The history of Christian missions is usually told from the perspective of the pioneers, the daring explorers, the "number ones." These were the eloquent preachers and evangelists, doctors and social workers, powerful organizers and leaders, and scholars who pioneered the study of foreign cultures and languages. Most of them were intelligent, dedicated men who sacrificed their lives for what they believed was a direct call from God. They were featured in reports and were writers themselves, fascinating people at home with their accounts and appeals. They were both celebrated and respected. (1)
My intention here is not to diminish the role of the number ones--in most cases their fame is deserved. But I do want to call attention to the number twos and threes, those who walked in the footsteps of the pioneers, carrying their burdens, taking care of the daily duties, yet allowing others to be the protagonists; they themselves worked in the wings or were just walk-ons in the shadows. What about the Buzz Aldrins of Christian missions?
My perspective is inspired by a remarkable Norwegian novel by Johan Harstad, Buzz Aldrin: Hvor ble det av deg i alt mylderet ? (Buzz Aldrin: What Happened to You in All the Confusion?) (2) Buzz Aldrin was the second man on the moon, a symbol of the many number twos in the world who tend to be forgotten because number one gets all the attention. Neil Armstrong, the number one, is remembered and celebrated for taking the first steps on the moon and saying the now-famous words, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." But Buzz Aldrin was there too, taking photos, collecting rock samples, and awed by the magnificent desolation of the moonscape. Michael Collins was also there. He was in charge of the spaceship and saw the dark side of the moon, waiting for the two to return. The venture could never have happened without the entire team.
Harstad develops his theme in a beautiful and touching story of a young man who essentially wants to be a number two, satisfied with his anonymity in the world, but who is nevertheless desperately afraid of being useless. "The point is not that I don't want to leave traces after me," he says, "but somehow they don't have to be so visible for the entire world. I don't need my handprint in the cement. I don't have to be interviewed for what I do.... Someone has to choose to be number two ... that's what makes the world go around" (pp. 424-25).
I honor the memory of the number twos in Christian missions in China by reviewing the experience of my father, Notto Normann Thelle (1901-90), a missionary Buzz Aldrin in the Scandinavian exploration of Buddhism. In 1922 he arrived in China with another Norwegian, Karl Ludvig Reichelt, to begin a new work among Buddhist monks. Let us call him N. N. Thelle or, as a reminder of this perspective, just N.N. (as in nomen nescitur, name unknown).
Reichelt was a missionary Neil Armstrong who deserves fame for his pioneer work, though he was not the first to step into the unknown territory of Buddhism in China. (3) He had studied Buddhism for almost twenty years when he began his Christian Mission to Buddhists in 1922. This new initiative was a unique and daring exploration, and Reichelt was the undisputable strategist and explorer. (4) But N.N. was there from the beginning too. He worked faithfully with Reichelt during his lifetime and continued to serve the mission for almost forty years after Reichelt's death in 1952. They were sometimes mentioned together as pioneers, but Reichelt predominates in the great story of the mission.
I became aware of N.N.'s prominent role in the mission when an American researcher in Hong Kong approached me to learn more about the details of my father's life. (5) This researcher had studied the records and diaries of the mission in Hong Kong and discovered that N.N. always seemed to be present. While Reichelt was often absent, attending meetings and conferences, making pilgrimages, and visiting Buddhist monasteries, N. …