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Legacies of the Mission to Arabia

By March 1, 2013 No Comments

Donald A. Luidens

As a teenager growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, I was privy to an adage among local expatriates: Western scholars come to the Middle East, stay a week and write a book, stay a month and write an article, stay a year and begin to ask questions. Armed with this cautionary note, I approached a recent foray into that part of the world with a trunkload of questions, spent more than a month, and now presume to write about my perceptions in this article. Although much was new, much was familiar from my pre-college days when I lived there with my Reformed Church in America missionary parents, Ruth and Ed Luidens.

Among the very disparate questions I brought with me were many prompted by the Arab Spring, but also echoing my family’s background as RCA missionaries. To what extent, I wondered, are we seeing a legacy of that mission work in the democratizing movements on the streets of the Arab world? What has been the lasting impact of more than a century of female missionaries who were highly educated and independent doctors, nurses, and teachers? Did they help to set the stage for women’s very visible involvement in the cultural and political changes rippling through the region? What form does the RCA missionary presence have today, and what might be its legacy in the future?

My travels took me to Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman, three of the five centers of RCA mission work dating from the 1880s. I was graciously hosted by the few remaining RCA-related missionaries and introduced to their vital work. Having said this, what I observed and how I dissect it are my own responsibilities, not theirs; I trust that what follows is a faithful accounting of the legacy of RCA mission work in what was historically known as “Arabia.”


In the late 1880s, at a time when massive waves of Dutch Reformed immigrants from the Netherlands were making their way to the theologically green fields of western Michigan and central Iowa, other representatives of the Dutch Reformed Church of North America were striking out in a very different direction. These intrepid souls made the journey from the eastern United States to the Arabian Gulf, setting up ministry stations in Manama, Bahrain, as well as Basrah and Amarah, Iraq; Kuwait City; and Muscat and Mattrah, Oman. It was a precarious enterprise in those days: pioneer missionary Samuel Zwemer lost a beloved brother and two young daughters to the tropical sun and attendant diseases; medical missionaries Drs. Sharon and Marion Thoms and Christine Bennett succumbed; Rev. Henry Bilkert was killed in the desert by disgruntled nomads; and others were unable to weather the blistering heat, often returning to the United States in broken spirits and bodies.

As the years passed, however, these early tragedies did not dim the flow of RCA missionaries, and by the mid-twentieth century, nearly seventy men and women served throughout the Gulf region. These American and European professionals were stoutly assisted by a large cadre of highly trained Indian and Arab Christian functionaries, from medical technicians who staffed the five hospitals to peripatetic colporteurs1 who dispensed Christian reading material on the streets of Basrah, Manama, and elsewhere. One such colporteur was Rubaya, the right-hand assistant in Oman of Dirk Dykstra and Jay Kapenga in the 1940s and 1950s. Rubaya was a Christian from Iraq who was responsible for managing the bookstore as well as navigating the local bureaucracy when it intersected with missionary interests.

In many ways, the early 1950s were the “highwater mark” of the RCA’s missionary work in Arabia. Not only were the ranks of missionaries at their grandest, but zeal for global mission work was fervent across the denomination. Congregations throughout the church boasted of “their” missionaries, proudly displaying world maps with colorful pins in place to designate the missionaries’ whereabouts. Missionaries on year-long furloughs made a point of traveling to their supporting churches, currying friendships that were retained across the intervening miles and years. When in “the field,” missionaries periodically wrote about their activities in letters that were widely circulated among their supporters. For many parishioners, this personal contact was their single encounter with the world beyond Passaic or Hudsonville, Sioux Center or Lynden. The contact between congregation and missionary was treasured, encouraged, and mutually enriching.

However, forces were at work to bring this cozy relationship to a slow and steady decline. Some of these forces are widely known, some more obscure. Among the latter was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. For missionaries in Arabia, the fallout in human and political terms from Israel’s founding was immediate and highly discomforting. While uniformly sensitive to the tragedy of the Holocaust, missionaries struggled to justify to their Arab friends the haste with which the United States embraced the fledgling nation in the face of tremendous Palestinian suffering and dislocation. For growing numbers of RCA members and ministers, however, the formation of Israel was seen through nineteenthcentury, dispensationalist lenses. It was perceived as the fulfillment of vague biblical prophecies about the end of time, with the result that it should be cosseted at every turn. This inherent tension grew greater over the years, and its record is evident in the halting statements of six decades of General Synod pronouncements on Israel and Palestine. Moreover, this tension undermined congregational support for Arabian missionaries who were often seen as out of touch with “Christian” (American) policy interests in the region.

Changes to the funding of congregations have also contributed to the decline in congregation-missionary relationships. It costs considerably more to run today’s congregations than in the past. For a long time local churches “grew from within,” expecting that babies born into their midst would be sufficient to swell their ranks. The result was that RCA congregations were blindsided by birth control. The old model of “church growth” no longer worked. Together with churches in other mainline denominations in the 1960s and 1970s, RCA congregations found themselves expending greater resources to recruit and retain young, new members. As the denomination’s membership aged, congregational life shifted subtly from one that was organic, based on members’ direct involvement with each other and with church ministries, to one that was impersonally programmatic, based on professionally planned events and experiences. These were costly activities, putting unbearable strain on congregational budgets. Even megachurches, heretofore the key supporters of missionaries, found themselves financially constrained and shifted their focus to internal demands.

Something had to give, and that something was mission endeavors. Mission work in general and Arabian mission work in particular were devastated by these changes in economic reality. A bitter consequence was a rather crass calculus of conversions that came into play, wherein mission fields that had generated “high yields” of converts, such as sub-Saharan Africa and sections of Latin America, were pitted against mission fields that were “less productive,” such as Japan, India, and Arabia. In every case, the latter lost congregational and denominational support.

While dynamics internal to the RCA were at play in the steady demise of mission work in the Middle East, powerful currents were transforming the life of that region, thereby accelerating the decline. Oil’s discovery and exploitation rippled across the desert lands, upsetting millennia of cultural traditions and economic realities. One consequence was the increasing ability of local governments, enhanced by growing nationalisms and the need to cater to citizens’ demands, to provide the services that were formerly supplied by missionaries. Publicly funded schools and hospitals were established and staffed by indigenous teachers and doctors (and, increasingly, by professionals from neighboring countries), thereby creating unprecedented competition with mission services.

A corollary consequence of the new reality was the rising cost of providing those services. Missionary hospitals and schools just could not keep up with the high cost of doing business. It did not help matters that since the beginning of the missionary presence, while medical attention and classroom experiences were from time to time provided to the countries’ elites, the primary constituencies of the missionaries’ schools and hospitals were the least affluent. As a result, funding for these services had traditionally been drawn from donor churches in the United States. With the rising cost of delivering these services, it became increasingly difficult for the donor churches to keep up, especially given their own budget strains.

Erosion of mission assets and personnel happened quickly throughout the region. With the ascension in Iraq of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in the late 1950s, the mission stations in Basrah and Amarah were gradually closed. This included the Boys’ and Girls’ Schools of Hope in Basrah and the hospital and educational facilities in Amarah. While the Boys’ School lasted until 1968, it was shut down and the missionaries were expelled in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.2 The mission hospitals in Kuwait were also closed in 1967, largely at the behest of RCA leadership, which was struggling to afford the cost of operating them. The hospitals in Oman were relinquished to government control in 1973. Only the medical facilities in Bahrain survived, largely by streamlining their operations and upgrading services so that they could charge patients. Similarly, the Al Raja School in Bahrain developed an indigenous board and found the means to capitalize itself. For these and many other reasons, the mission program of the RCA has been significantly curtailed throughout the Gulf region.


It was into a much diminished Reformed Church presence, then, that my travels took me during the summer of 2012. Yet, in each of the sites I visited, there are signs of remarkable mission efforts being carried out, albeit under straitened and uncertain circumstances. In Bahrain, the hospital has a strong and cherished footprint in the old downtown area. Dedicated Christian physicians and support staff serve a broad swath of the Bahraini community, from indigenous peoples to the vast and growing expatriate populace. Modern and high-quality equipment and facilities attest to the high standards which obtain. Yet, the RCA’s stake is virtually nonexistent. It no longer has any medical personnel under its auspices, and while it contributes a minor share to the cost of a hospital chaplain, even this meager involvement is a tenuous one.

Similarly, the gem of a school nearby—Al Raja School—has almost lost its RCA connection. With a strong academic program in English and an outstanding track record of accessing Bahraini and international universities for its graduates, it is a noble heir of the orphanage and classrooms of an earlier era. Its graduates occupy leading positions throughout Bahrain, symbolic of the way Al Raja has been a central player in the lives of thousands of Bahrainis. However, with the retirement in the fall of 2012 of its current principal, Peter Kapenga (son of Jay and Midge Kapenga, long-time RCA missionaries), and its able librarian, Kathy Kapenga, a significant thread with the past has unraveled. Happily, a new principal has been appointed, and he will become an RCA missionary.

In Kuwait, the bonds between the work of the mission church and the RCA have likewise unraveled. While still occupying the land granted by the government of Kuwait, the expatriate congregations worshiping there are staffed by Christians from the Philippines, Korea, and elsewhere. There are no RCA personnel in their ranks. The RCA-founded hospitals have been converted by a thankful Kuwaiti government into a stately museum and cultural center (known as the Al Americani Center). The Center is a marvelous tribute to the spirit and sacrifice of a century of RCA missionaries who labored on behalf of the Kuwaiti people. This remarkable recognition by a Muslim government of the services of Christian physicians and educators is all the more noteworthy because the RCA has itself so thoroughly lost track of that history and those dedicated lives. Through its programs with school children and local universities, the Center keeps alive the memory of a tradition that is fast fading.

In Oman the remnant of the medical, educational, and evangelistic ministries is a tenacious institution known as The Al Amana Centre. Housed in the last remaining building from what was once an extensive array of residential, medical, and educational facilities, the Centre is engaged in the noble effort of developing Muslim-Christian dialogue. Led by RCA minister Douglas Leonard, it has been a pioneer in introducing Western Christians to the many forms Islam takes. The Ibadi Islam that is practiced in Oman is particularly open to such dialogue, and the Centre has taken advantage of that openness to promote greater understanding across religious divides. RCArelated educational institutions have sent students to the Centre. The Centre also engages in community outreach and service programs, embodying in a real way the missionary spirit of Christian love for indigenous communities.

Each of these valiant relics of the Reformed Church in America’s century of ministry in the Arabian Gulf is both a testimony to the resilience of individual effort and a living challenge to a denomination that has been unable or unwilling in recent years to rise to the call that once enlivened so many servants of Christ. On the face of things, the legacy of that century of labor seems to be a vanishing one. But that first impression is far from the full story.


My conversations with a wide variety of folks, from expatriates to indigenous analysts, suggest that the true legacy of that century of RCA mission work is a more complicated and a much richer one. In this retelling, the history focuses on the staggeringly broad range of services rendered and the abiding gratitude of many in the Gulf area for the unselfish gift of the Reformed Church to the people of the region.

This fuller history is reflected in the comment made by one Omani administration official who expressed appreciation that the missionaries had taught his wife so that he “could be married to an educated and accomplished woman.” It is reflected in the comment by a professor in Bahrain who recognized that the missionary emphasis on education had transformed the cultural landscape of the Middle East and had brought countless women and men into the modern era. This fuller account includes the generous financial support for hospitals and schools by Bahraini, Kuwaiti, and Omani individuals and governments when RCA resources faltered. This fuller history recounts the near-mythical role played by medical missionaries, so that the very mention of Dr. Donald Bosch resonates throughout the country of Oman, as do the names of Dr. Tomas (as Dr. Wells Thoms was known) and Dr. Sharon (Wells Thoms’s father, Dr. Sharon Thoms, who died tragically in Oman a full century ago). When the hospital in Oman opened its doors in 1909, more than ten thousand patients were cared for in the first year, and these numbers never faltered, creating countless lives served and currying gratitude that is still palpable.3 This fuller history is evident in the careful preservation of an operating room (circa 1930) in the cultural museum in Kuwait, a profound tribute that lovingly recognizes the austere conditions under which Drs. Lewis Scudder, Stanley Mylrea, Mary Allison, Maurice Heusinkveld, and others worked and the heroic contributions they made to their adopted country.

In almost every interview I conducted, when asked about the traces of RCA mission work in the Gulf, my respondents referred to health care and to education. Hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis, Kuwaitis, Omanis, and Iraqis have been healed and taught by RCA missionaries. Many respondents noted that these good works preceded the economic surge that attended the development of the petroleum industry. They saw the missionaries’ graciousness as sacrificial and inspiring. The spirit of care and generosity that drove the missionaries was self-evident in their lives and fully cherished by the local communities. That spirit is still acknowledged, and it transcends other differences between East and West, between Muslim and Christian.

As Lew Scudder points out, more confounding for the missionaries was their ineffectuality in “converting” Muslims to the Christian faith.4 While occasional “successes” were recorded, the pervasive resistance to conversion led to many interpretations. Most obviously, the cultural and historical normalcy of Islam was such a wellspring of life and social cohesion that, for most Muslims, there was little incentive for them to change their faith. Even the “successes” came at a cost to the individuals and the missionary community, and “reconversion” was not uncommon. Nonetheless, missionaries struggled with this dilemma and renewed their commitment to serve and to set a Christian example. In that example, they succeeded admirably. Indeed, “Christian” and “American” became wedded to “generosity” and “good will” to such an extent that it became the bedrock on which oil concessions were made! On several occasions, observers indicated to me that the good will generated by the missionaries was directly related to local governments deciding to grant drilling and refining concessions to American companies, rather than to British, Dutch, German, or Japanese ones.

But what of the impact of the mission effort on the Arab Spring and on women of the Middle East today? Are their self-assured, independent actions seen as a heritage of RCA (and other Western) missionary exemplars? When I put these questions to my conversation partners, I received a uniform smile and patient explanation. No, they said, the Arab Spring and the rise of women’s involvement in the public sphere were not because of Western women and their example. There are accounts enough within the Arab community of women who were independent and selfassured, and there is a strong tradition of matriarchs working behind the scenes to effect desired changes. The Arab world did not have to turn westward to be inspired, nor did it have to seek outside role models of aspiration and hope. In this telling, the move for change that is sweeping inexorably across North Africa and into the Middle East is sui generis, of its own origin.

And that may be the case. But I am reminded of multiple stories with which I became reacquainted while reading my parents’ letters. When first starting out as a missionary in Iraq in the winter of 1944, my mother was overwhelmed by the differences in the lifestyle she took for granted and the one that she encountered among Iraqi women. In a letter to her parents she wrote, “they wanted to know … if my husband liked to have me visit my ‘sediqui’ or my friends. They thought it quite wonderful that I was ‘allowed to go out.'” On another occasion Mother recounts the visit of two young, unmarried Iraqi women to the mission compound in Basrah. It is clear that she has very mixed feelings about the constraints under which her friends are living, yet she is loath to be the agent of change and hopes to be a safety valve for their growing frustration:

Well, they came all in black abbas. … Mrs. V[an] E[ss] had warned all the men folks of the mission to keep away, but the [girls’] aunt sat with a watchful eye, and if a man went through the compound, she would literally order the girls inside. The girls, it was obvious, hated it. They would get just inside the door and peek around the doorway to see the man.
It sounds queer on paper, and yet, I’m afraid these girls and girls like them are going to take it just so long, and then revolt—that’s not right either, and I pray that in some way I can help them to be satisfied under such strict control, by bringing enough of the outside world so that they won’t be curious and yet adhere to their custom. It’s a problem, and I have had many a talk with Mrs. Van Ess about it.

On more than one occasion women asked my mother about the possibility of arranging for a daughter or niece to enroll in higher education in the West in order to better her life chances. It is hard to see the changes among women in the region since that period without wondering about the role Western women played.

Or consider the experience of Bakr, my father’s dear friend. Bakr was a lawyer in Amarah, Iraq, in the early 1950s who visited regularly with my father. Every Friday afternoon (after Bakr’s noon prayers) they would speak of many things. Most frequently the conversation would return to one unlikely topic: the Declaration of Independence. What did it mean, Bakr would ask, that everyone had “unalienable rights”? What did it mean that people could select their leaders? Wouldn’t they always follow the dictates of their religious group or family clan? Dad sensed that this was powerful material for his friend to digest, and the two ruminated about these topics together for several years.

In 1958, while my family was on furlough in the United States, Bakr and his Iraqi peers exercised another form of independence. They overthrew the British-imposed royal family and established a “Republic.” Sadly, for a variety of national and international reasons, that era’s Arab Spring was squandered. But the seeds of change had most decidedly been planted in those Friday conversations and countless like it with other democracy advocates. The notion that the current Arab Spring has sprung entirely from internal generation seems almost quaint when considered in light of the long term. And central players in that process were very Western notions of independence, citizenship, and the right to dissent— notions that were on display by missionary women in the harems and hospitals, and by missionary men in classrooms and conversations.

While the legacy of RCA mission work in the Arabian Gulf is not always apparent today, it continues to resonate. Although its ranks have been considerably reduced in number, it is still effecting change through the many Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Bahrainis, and Omanis who were directly or indirectly served by schools, churches, and hospitals. Most profoundly, it may be present in the very independence, selfassertion, and sense of citizenship that are driving the Arab Spring, whether that fact is fully recognized or not.

Donald A. Luidens teaches sociology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.