Like Jonah from the Bible, Natalie Howard had charted her own course and meant to keep it that way. She had a secure, well-paying job at an advertising agency near family and friends. It was comfortable and certain.
But something was up.
“I never thought that I would be a missionary … even if only for a short time. I had worked hard for four years to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration marketing at Concordia University Wisconsin—how could I possibly use that to proclaim the Gospel and serve the Church?”
Howard, however, had a hunch God had been pointing her in that direction for quite some time.
“I was stubborn and tried hard to shrug off God’s call for missionary service, but it was always on my mind,” she said.
The turning point
She didn’t totally stonewall the idea. While at Concordia, Howard enrolled in a missions course to learn more about the theology behind missions, a class taught by former missionary Rev. Dr. Thomas Feiertag. “I tried to get as educated as I could.”
She also took a short-term mission trip to Guatemala to construct houses for local church members where she met her best friend, Rachel. They ended up going on two more mission trips to Guatemala.
The event that pushed her over the edge was the Beautiful Feet Conference in Portland, Ore. It was there that she was approached by an LCMS mission recruiter who shared with her open missionary positions in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), including one for a business administrator.
Eventually she expressed her willingness to be considered for missionary service.
The mission field
“I received a solemn appointment from the Board of International Mission back in April 2017 and deliberated and prayed on it until a week before orientation began at the LCMS International Center in St. Louis in July. I wrestled with leaving a job that was secure, paid well and that I enjoyed for a more uncomfortable and uncertain position as a missionary.”
It helped that the people who she thought would be angry or disappointed rallied around her in a show of support. In fact, some who had never professed their Christian faith did so and she was blessed by their openness and encouragement.
Ultimately, Howard served as an LCMS missionary regional business administrator (there’s that degree application!) over the course of two years based in Santiago, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic.
“I worked to support the region of Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) where missionaries and partner churches support 43 church plants in 14 different countries. Much of my work was accounting based.”
The numerous joys
Howard lived in Cerro Alto, Santiago, Dominican Republic, an upper middle-class neighborhood with nice-looking homes surrounded by iron gates. Howard lived with two other female GEO (Globally Engaged in Outreach) missionaries. She would walk to work every day to the regional office in the hot sunshine.
“Once on top of a small hill I had to walk up,” Howard said, “I would stop and gaze at the mountains that surrounded the valley that Santiago is in.”
Outside of her office a chinola (passion fruit) vine grew on the power lines. Howard would collect the fruit that dropped to make smoothies. In general, she found Dominicans to be very personable and friendly.
The many struggles
Culture shock would appear in very strange ways and crept into her life about every two months. Home security system alarms constantly rang out. Power lines were always hanging down or knotted up. Men cruised up and down the streets on loud motor bikes with baskets delivering large bottles of water and other things. Sometimes herds of cattle were shepherded in nearby side streets. Stray dogs swarmed every street corner.
Sleeping was very difficult for Howard for months between the heat, mosquitoes, noisy music and yelling from the neighbors in their apartment building. Some days were hard and getting out of bed was a challenge. Basic tasks could be exhausting. Church services in a second language could be frustrating. Responding to text messages from new friends would feel like work.
“It was very frustrating not being able to say very basic things to express myself,” Howard said.
While technology was a great blessing, electricity and water were not always guaranteed in her apartment. Her phone also had very limited data so communicating was almost always a challenge, including with her now-fiancé for the duration of her service overseas. She struggled being so far away from her family—especially during holidays.
The community of missionaries in the Dominican Republic proved vital for her well-being.
The global Church
“We all lived very close to one another and got together frequently for meetings, Bible studies, dinners and other activities. This was a great blessing to me as a single missionary to have a built-in second family.”
While her time as a missionary proved challenging, the rewards abounded.
“Standing inside of what was left of someone’s home; the foundation, the walls and tarps to cover parts of the house and hearing about the hope that they have in Christ … we would weep together, pray together and sometimes sing hymns as we stood in the wreckage of what was once their home.”
It was an opportunity that allowed her to travel and see different cultures, but also to see how the Church worships Jesus all the same.
In the end, Howard knows her decision to embrace what God had for her was a good one. “I am forever changed because of my experience serving as a missionary to the Dominican Republic.”