoy doing together as a family or as a couple, but it's a growing process, [unidentified person coughs several times in background] as you say. One that we have to keep in focus and pray...pray about. I think a lot of the trials we've been through have also challenged us in our marriage and been means that God has used to grow us as we see Him answering prayer or as we seek His face in desperation together.
ERICKSEN: Are [pauses]...are marriages in jeopardy on the mission field?
DORTZBACH: Yes. I think marriages are in jeopardy everywhere. I think they're in jeopardy when...when you're too busy [pauses] to be together or to really understand one another or to foster communication and understand change in each other because change comes. Now, I'm not the same woman I was when I met Karl at Wheaton and there are good things and bad things about that. So understanding each other takes time and [pauses] becoming too busy is probably the biggest obstacle or...or threat that I see to a marriage. Children can be too. We can be so consumed with our kids that we don't take the time to nurture each other. And that was particularly difficult when our children were very small and they were so time-consuming. I don't think I realized then how little I was giving to Karl as his wife in all ways, time-wise, sexually, communication-wise, work-wise. And I'm glad that the Lord has...has shown us some of those things and we're able to move...move to the next step in our marriage almost reaching forty years of age now. And I see a lot of prospect ahead and I think our marriage is richer now than it's ever been. And I just praise God for that [laughs] because there are challenges on...overseas: the stress of culture of people, of a different way of expressing things. You know, in other cultures affection's expressed so differently. Praise is expressed so differently. You don't get that outside your home necessarily. If you look to your church for a sense of accomplishment or a sense of how you're doing, you're not going to find it. So it needs to be in the home [door opens, traffic noise] and nurtured there even more than here. [recorder stopped and restarted]
ERICKSEN: Do...do mission boards provide some sort of [pauses] encouragement or environment to...for couples to communicate or counseling for these things to get worked out? Do you...or are you left to your own devices? [chair shifts]
DORTZBACH: Well, I think there's been enough fallout from missionaries to where mission boards have had to look at that and they are now. I...at least ones I know have made a conscious effort not to assume that because you're a missionary, you're beyond trial and struggle in marriage and...or with other fellow missionaries. And a number of things have been provided to help work through that. Some of it is the psychological mandatory evaluations when you come home. And at least I'm very thankful for...for that interaction. I don't have to feel like I'm off my rocker to [unidentified thump in background]...just to express myself or get some new insights from a third party, Christian third-party psychologist. There's a lot of reading ou...available now, which organizations make available to people. Plus retreats. And retreats are a big help. They really are a chance to get away from the...the normal stresses and...and grow. There needs to be more of that, I think.
ERICKSEN: Now are these mission-sponsored retreats?
DORTZBACH: Yes, that...that's what I was referring to particularly. I think there's a need to get away from your normal work and activities and...and...as well as, just as couples and have opportunity to reflect and grow. [unidentified thump in background]
ERICKSEN: [pauses] What do you like and dislike about furloughs? [Dortzbach laughs] They don't call them furloughs any more, do they?
DORTZBACH: No, well, our...our particular mission calls it home ministry assignment to keep in focus that we're not here to rest, we're here to work. And I like most touching base with...with people that have been praying with us and supporting us because those that really have really care and are really interested. An...and I really gain a lot of nurturing from them. A...a...a sense of...of teamwork and of, "We're doing this together. It's...it's not just me or you, but we're concerned and we are praying. And this how we've been praying. And how has God been answering?" And when there's that real give-and-take communication, I really love it. That's wh...one thing I miss, not being able to travel much this home ministry assignment. What I dislike are situations in which you're...you have to dig back to the Dark Ages and explain in such simplistic terms to Americans that are so provincial what's happening in the world [laughs] and try to groove them out of that pit of, you know, "I'm me in my little box and I don't want to be bothered." I...I mean there's a need to do that, but it gets wearying. We ought to be beyond that. I mean our...our...the church has been strong in the [United] States for centuries and we ought to be World Christians in the...in the true sense of the word. Reading what's happening and...and knowing our geography and, at least before the missionary comes, having read the most recent prayer letters so you can ask an intelligent question. It's just tedious to...and...and disappointing, very disappointing, to see how narrow our perspectives can become. At the same time, I...I believe that's one of the missionaries' tasks: to broaden that vision. So it's not easy, but it's one of our home ministry assignments. [laughs]
ERICKSEN: What do you find the most supportive when you're on the field hearing from...? What do like to hear from your supporters?
DORTZBACH: I like to hear Scripture from my supporters. And people who may write who don't really even know what I'm experiencing that day or can't really be in tune to the cultural demands or trials that I am facing, but who are sensitive enough to write and say, "God ministered to me in this way through this passage of Scripture. Here it is," to me demonstrates a real unity in the body of Christ. What I don't like is getting weather reports and...you know, it...it...it doesn't really do anything for you [laughs] to know that its snowing in Chicago when you're sweltering in Kenya. But those individuals that really...really share their faith and their day-to-day growth in the Lord encourages me. And...and I like to think that the reverse is true also wh...where I'm growing and learning can minister to them. So I really see it as a partnership, not as a "Let me pat you on the back 'cause you're our missionary and it's my duty to write to you this month and...and tell you everything that is happening in our church," but rather those people who're really in tune with their own spiritual growth and want to share that. That ministers very much to me.
ERICKSEN: Who writes the prayer letters?
DORTZBACH: [laughs] We both do, but I think Karl writes the better ones. I like to defer to him. I...I think he's more down-to-earth and more descriptive. He's...he's a good communicator. But we both...we share that responsibility.
ERICKSEN: What do you like most about your work? [traffic noise]
DORTZBACH: What do I like most about my work? [pauses] I think what is the most thrilling and satisfying is to see how God works in my own life and how His control becomes more and more evident and how [pauses] His control becomes more and more evident in others that I work with or...and partner with, not necessarily because of any intervention on my part, but...but because of who He is. And that opportunity to see God at work I wouldn't give for anything. The nice thing is you don't have to be overseas to see that. [laughs] We can be wherever God's placed us.
ERICKSEN: What frustrates you the most? [chair shifts]
DORTZBACH: Living overseas in particular or being a missionary?
ERICKSEN: Being a missionary. [plane overhead]
DORTZBACH: I think as I alluded to before relearning the same lessons is frustrating. I...I wish I...I wish I were more mature often and didn't have to keep banging my head and being retaught. That's frustrating. Particular...particularly to missions what's frustrating is not really understanding another culture. And the longer I'm there the more I realize there's so much I don't know and wishing I did, wishing that I could change my skin color, wishing that I had grown up there and I could really groove with what's underneath and knowing how the gospel can be more integrated into that culture, not imposed, but integrated. That's very frustrating. And I...I just have to rely upon God's Spirit for that because I can't do that. I'll never be a Kenyan, but His Spirit transcends all that. So at the same time it frees me to realize who I am and who He is.
ERICKSEN: Last question. Can you think of any funny incidents from your last term that [pauses]...something that's happened on the field that...?
DORTZBACH: Oh, there are...there are many funny instances that...in which you're embarrassed, perhaps maybe even more so than humored. I suppose every missionary has their story about language in which they were thoroughly mortified, and I have mine too. But I remember in true LAMP [Language Acquisition Made Practical] method of, you know, using, learning a little, using it a lot language approach. I...I struck out to use my little bit of Swahili and went up to a pastor, a Kenyan pastor, and did my little jabber for that day and at the end I asked him, "Unani elewa?". And he looked at me so puzzled because I had asked him, instead of "Unani olewa?" "Do you understand me?," I had ended up asking him, "Do you marry me?" [both laugh] So there are all of those embarrassing moments when I really had to apologize and explain my situation. But there are many instances...being jammed into a...a matatu or a local bus, with twenty other people when it's really a...a seater for eight. And you know, Amer...as Americans we like space and we're...we're sort of offended by real close body space. And there can be a lot of humorous incidents in that, just kind of being jammed up against someone's nose or [Ericksen laughs], I'm just going to have to bounce with the punches and realize that this is where I am.
ERICKSEN: Is that something it took you awhile to get used to?
DORTZBACH: It did, yeah. Although I'm not always sure I was aware of it. You know, it has its toll on you and you're not always aware. So [chair shifts] you kind of...sometimes you need to step back and say, "Hey, there are a lot of stresses here I didn't realize were going on, and...and these are some of them as I sit back and think about how different things are." It's okay to be a little confused sometimes, a little homesick.
ERICKSEN: Well, thank you very much.
DORTZBACH: You're welcome.
END OF TAPE