The sun has yet to rise over the tiny Caribbean island of Bonaire, but already a 500,000-watt tower of God begins to speak. At the tower’s base, watchful missionary Stan Hustad monitors the transmission for Trans World Radio (TWR), a Christian organization determined to broadcast the gospel to the world. Reporting for duty to check engine oil levels and switch on turbines at three in the morning is not glamorous or stimulating and doesn’t warrant much praise, but spiritual callings require sacrifice. The year is 1978, and it is at the station, visiting her father during his pre-dawn shifts, that Megan Hustad’s pilgrimage begins.
After viewing a Billy Graham television program that mentioned TWR, Stan quits his job and moves his wife, Karen—along with young Megan and older sister, Amy—from Minnesota to join TWR’s efforts in Bonaire. In More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments, Megan Hustad recalls those early years with an astute curiosity, but admits that reconstructing her family’s time in Bonaire required some help. “I had my parents send over boxes and boxes of letters that they had written and things that they had saved,” she recalls. “In hindsight, it is remarkable. Why would they have saved this stuff? “But it was wonderful because I was able to get a real-time account of what they were thinking.”
Despite their willingness to assist in helping, her family was not without its hesitation, particularly Karen and Amy. The idea for the book originated in 2009 when Hustad began writing to explain the Christian ideologies driving much of the political Tea Party movement. From there, it quickly became a more personal story, to the point that Hustad realized she was writing her family’s tale. “I announced to my family that I was working on it and they were…curious. My sister became very worried several months ago,” Hustad admits. “She asked my father, ‘Have you read the book? Do you know what’s in it? Aren’t you concerned?’ And my father said back, ‘I’m sure some of it is less than flattering but it’s Megan’s story and she has the right to tell it however she wishes to tell it.’ Which was very nice.”
No one who reads More Than Conquerors would expect Stan to respond any differently. Often in disagreement with TWR, Stan and Karen rarely seem content with their missionary lives in Bonaire or later in Holland. This discontent surrounds the politics of faith, and not belief itself—a complex issue Megan investigates throughout the book. “My father likes going against the grain. That’s where he’s most personal. Those contrarian moments were the things that stood out the most to me,” Hustad says. “In our culture, particularly in the secular media, if you’re a Christian you wear a tie and vote Republican and abstain from sex before marriage. In this book, I wanted to show that for a lot of serious Christians, none of that is on their radar. Their faith comes through in smaller, and in some cases you could say weirder, ways, and I think that’s very beautiful.”
For Megan and Amy, faith is simplified to right versus wrong in Bonaire, but things change when TWR moves the family to Holland in 1983. “When you’re moving across borders, you acquire different knowledge sets,” Hustad explains. “Some things that are true in one part of the world are not true in other parts of the world. As a kid, it does something to your imagination.” In her case, it spawned doubts. Things taken as absolute truths were no longer so.
In Holland, around the same time that Amy stops attending church and Karen takes the girls to visit the Red Light District, God is suddenly up for debate in Megan’s mind. By the time the family arrives back in the States in 1987, belief is all but gone. What is left is a teenage girl and her family no longer insulated by the missionary life, scrambling for identity in a secular world. For Stan and Megan, in particular, this creates persistent tensions. “There are many big arguments throughout the book,” Hustad says. “In very few instances does anyone emerge victorious in these arguments, whether they’re being had with someone else or with themselves. Yet I liked playing with the paradox of losing the argument but emerging better, stronger, more whole as a result.”
After years of trying to distance herself from her faith and missionary upbringing, Hustad embraces the best and worst of her past in More Than Conquerors. “Writing the book was a great excuse to have conversations with my parents that were long overdue,” she says. “And you’ve got to. It was freeing. The whole process was ugly and difficult, but also cathartic, and ultimately it was healing.”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, Texas.