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Shining a Light in the Darkness

Two years after graduating as valedictorian of her class at Penn State, Altoona native Betsey I lite left the United States in August of 2000 to become a teacher in North Africa. For the next two years, she taught her class of second graders the subjects that American children also study.
Hite’s interest in the area and its people, who are 99 percent Muslim, grew when she considered participating in an overseas mission trip during her sophomore year in college. A campus ministry wanted to conduct a summer project in which the students would help Arab students with English classes and help a newly established American University set up a student government.
“I was real, real excited, but it wasn’t so easy convincing Mom and Dad that I should go. Dad said, ‘No way!’ at first,” Hite said.
Hite said her parents were concerned about her “going to a place with missionary intentions where missionaries aren’t allowed.”
What followed, she said, was a “hard struggle” within herself. She decided to try again.
“I didn’t want to dishonor my parents’ wishes,” said Hite. “So I went back to them and said, ‘If you say don’t go, I won’t go. If you say I’m allowed, I will.’”
They reluctantly relented. Two years later, they were no more pleased about her decision to return.
“They never liked it from the moment I brought it up, but when I would come home, and they would hear about what I was doing, they were proud of what I was doing. They were reconciled to it, if not gung-ho,” she said.
In the school where Hite taught, students have varied backgrounds. The school provides leaming opportunities for local Arab children, as well as American and European children whose parents are employed in the region. The staff and students represent 26 nations. With four years between her journeys to North Africa, first as student and then as teacher, she saw the country open somewhat.
“(The first time,) sharing the gospel was very difficult. The women on (our) team were told not to talk to men. There were few women (to talk to),” said Hite. “The guys on our team got to share their faith every day. Four years later, women were starting to move about (in public) more. But more openness is slow in coming.”
Hite said laws still favor men over women — laws permitting men to have more than one wife, laws allowing a man to divorce any wife without a settlement and without her children, and laws forbidding a woman to cross a border without her husband’s permission. Hite’s school made an effort to equalize conditions for both sexes by having the same number of boys and girls in the classroom.
She taught the students in English, and said that the local children are multilingual, since they speak a dialect of Arabic at home, learn a more classical version of Arabic in school, and speak French (the official language of their region) and English at school.
Working in a Muslim country gave Hite the opportunity to use her teaching abilities and to share her Christian faith. In a nation that is 99 percent Muslim, Hite found many opportunities to share the gospel, but she was limited in how she could do so.
“It is strictly illegal to proselytize children,” said Hite. “Our activities in the classroom had to be limited to cultural types of things. But the children were allowed to say anything to each other, so the children of missionaries can share their faith,” she said.
Hite took advantage of the multi-cultural representation in her class to teach all the children about their different faiths.
“Everyday, there was a student of the day (who would speak to the class),” she said. “Students could choose Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Ramadan, to talk about. I couldn’t teach about what the children did.”
In some ways, she found that she had more freedom to discuss her faith than she would have had in an American public school.
“We could refer to God,” said Hite. “For instance, in science class, we talked freely about how God made the things we were talking about.”
She also found opportunities to share her faith with adults.
“It is legal between consenting adults to freely discuss religion,” she said. “So when I spent time in students’ homes, with their families, we talked about religion. Because their faith is such a part of their everyday lives, it’s not taboo to talk about faith.”
In spite of the open discussion of religion, Hite said, Muslims converting to Christianity can pay a heavy price.
“If there’s a young person, not married, they’re in danger of never marrying, of being cast out, of losing their job,” said Hite. “A married woman who becomes a Christian is in danger of losing her children.”
After September 11, 2001, school officials, Hite said, were concerned about what would happen with some of the Islamic segments of the population so the school was closed the next day, “as a precaution.” But local people seemed very sympathetic about the tragedy, and local government officials participated in a memorial service for those killed in America.
“After that (9/11), we felt we were in a unique position as instructors. We had classrooms with both Arabs and Americans in them,” she said.
Later, Hite and her colleagues felt a special empathy for two American relief workers, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, kidnapped by Taliban members in Afghanistan during the aftermath of September 11.
“We prayed for them every day.”
The two have since been rescued.
Last Spring, Christians in the region received special permission from government officials to hold a prayer conference during the week before Easter. More than 400 Christians gathered to pray for the nation. Hite said local officials wanted to show that they were open, and they were pleased that the Christians wanted to ask God to bless their country. Hite said it was “the largest gathering of Christians in the country since the Middle Ages.”
“It was a prayer event. It wasn’t evangelistic. It wasn’t allowed to be,” she said.
Later that spring, record-setting rains broke a drought that had been plaguing the region. The local government invited the Christians to return.
After Easter, Hite and her roommates, two other young female Christian teachers from the school, took the opportunity to visit the countryside. They went to the desert, rode camels, and witnessed the lifestyle of the residents.
“It was like walking through the Bible. There were fruit trees that you read about. There were whole villages built of mud and straw bricks. It was such a spiritually rich time.”
Hite enjoys being back in America, but there is still much that she misses in North Africa.
“The families I spent time with-the things about the culture that are so different from here. The pace is so much slower. People spend time together. I liked being in such an international place,” Hite said.
Hite has now settled in Akron, Ohio, where she works at an art store. She is weighing the possibilities for her future.
“My dream on departing was to get a master’s degree in art and go back and be the school’s art specialist for kindergarten through 12th grade. (School officials) just purchased new land and are building a new building. That’s just one of many options,” she said. “I can’t imagine never going back.”