Wendell McDaniel of Ranburne was shocked when his son, Lee, told him he and his family were going to serve full-time in foreign missions.

In retrospect, though, Wendell said it wasn’t that shocking. Lee McDaniel, 45, and his wife, Tracy, 41, had served in missions for years.

“He had been going on mission trips every year since they were married,” Wendell said.

More than 15 years ago, Lee, a medical supply salesman and a native of Cleburne County, felt a call to work in foreign missions. Tracy, a kindergarten teacher, said she took a little longer. Tracy felt the call in 2011. She said it is hard to explain.

“I guess you could say that you feel like that is the only way to truly do what you were made to do,” she said.

Once they made the decision, life changed fast.

They explained to their daughters, 15-year-old Meghan, 12-year-old Emma and 10-year-old Lilly, about the upcoming adventure. They moved out of their home in North Carolina. They found a new home for their dog. They sold or donated a houseful of things they would no longer need and moved to Virginia to begin their training.

Kevin Thomas, pastor of Wise Chapel United Methodist Church in Heflin, said he and his wife were privileged to drive the family to the airport when they left. As they drove, the family talked about their hopes and fears for the mission. “That was a very special time for us,” Thomas said.

In January 2012, the McDaniels arrived in Mozambique, where Lee now organizes housing, transportation and paperwork for other Baptist missionaries and Tracy works with the women at a local Baptist church.

The couple works with the International Mission Board, a division of the Southern Baptist Convention. As of May 14, the board has 4,810 people serving in missions overseas, according to its website. In 2013, the missions performed 114,571 baptisms in 28,008 churches. The total overseas church membership in 2013 was 853,020.

Van Payne, spokesman for IMB, said the board has missionaries serving nearly every country in the world.


Adjusting to life in Africa

The McDaniel family has now lived in Mozambique in southeast Africa for more than two years.

They had to learn to speak Portuguese.

They had to adjust to a new culture.

Life in Mozambique is slower than in the United States, Tracy said. No one is in a hurry.

“Just living requires an amazing amount of time,” she said.

For instance, there’s no such thing as one-stop shopping. To buy fresh fruits and vegetables requires a trip to the town market, Tracy said. To buy sugar and canned goods takes another trip to what they call a grocery store. Bread comes from a bread store, meat from a butcher, eggs from an egg vendor.  

There aren’t a lot of jobs, so everyone is an entrepreneur, Lee said.

And everything is purchased with cash, so a shopping trip starts with a trip to the ATM, Lee said. Since everyone is going to the ATM, it may take 30 minutes to get to the front of the line, and the machines often run out of cash, which means standing in line at another ATM.

Wendell visited the family in Mozambique a year ago. He discovered that there is no sewer system in Nampula, where the family lives, no running water. The family has to purify their water before drinking it. The people live in mud huts with straw roofs.

But the people are friendly, Wendell said, and he doesn’t worry about the family being there as he would in some more violent countries.


A melting pot of religions

The reality of living a missionary life is lonely, “especially for the girls,” said Lee.

But it’s rewarding work that the family intends to continue.

As missionaries, the McDaniels’ goal is to teach the gospel, Lee said. But in a country where many practice Hindu, Islam or traditional African religions, those lessons can be difficult to teach. Many Mozambicans, for instance, believe that their ancestors spirits still continue to live with them after death, he said.

“If a child gets ill,” Lee said. “It’s because you’ve done something to make [the spirits] mad.”

Great care is taken to keep the spirits happy. Food is left at gravesites, and roofs are built over graves, Lee said.

It’s difficult to teach Biblical principles in a culture that has little reference to them, Tracy said.

“It takes a lot of discipling to make a new believer completely let go,” she said. “They do this dance with one foot in each camp.”

The family is supported through an annual collection named after Lottie Moon, a missionary who served in China in the 1800s. There are some 45,000 churches in the United States that donate to that collection, Lee said.

At Wise Chapel in Heflin, Thomas said the church’s local connection with the McDaniels has given new meaning to the collection. “People are giving to support someone they know,” he said.


Staff Writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545 or, in Heflin, 256-463-2872. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.