I've had some time to think back on the month and I want to share some thoughts. These thoughts go beyond the food and lodging and itinerary. They are reflections on God after serving this summer. For every mission team that goes out, whether to do local mission around the church or mission on the other side of the world, I ponder what God is doing through the mission. I am more interested in what God is up to on the team, in the ministry, and in our church than the details of work done. The work matters. It matters to the the people served and the team serving. Through it God is up to something. That's what I think about for months and years after trips.
In light of recent critiques of mission work by Donald Trump and Ann Coulter - both reacted to the American missionaries who contracted ebola in Africa - this is a timely look at what such missions teach. Implicit (Trump) or explicit (Coulter) in critics' views is the opinion that Americans shouldn't go on such trips. However, they are not my teachers for Christian mission. God is. Christians are on God's mission and God calls us to take that mission to "Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), which is a way of saying our mission is in our home communities, in the region around where we live and throughout the planet. We take that seriously.
The church I serve has robust ministries in our home community and the following are six reflections - big thoughts - of what I saw God doing and saying in our mission beyond our local community.
#1 - The Poor Are Always with Us.
Jesus said that. He was making a point to those around him to enjoy his presence, work and life among them while he was bodily on earth. But he did remind them and us that the poor in this life are always with us.
This summer I have been to rural villages in a part of Honduras that even Hondurans talk about the way we might talk about the harshest of inner city living. "Olancho is rough." I have been to the streets of San Francisco and lived for a week among the homeless in the Tenderloin district of the city. I have been to poor, rural villages of Zona Maya, a region of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. This is in addition to previous travel all over the world, the United States, and the Tampa Bay Area. Villages and cities may try to mask the poor and homeless and needy, sequester them, hide them, or push them away, but still poverty and desperate needs are pervasive. There is need in our own town. I serve on the Social Services Committee of the city of Dunedin. Mayor Dave Eggers and the city Commission established tho committee for a reason.
Over and over, I have thought about why this is so. That part of me that seeks the well-being of all people and reacts so violently to injustice done to and oppression experienced by one person or group against another wants resolution to the problem of suffering. I want people to be fed, clothed, sheltered, safe, healthy, and loved. Yet everywhere people are hungry, poorly clothed, homeless or nearly so, unsafe, and unloved. Are one's circumstances to blame? So if you are born poor are you destined to poverty? Or if you happened to be born with basic needs met up to affluence, you just count yourself lucky and live your comfortable life you were born into?
In this life, as we await a future God has revealed will one day arrive, we live with all kinds of realities that are not pleasing to God and hard on people. Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me" (Mark 14:7 NIV). We are also told this about the poor of the Israelites during Moses' day, "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land" (Deuteronomy 15:11). So we have the poor and needy with us and we are to help them. When the awaited future arrives, all will be made well and right. Until then...
#2 - Help is Needed.
I once heard a board member of a successful homeless ministry say his goal was to end homelessness in his area. That is too hard a goal around which to wrap my mind. Ending world hunger or world poverty or even Dunedin poverty is more than I want to say. Part of me is embarrassed to admit that. Part of me knows good and well that it is within the human capability right now to end world hunger. I know that if relief of suffering people made it to the same priority level as launching a new piece of technology or funding our global entertainment activities, we would find a different world than the one in which we now live.
Perhaps my goal is too modest, not faithful enough, and not representative of a man who proclaims and lives faith in an omnipotent, omniscient God. Perhaps my hope is not ambitious enough, but if embraced my hope will result in a better life for those in need. My goal is that everyone do more.
As a pastor of a large church, I am challenging the entire church to have a more activist attitude toward ministry to those Jesus loved - the poor and needy and those on the edges of society. I realize some have physical limitations that prevent high level of activism, but in addition to financial giving and speaking to God in prayer about the needs, I challenge people to put their bodies in the middle of the need. Like in rural villages in Honduras or Zona Maya. Like on the streets of San Francisco. Like at the Homeless Emergency Project (HEP) in Clearwater or Bridging a Freedom ministry addressing one part of the horror of human trafficking. Like the strip club outreach in which some women of our church are active. Or maybe it is the new community care agency in the works that will be located in Dunedin and likely to begin in the next year. We are not lacking for places to plug into mission to those with great needs.
No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. When it comes to the needy some say or think, "Too bad. They're messed up. It's their fault. Let them live with their decisions." I've heard that attitude and those words. Jesus did not have that attitude. Jesus once said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Matthew 9:12). He came for those who were spiritually and physically sick and in need. My challenge is to acknowledge the need, the call to help those in need, and then to step out and help. The poor and needy are around and within and well beyond our church. They are everywhere. That fact alone demands a response of action by anyone who claims faith.
In language we are adopting around our church, join in the fight to push back the darkness in which people live around us and throughout the world. Do something! For Gods sake. For humanity's sake. Do something.
#3 - The Streets Are Bad.
Living in San Francisco for a week in the Tenderloin district was the first time in my life that I slept and lived among the homeless. We were in a building under lock and key, but one step outside the front door and we met person after person who lived on the streets. We walked up to them to talk with them. We walked around and by them to get to other locations in the city. While a certain community among the homeless was present, albeit very different than community as we know it, you can't see what we have seen, hear what we have heard, smell what we have smelled and conclude anything less than living on the streets is bad.
We saw how rough it was. A group of us asked if we could pray for a man. Of all of the things I imagined we would pray for, I was not expecting him to asked for prayers for his personal, physical safety. We walked to Walgreens one night to get some decongestant for a few on the team (a luxury I was aware many we passed on the street could not and did not enjoy) and on the way on the opposite side of the street a homeless man was yelling, "Where is my money?!" He was yelling at a man sitting next to him that he had in a headlock. He was punching him in the head. The man being beaten was pathetically crying out "I'll have it on Thursday." The streets reeked of urine and vomit in places. People made make shift pallets for beds with bags or baskets of their life's possessions next to them. They seemed mostly to sleep by day, often sleeping off a hard night of drinking or drugs.
Few choose the streets. Many end up there. Most we talked with longed for friendly faces. They long to have others see them as humans who matter to others. The repressed sense of shame was palpable. One homeless woman, who seemed to be a mothering moral compass to others, yelled at others for behaving poorly. "Pull your pants up," she yelled at one intoxicated man whose pants were exposing way too much, "there are young people around." The man did. Some talked of wanting something more than they were living. Most seemed resigned to it. If they were clear-headed, reflective and honest, all would say it was bad living on the streets.
#4 - Mentally Ill People Need Love.
Mentally ill people need a lot of help. They need therapeutic help. They need pharmacological help. They often need physical medical help. But they also need to know of Gods love and experience human love.
In San Francisco, we passed a man several times who moved like a bird, mumbled as he spoke, stared at you through wide and creepy eyes. Clearly, he was troubled and it was more than intoxication. He was mentally ill. There were others like him. They need help, but they need more.
I know I'm over my pay grade to start taking on the problems and needs of the mentally ill. But somewhere behind those vacant stares and that incoherent babbling, beyond the tainted humanity, is the image of God - the Imago Dei - as theologians call it. Even though we live in a world after the Fall of Adam (see Genesis 3), and even though something of that image of God was lost after the Fall for all humanity, still a fragment remains in all people. For that reason alone, love in the form of seeking good for the person is called for by others. This needs to be done in safe and controlled settings with some people, but it needs to be done. They deserve love.
I realize the line I am edging up to here. The mentally ill are sometimes criminally mentally ill. Victims of those mentally ill may hear this as pardoning their behavior or removing the consequences of they actions. Nothing of the sort is suggested. Criminals need to be handled in ways that prevent further harm to others at a minimum. School shooters, spouse abusers, child molesters, need to have the full extent of the laws pressed upon them if that is what it takes to get them away from further harm to others.
My question is who will tell them - yes, even them - of a God who came to this earth in order to bear upon himself the guilt of the horrible sins they committed? Can we find relief or even joy at seeing such a person respond with deep sorrow and genuine repentance? Or do we find relief and joy in hoping the person "rots in hell?"
For many, this is an emotionally-charged question. Were Christ counseling us how to think and behave, his example and teaching has been clear - love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable. Mentally ill people are often those people. Unlovable and unforgivable.
#5 - Poverty Is Hard on People
Much has and should be said about how the simple life of the world's poor has much to teach the rest of the world about unhealthy attachment to material possessions, relationship-crippling overpacked schedules, how keeping up with and comparing ourselves to others who always seem to have a better life robs us of joy, and how the life of faith in God is indeed a rich life. My overall experience of the poor is they are happier, more communal, more content in life and more faith-filled. But that does not mean that poverty is easy on people.
Poor people are more unhealthy physically. In remote Honduras, going to the doctor or even clinics is not always possible. As a result, people live with pain far more than we do. On one trip years ago, we travelled with a dentist who was there for the first time. He was running a week-long dental clinic. After the first night in the village, he wept openly in group time. He was overwhelmed by the need. "All I can do is try to manage pain." Poor people there live with intestinal issues including worms. They live with chronic asthma and other pulmonary issues often stemming from wood burning stoves with no chimneys. Women have female problems that often go untreated. One elderly woman was eager to see a medical doctor on our team. It turned out her uterus had descended outside her body. Obesity and issues like heart troubles or diabetes related to obesity is surprisingly high. You would think poor wouldn't have much to eat and the opposite would be the problem. But when you are poor and live on rice or beans or tortillas and maybe chicken or beef along with it, that is a high starch, high carbohydrate, often high calorie diet. All of these health problems diminish quality of life and increase mortality rates.
This is where mission teams can help the locals help their communities improve. When a team goes in after working with local leaders to help an entire village improve its water quality, sanitary conditions, medical needs, and basic needs like shelter, the overall health of the village improves. We have noticed that over the years. The health of an entire village rises. Healthier people are more capable of improving their lives. When mission teams join alongside of pastors and church leaders to call people to a life of faith in Jesus Christ we offer gain for the whole person - physical, emotional, and spiritual.
#6 - God Is at Work.
I was so encouraged to see mission teams everywhere I travelled this summer. I was happy to be on the mission teams. When we were in the airport in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, team after team flowed in and out of the airport. On the streets of San Francisco mission teams and mission agencies were everywhere seeking to provide relief to those in need. In Mexico, we stayed at a place that was hosting mission teams and had its own teaching mission to the Maya people.
A common theme throughout these and other trips was the present, evident movement of the Holy Spirit in this world, in the missions, with the teams, and especially with those served.
In the village of El Mico in Honduras, a group of us went through the village praying for those in need. Our first stop was an elderly woman who had no feeling in her legs and couldn't walk. She was dejected. Youth and adults prayed over her simultaneously and fervently in Spanish and English. It was a powerful experience. The presence of God was felt by all. The best part was afterward. The woman had relaxed, felt uplifted and encouraged, and the team was energized.
On the streets of San Francisco with a cup of hot chocolate in hand, a woman for whom life was a series of hardships felt encouragement from God through the young faces of the students like MacKenzie, Justin, Lyric, and Charlene praying for her.
In the village of Naranjal in Zona Maya, a young girl came forward and had a group of us pray for her infant daughter similar to how the Honduras group prayed for the elderly woman. In Naranjal, the prayer was for heart and lung issues. The presence of the Holy Spirit was felt by all.
There is a recent movie I have yet to see titled "God's not Dead." Those who travelled as well as the home team who supported them are witnesses to the truth that title speaks. God is alive and on the move. God is transforming villages in remote locations into spiritual communities of love and support. God is encouraging and helping desperate people in inner cities. God is doing that in this world and in individual lives. Like mine. Like yours.