“Why are you here?”
This is a question I love to ask first-time missionaries as they arrive from the USA. The most common answer is, “I just feel I need to do something.” Many will cite the needs of the location that have travelled to. That they feel they have so much and want to give something to the less-fortunate. Many cite the Bible and how it says to reach out to the poor and the least of His children.
My first short term mission trip was in 2010. When I boarded the plane headed to Guatemala, I was determined to help as many people as I could. I had a plan of what I was going to do. I had the attitude that the Guatemalan people needed what I had to offer. I was determined to save Guatemala.
Two hours after our team arrived in San Lucas Toliman, I was a changed man. The first Guatemalans I met were homeless victims of recent mudslides being sheltered in an over-crowded gymnasium. We gave each family a small bag of food, one blanket and a hug.
Then the refugees, who had nothing and certainly looked like the poorest of the poor, thanked us and prayed. They thanked God for sending us. Then they prayed passionately for our safety and well-being and that our lives would be blessed forever. They prayed for our church and our families. They raised their voices to God and begged for blessings to be poured out over us all.
And that was the moment I realized just how poor I was; and how much I needed what they had.
My prayer for each visiting missionary is that they experience the same revelation. They will see cluttered homes with makeshift wood-burning stoves, dirt floors and leaky tin roofs. They will see diminutive men, and sometimes women and children, carrying heavy loads of firewood on their backs for miles to keep the stoves going.
They will notice toes sticking through shoes and bare feet walking along dirt or rocky roads. They will drive past children in the streets filling potholes with dirt and begging passersby to give them some money in return for their work.
They will see families sleeping on floors or boards in woefully under-sized homes, and sharing one outdoor bathroom that doesn’t flush. They will hear stories of disabled or elderly persons fending for themselves, trying to find food and water every day.
After all of that and more, one thing will stand out: the smiles.
Everyone is smiling. Such is their life, and they are dealing with it. It is a life harder than we could ever imagine, but they still smile. They cheerfully say “hello” and “Good Day” as we pass by. It is impossible not to realize, that despite all they deal with, they feel blessed. They are blessed.
There are quite a few churches in San Lucas Toliman. Every night, the sounds of worship and singing resonate through the town. The people praise God for everything they have and trust that He is watching over them. They are a great example to us all.
At the end of the mission trip, the group leader asks each visiting missionary for thoughts about the experience. Many hesitate to share because they can’t express what they feel without crying. Tears are the proof for me that we have had a successful week.
The missionaries will start talking about the family whose house they built. They will tell the story of a young mother they met in the medical clinic. Someone from children’s ministries will start describing a child they held. “It was just so……” and then comes the vain search for words as the tears well up.
And it always reminds me of who “the poor” really are.
There is some debate over the value of short-term mission teams. There are those who feel short-termers should stay home and send the money it costs to participate directly to the missions. Unemployed local men can build the houses. Shopkeepers can sell some of the clothing. Donated medicines can help existing clinics that see patients every day. Some feel that local, full-time missionaries can make better use of the funds and supplies.
That may be true. The work of short term mission teams often does more for the missionaries than the local villagers. But I am totally okay with that. If more lives change back home than in the destination country, is that a bad thing?
After a mission experience, ignoring a homeless man on the street becomes harder. Waiting for someone else to step up and help victims of disaster becomes impossible. Donating to special collections and participating in charity projects becomes easier. Things we took for granted last month are suddenly appreciated. We become quick to thank God for everything we have.
Some folks will change even more dramatically. The vast majority of short-termers will not give away all their stuff and move to the mission field. (That’s just crazy. ;-) But a few will switch career paths to something more suitable for ministry or mission work. A larger number will become regular contributors and visitors to mission fields.
For sure, almost all the missionaries will somehow feel different, and closer to Jesus, even if only for a while. The experience will make them an even better person than the one they thought they were when they chose to sacrifice a vacation week. The mission week will renew their faith, grow their faith and give them a faith reserve to draw on when difficulties pop into their own lives.
That is why I encourage churches to keep sponsoring mission teams and for all of you to take a week out of your life to work missions someday. Unimaginable blessings are waiting for you there.
“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace” -1 Peter 4:10