By Janice Backer
Contributing writer, B&R
KNOXVILLE — For 6-year-old Betsy Duncan, moving to Africa seemed perfectly normal.
“My parents told me we would tell people about Jesus. It made complete sense to me that we would move,” she said. Her parents, Alan and Andrea Duncan, were appointed as International Mission Board missionaries to South Africa. The elder Duncans have since returned to Tennessee and he is a staff minister at Manley Baptist Church in Morristown.
She remembers the happy times during the 15 years they served in Port Elizabeth (officially later renamed Gqeberha and colloquially known as PE). “In working with my parents, I knew God wanted me to spend my life showing others how Jesus could make their lives different,” she said. Her parents encouraged and involved their children in every day ministry.
“I loved being a missionary kid,” Betsy said.
But kids grow up and graduate. Her next adventure: majoring in math at the University of Tennessee.“My plan was to become a teacher and live an intentional Christian life wherever God placed me,” Betsy recalled. “I assumed I would move back to Africa. I had no desire to stay in America.”
Philip Barr, a computer geek, wasn’t in her plans either. Five times Philip asked her out, and five times she said no. Then he took a more subtle approach by talking with her between classes.
“I started looking forward to math class,” Betsy said, smiling. “And after we worked together on Baptist Collegiate Ministry outreach programs, I fell hard for him.”
After graduation and marriage, Philip attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, while Betsy taught high school math and completed her master’s degree online. Philip had made a commitment to live a life on mission for God too. His dream was to serve God in China, and together they were eager to start.
Finally, in 2013, the dream came true. The young couple with two small boys began living, working, and sharing Christ in Beijing. It was exhilarating meeting the people in the community who were so curious about Americans.
“Philip engaged technology professionals, and I worked as a math teacher at an international school,” Betsy said. They hosted American holiday parties, and Betsy began a parenting Bible study. “This led to many gospel conversations,” she said.
Sadly, the elation became exhaustion for the couple.
“In America, pollution is called ‘bad’ if it reaches an air quality index of 50,” Betsy explained. “In China, our average was 150, sometimes above 300.”
She said it was like breathing thick, gritty smoke. They tried everything — noisy air filters, immediate showers, washing when coming home. Nothing brought relief.
Then Philip suffered from irritable bowel syndrome.
“His food triggers were wheat, onion, and garlic, which are found in all Chinese cuisine,” she said.
By 2018, Philip said it was impossible to stay. She remembers his words: “Betsy, we can’t do this anymore. … Our family can’t live like this and serve the Lord. Let’s go back to the States, recover, and see what God has next.”
“I was absolutely devastated and in denial,” Betsy said. “Honestly, I was angry that God did not heal Philip or allow us to stay in Beijing. I did not want to go back to America, and it was like our dream died.”
Returning to Tennessee was both confusing and comforting.
“Our extended family provided support as we physically recovered,” Betsy said. Yet she said each day was a roller coaster of emotion — joy for God’s guidance, fear about the future, anger about going through hardship, and always confusion. Philip felt their new mission was with internationals in America.
However, Betsy steadfastly refused to give up her dream. “I really struggled with trusting,” she said. Finally, she surrendered her desire for control, something she said was “absolutely terrifying.”
Months later came confirmation: Philip’s medication was not available outside of the US, and a math position opened up midyear for Betsy.
“It was abundantly clear that God was leading us to start Knoxville International Church (kictn.org) in 2019,” she said, noting more than 36,000 internationals live in Knoxville. The church is a mission of Judson Baptist Church in Nashville.
Accepting a new dream has been a process for her. “I’m still grieving,” she said. “But I can see God’s hand working through it all.”
She offered this advice when dreams are shattered:
• Allow yourself to grieve the loss of your dream.
• Cry out to God and share your emotions.
• Ask Him to give you a new dream.
• Ask Him to give you joy and peace about the new dream.
Betsy’s friends from Beijing have jokingly said, “You’re doing exactly what you did in China, but your family is healthy.”
“And it is true,” she said. “Each day I am more thankful. It is the absolute best for my family.” B&R — Backer is a freelance writer living in Jefferson City. This article is from Missions Mosaic, a publication of WMU, and reprinted with permission.