“How was your trip to Africa?” “Did it change you?” “What did you get out of it?” These were common questions last summer, having just returned from a mission trip to Kenya. And since I’m the pastor who not only attempted to lead the trip but who is also responsible for our church’s Global Initiatives, they are understandable questions.
But before I reflect, I have a confession to make: this was my first mission trip. As a very “churched” individual who is now a pastor, I somehow managed to avoid them. (I think I was the only kid in my youth group who missed out on the obligatory “Mexico mission trip.”) And while I don’t think my avoidance was intentional, I do admit that over the years I’ve developed a subtle skepticism toward the traditional, short-term, over-seas mission trip. Instead of sending a team, I reasoned, why not donate the thousands of dollars you would have spent on plane tickets, food, lodging, etc. directly toward helping the impoverished people group you’re going to serve? Plus, who are we to think that we can ride into a culture-not-our-own and fix their problems? Doesn’t the very idea of a foreign mission trip smack of western arrogance? And what about the domestic mission God is calling each of us to live out in our own communities and neighborhoods every day? Poverty (both material and spiritual) is not solely a problem in developing countries but stateside as well, right? These are good questions, worth asking in any serious discussion regarding mission trips. However, as a former short-term-mission-trip skeptic, I’m now a believer.
This is not the place to write a comprehensive reflection of our entire trip. So I won’t try. Instead, I’d like to introduce you to a timid, ten-ish-year-old Kenyan boy. At a young age, this boy lost both of his parents to HIV/AIDS and therefore lives with his twin brother, older sister, and grandmother. His name is Antony, and if I’ve talked to you about our trip, I’ve probably mentioned him. My incredible wife has been sponsoring Antony through Food for the Hungry for the better part of seven years and has even visited him during two of her previous three trips to Kenya. But now it was my turn.
After a dusty drive down a rocky road and a brief walk through a dirt field, we arrived at their property. A quick glance around revealed a perimeter of trees and brush, a rocky ground, and three or four shack-like buildings – each roughly the size of a tool-shed. Our team was promptly greeted by Antony’s spunky grandmother who remembered my wife, Signe, very well. Overcome by emotion, with hands raised, she praised God, over and over again. Through a translator, she then expressed that she was worried Signe had forgotten about Antony since it had been so long since her last visit. Once Signe explained that she had gotten married, the spunky grandmother responded with words and a look of understanding. Peter, our translator, turned toward us, “She said, Oh, you’re starting a family?! I understand now.”
Peter then put his hand on Antony’s shoulder and brought him near to us. It was obvious he recognized Signe, but his quiet and subdued demeanor remained unbroken until we began to hand him our gifts – he cracked a small smile, but still no words. We had given him a frisbee, a notepad, some colored pencils, a pencil-sharpener, and a blanket. I wonder what he’s thinking, I asked myself. Is he excited? Nervous? Scared? Happy? Embarrassed? It was hard to tell, and I was almost a little frustrated that he wasn’t saying anything. My thoughts were interrupted when I suddenly realized he was gone. He was in front of us a second ago, but no more. Where did he go? I thought to myself, still wondering how he was feeling, still wishing he would say something. Suddenly, there he was again standing right in front of us. In his hand was a clear, plastic bag filled with six eggs, which he extended toward us. Then I understood. Antony didn’t need to say anything. In fact, words would have failed in this moment. This profound act of gratitude said it all. And it broke me.
It actually wasn’t until I was back at our guesthouse that this experience began to sink in – in the shower of all places. Those six eggs, which would have cost us less than two dollars at home, were probably his family’s meal for the following day. But that didn’t matter to him. All that mattered was demonstrating his gratitude by giving us this gift – a gift of tremendous value to him and his family. As I literally washed the dirt out of my hair and off of my face and arms, I realized that while I would go to bed clean, well-fed, and confident that my basic needs would be met the next day, Antony, his brother, and the hundreds of other children in the community would probably go to bed dirty, hungry, and unsure of tomorrow’s provisions. And that’s when I started crying. It was a moment of realization that I will unabashedly attribute to God. I didn’t hear an audible voice – I never have; but the ears of my heart heard it loud and clear. If I had to put it into words, it was as if God was saying, “Michael, this overwhelming sense of brokenness in your heart right now is called love. This is a gift from me and is only a tiny, tiny portion – only as much as you can handle – of the love that I feel for Antony and these children. Remember this.”
God loves the poor. He just does. And shame on me for forgetting that. Shame on me for complaining about stupid things that only a comfortable American would complain about (like there being nothing good on TV or a barista getting my drink order wrong). Shame on me for not loving the poor. And no, this is not a rhetorically savvy way of saying to whomever may be reading this, Shame on you! This is my journey and I pray I continue to be changed as I walk it.
So how was my trip to Africa? Good. Did it change me? Yes. What did I get out of it? Six eggs.