The next place I really remember being shaped in what missions is to me happened shortly after getting into volunteering at our church to work with Jr & Sr High youth. One of the guys that helped us with the youth group was an OB/GYN (aka “The Good Doctor”), & had a history of being a part of of a mission to Baja. So, we ended up backing into an opportunity that sounded really good – & was an opportunity to get our feet wet in cross-cultural missions.
The mission was to a little town on the coast of Baja, below Ensenada about 90 minutes, called San Quintin. The place was actually a combo of a church, hospital, & home base for the pastor & doctors at the hospital. The Good Doctor volunteered his time & skills for a week a year to help the hospital out with mass numbers of cases in a short period of time – cases beyond the experience of the local docs, & also non-emergency cases that just didn’t have time to get done otherwise. This environment allowed any students/others on the trip that wanted to check out working in a hospital to do so, often in a very hands on way (baby delivery, stitches, etc. Yes.)
The rest of us did work projects around the home base every morning – for the local church, helping out with clean up of the grounds, & some very amateur (yet very skillfully designed by the locals) building projects. In the afternoons, the majority of us would go to a nearby “migrant workers” camp – a fenced in collection of housing units, made up of row after row of shacks, made of corrugated metal, each sharing a common roof & dirt floor. The only plumbing available was a pump handled water spout in the middle of the camp, & the primitive latrines were often a trench at the edge of the camp.
Most of the people staying in the camps came from Oaxaca & Chiapas, the southern tip of Mexico, in the Yucatan peninsula. Most, if not all, came from an indigenous-Indian heritage, meaning indigenous dialect/language, very few spoke some rudimentary Spanish, & none spoke English. They lived a poverty that was poorer than poor… poor to a level that I’d never seen. I can remember as clear as yesterday thinking about what Jesus said, “The poor we’ll have with us always…” & crying out inside “dear God, the injustice…”.
It wasn’t uncommon for both parents to be working in the fields, chasing the harvest of whatever happened to be ripe at the moment – (hence the name “Migrant” ) - leaving the camps full of kids taking care of kids – 3 year olds taking care of babies, & the occasional nursing mom caring for the rest.
We did a VBS (vacation Bible school,) meaning we attempted to contextualize the gospel using hand motions, & acts of kindness; knowing all the while that we weren’t understood – but that the clothes & shoes we provided went to good use. Made me wonder if Jesus comes through in situations like this… the images are burned into my memory… the poverty & our helplessness… what could we do? Provide free labor, meet felt needs, & try to help in a seemingly hopeless situation?
One of the clearest pictures of the love of Jesus I’ve ever seen happened in a migrant camp. A teenager, a beautiful young lady from our church, (AP) came upon a little one that couldn’t have been older than my niece (13 months) – the baby was wearing a diaper that she had to have been wearing for several days due to the state of the diaper, the duct tape that had been used to secure it to the baby, & the very obvious overflow of dried excrement & urine all over the baby & her clothes.
AP gathered 3 or 4 other girls to help her, & they spent the better part of an hour soothing the baby’s tears, then cleaning the baby up, putting on a new diaper, fresh clothes, socks & shoes. Finding a sibling of the baby to give more diapers to, more clothes. Wipes. I watched & wept. They didn’t care about the mess, getting dirty. They jumped into a hopeless situation & didn’t ask, “where are the NEXT diapers going to come from?” They just did what they could - & loved that baby. I believe that we will have a reunion in heaven with that baby, & that AP & the others will see her again, & they will know each other, & rejoice.
Over the next years, we took several trips to San Quintin, & saw great relationships built within our team. Each time, we came away with a sense of gratitude for what we have at home; having been confronted with an incomprehensible poverty & how others live; questioning what we call necessities for our Christianity to be lived out, personally & corporately.
I always found myself comparing the message of the gospel as preached in my American context, to what is preached where we were – would the gospel message of the USA be understood or even relevant? It seemed to me that outside of our local, 1st world context, a lot of it just slipped through the cracks… If that was the case, that was not ok… wasn’t the gospel something that is applicable & real to everyone on the planet – regardless of background, education, culture, country of origin etc? & shouldn’t the stuff that was ‘important’ cross-cultural barriers?
Interesting to look back on my own thinking – missions clearly in that context had a felt-needs application. Often it seemed that there was no real connecting with those that we were ministering to/with… part of it was due to the language barrier, but to me it seems that it may have been more of a ‘great white hope brings their stuff, $, & resources” relationship… an unequal relationship based on superior/inferior economic status; a dependent relationship.
Made me think & wonder: How do the locals think about us after we’re gone? What sort of things do we ‘help’ them to learn in order to get our $/resources, to have a team come & visit? How often have we downloaded our ministry methods, (aka “the right way”) that people do things in the States that they should be doing too – stuff that is 100% method based, not about message?
I am eternally indebted to the “Johnson” family for a quantum leap in my formative missions thinking process. They were an American missionary family that had relocated to the Baja. From my observation, it seemed that they’d found a good life – one where they could minister to the locals by serving as a liaison for teams (& $) from the US to the local churches & pastors;to get missions support from the US, from those that couldn’t/didn’t come to save the locals. All the while living a very comfortable life in the Baja – satellite dish, fishing & skiing boat, & nice cars. At the same time, hosting the occasional American team (at a cost of $50/head,) so that the team could do some VBS work… & also be a part of the beautification, landscaping, & clean-up of their property, affectionately dubbed the “Johnson Family Compound.”
BTW: Lest you think I’m treating this too harshly – a couple of our days of VBS work in the migrant camps were cancelled because our guide, Mr. Johnson, decided to take the boat out for some fishing instead. And to watch game 7 of the NBA Finals. Truly. And in place of going to VBS, we got to listen to Mrs. Johnson talk to us for 3 hours about “putting on Christ.”
I know that I saw through this - & that the students on the trip did too. Made me feel sick – people working a system of inequity, for personal gain (didn’t Paul write something about that.?)
I determined that I wasn’t going to be a part of something like this in the future - & therefore, needed a clearer guiding philosophy to be able to know what to say Yes & No too.
Here’s some things that came up:
• Every trip needs a ‘scouting trip’ – where the details of the time in-country would be checked, double-checked & worked out, leaving as little to interpretation as possible.
• Coming as equals, not as financial saviours
• Has to be giving & receiving – from both sides.
• Based on relationship – not a one hit wonder (going 1 place, 1 time, then looking for another place to go “next time’)
• And what else???
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