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Lifestyle/Technology | Christar's Nancy Stewart serves overseas missionaries from Houston

Issue: "Homegrown terror," Dec. 5, 2009

For more than a decade Christar missionary and librarian Nancy Stewart, 50, served in the library at Murree Christian School in the Himalayan Mountains of Pakistan north of Islamabad. There, on the second floor of an old British church building that had been converted to a high school, she organized and computerized the library. When she wasn't doing library tasks, she tutored students and advised on the yearbook.

Twice during her 11-year tenure the school closed: once for four months after 9/11 and once for nearly two years after an August 2002 attack on the school by four masked gunmen left six dead and three wounded. (The school took refuge in Thailand during that period.)

Stewart was eager to return to Pakistan after the attacks, not wanting the extremists to succeed in their goal of closing down the school. She would still be in Pakistan today if she hadn't needed to come back to America to care for her ailing parents.

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That created a problem and an unexpected solution.

The problem: Her mission agency reasoned that since she was returning home and could no longer work at the school in Pakistan, she must be leaving the mission. Stewart thought she could serve the mission agency from Houston-maybe making presentations at schools and churches. When that assumption turned out to be wrong, Stewart had to figure out how to show her mission agency that she could be productive while staying in Houston to be near her parents.

Thomas Friedman's book, The World Is Flat, gave her a crucial insight: She did not have to be in Pakistan to do library work there. Instead, she could become a distance librarian, doing library work for her old school-and also other schools and homeschool groups throughout the world-via computer.

As schools find out about her, they write and ask for advice and book suggestions. "They say, 'We want books on this subject for this grade level. We have this amount of money.' I can look for the books and buy them. Or they can buy them."

One group put together a list of 400 books it needed, mostly paperbacks. Stewart tracked down the books and had them shipped to her because many used book dealers tack on a surcharge to ship books out of the country. She packs and ships books from Houston, filling in the gaps in the boxes with foodstuffs like garbanzos and split peas.

"I am not a money-making proposition here. I exist to serve missionary families," Stewart says. "I only charge for the cost of books and postage." She laminates and reinforces the books with book tape without charge.

Stewart is sensitive to the needs of her schools, especially those in hostile areas. One group ordered books from various American suppliers and had them shipped to Stewart in Houston with the request that she make the package safe. Stewart repacked the books, removing catalogs with Christian imagery, and making sure that nothing explicitly Christian remained on invoices or packing material. Then she sent it on, and heard back that everything had arrived safely.

Although the cost of living is higher in Houston than in Pakistan, Stewart says she gets by on the same mission support she received before. It helps that she lives with her parents and uses their car. It also helps that gas prices have fallen.

Stewart knows other missionaries who had to leave their agencies when family duties called them back to the States, so she's grateful that she could continue with Christar, and not just for the retirement and health benefits: "Without Christar I wouldn't have a prayer network or people to be accountable to."

She appreciates how necessity created opportunity: "I'm doing more direct library work now than in Pakistan. There I was in the library every day, but not necessarily doing library work. . . . Now I'm doing directly book-related work at least 30 hours every week. I'm not just reaching one school. I have half a dozen schools. Sometimes it's a little group of homeschoolers. Sometimes a family. . . . Computers have been so wonderful. . . . As an international librarian, it's been glorious. I can email or Skype people, get information, write and ask questions. I can do it all sitting here in what used to be the guest bedroom of our house."

Stewart misses Murree and knows that media depictions of Pakistan make it hard to recruit staff to the school. Her attitude: "Don't let the media scare you. They exaggerate everything. . . . I'm not a brave person, and I did not walk around in fear there in Pakistan."

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