I Want To Help
If you are a parent, you’ve seen it over and over again… You’re working in the kitchen and your tiny child’s cherub-like face looks up at you and says,
“I want to help.”
In the idyllic households, the parent looks upon the child, acknowledges his servant’s heart, cradles his cheeks, and invites him to the table. Bathed in filtered light and surrounded by flitting hummingbirds, you make a delicious pan of brownies together. You crack the eggs into the bowl. You delicately measure the ingredients. You taste the batter, licking the giant spoon simultaneously. And let’s not forget the giggles when you, the parent, dust some flour on the tip of your little angel’s nose.
Yes. It’s always the nose.
If your house is anything like mine was, the scene above couldn’t be further from reality. When my kids were toddlers and would say “I want to help,” my brain’s KIDSPEAK translator would shout back “I want to see if we can make this basic task take seven hours longer than it should, and DESTROY our house in the process!” So, I would drape the entire kitchen in plastic tarps as if we’re going to spray paint an ’86 Buick. I would change into the same clothes I use for yard work. I would watch my child lick his hands before touching every ingredient. He stirred the concoction with the handle of the wooden spoon he just sneezed on, and then place the mix into the oven. We’d bake it at a temperature high enough to kill most of the bacteria. There are no pauses. No breaks. Impatient, my child would then convince me to cut the brownies before they have cooled, creating oddly-shaped, barely-edible lumps of congealed chocolate. He would taste one of them, and then place the half-eaten blob back onto the plate, and rush off to play, leaving me slumped over in a kitchen chair, looking like Al Pacino in Scarface, surrounded by mountains of white powder.
This analogy came to mind as I reflected on many family’s short term mission experiences. Each year roughly two million short-term American missionaries with good intentions and servant’s hearts set out with the attitude of, “I want to help.” In my experience, they pack up roughly 73% of their household belongings and fly to the middle of the Caribbean Sea to do the work of Jesus.
Only they’re not Jesus.
Besides being the Son of God and Savior of the World, Jesus was also a carpenter, which is the cat’s pajamas in terms of valuable skills to bring on a mission trip where your main job is to build a house for a family in need.
However, that might not be you.
Much like the Son of Man, many of us have some sort of experience interning for some sort of construction, house painting, landscaping type of business. However, the bulk majority of our time spent in said business becomes devoted largely to honing our skills in complaining and doing our best to “just get by”. Mission trips don’t have much use for that.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have a great deal of experience in the world of foreign mission work. I’ve spent the better part of 25 years working for an international missions organization and lived for over 8 years in Honduras and Mexico. I know a thing or two about ministry in a foreign country. Still, culture is a powerful force. The rugged individualism and “you are what you produce” mindset of our American upbringing can easily overshadow the best of intentions, transforming an opportunity to share God’s love into some warped quest to demonstrate how much “work” I can accomplish. It’s a weakness, for sure.
The good news is, God is pretty good at using our weakness for His purpose. In the case of Dwellings, our trips are well-coordinated, but like most service trips in a developing country, there are deviations from the plan. A teams objective is to construct a house in just 5 short days. Often times, unexpected weather changes, transportation issues, and material shortages cause breaks in the action. Schedules can get shifted. Plans change.
There have been times, when faced with some of these adversities, I have become a bit cynical. I mean, we brought this team here to produce a tangible result. Build a home. And, while the team is productive, it would be a lie to say that every moment was completely effective. Mistakes were made that required rework. The team labored alongside locals who were far more skilled than they were, and were gracious to fix any errors.
Needless to say, it can be messy.
Like baking with a toddler.
So why do it?
During a recent trip to Cuba, we were once again deterred by weather in our building process. I found myself, along with our team, hunkering down in a nearby shelter, doing our best to stay dry and avoid the torrential rains. The father of the family we had come to build for, Angel Luis, was also there, smiling and laughing at the circumstances. Our team of 7 stood in a dilapidated shack as the wind and rain threatened to do away with all of our recent cement work.
As defeat set in, Angel Luis, along with another local contact, Manuel, began to sing. With voices cracking, 1 or 2 of us joined in. Another team member cracked a smile and began dancing. Within a few minutes, 7 soaking gringos and 5 local Cubans are now singing at the top of our lungs, dancing like imbeciles and enjoying every moment of the experience.
As the rains subsided, we were all now laughing and egging each other on with new, even more ridiculous songs. (Ever heard Flock of Seagulls performed in Spanish with a Salsa rhythm?)
As the build week went on, there were more roadblocks, but our team and our local hosts continued to connect. We shared memories, enjoyed rudimentary conversation about hobbies and family. Angel Luis taught us how to plant rice in his nearby field.
As the week came to a close, we exchanged tear filled goodbyes and remembered those beautiful moments shared in the wooden shack. And in that moment I was reminded of the purpose of short-term mission.
It’s NOT about coming home and realizing how blessed we are. If this is all we take from mission, we relegate these trips to a form of self-indulgent tourism.
It’s NOT about seeing how joyful “those people” are. If this is all we take from mission, we blind ourselves to the reality of poverty.
It’s NOT about all of the work we produce. No more than baking with your toddler is about the quality of the brownies.
And surprisingly, it’s NOT about bringing God to a developing nation. After all, there are more Christians in many of these countries than there are in the United States.
So what’s it all about then? Well, much like shared moments with those you love, mission is about making connections. Over time. It’s about staying curious – realizing that everyone you meet knows something you don’t. It’s about seeing how God works in the lives of those who are different from you. It’s about true partnership – not paternalism. It’s about service. It’s about sharing, growing, listening, and learning. And taking this new learning and applying it by giving when it’s not convenient, standing up for the marginalized, and giving a voice to the forgotten.
And for me, it’s also about emailing back-and-forth with Angel Luis and Manuel. It’s him asking about how my family is doing. It’s checking in to make sure their homes didn’t get flooded in the latest Caribbean hurricane. And them responding by telling me they're working to help rebuild a neighbor’s roof. And both of us feeling more connected than before.
But most of all, mission is about experiencing God in unconditional kindness shared between strangers. Now brothers and sisters in Christ.
And with this foundation…
with true relationships as the starting point…
the future is filled with hope.