Like anyone preparing for service in mission, we inevitably get asked why we’ve chosen the destination where we’re planning to serve. It’s a quite natural question, and it challenges us to explain how a call is received. Sometimes it is a question that challenges us to explain why we’re heading to someplace so far away when there are so many ways to serve so much closer to home.
As is the case for
many missionary candidates, what some friends see as our “choice” is not so
much a decision that originated with us as it is a decision to accept an
invitation from the Lord. Explaining that can involve a
whole different level of unpacking, depending upon where the inquiring friend
stands in terms of his or her faith. No, the heavens did not part, and no God’s
voice did not resonate from between the clouds. God spoke to us as he so often
speaks – in a still small voice that a believer has to listen for among all the
sounds that fill the spaces in ordinary life.
In our case, God’s
invitation came through Ugandan friends, and through a network of friendships
we had cultivated through opening our home to students from Uganda Christian
University over a period of several years. Several years ago, the Law
Faculty at UCU began training and fielding teams of law students to qualify and
then to compete in one of the most renowned international moot court
competitions held every April in Washington DC, where we live. Because of our
involvement with our parish’s mission and outreach committee, we volunteered to
host a couple of the visiting Ugandan students, an offer that evolved into a
(mostly) annual event during the years UCU would qualify and send a team. Each
year we made new friends, and nurtured those friendships through email and
social media correspondence as they graduated from university, worked their way
through Uganda’s Law Development Centre, and began their careers. A couple of
years ago, a friend who had himself served as a missionary professor at UCU
called us, and in the course of a conversation asked, “Have you ever considered
serving at UCU yourselves?”
His question did not
immediately lead us to answer “yes”, but it did lead us to a long period of
discernment to test the idea whether we were motivated to serve, and whether
and how we were equipped to serve in a way that would contribute to UCU’s
mission to educate the rising generation of East Africa’s leaders. In thinking
back on this discernment process of now nearly two years, and pondering
ourselves the question “Why Uganda?” that is woven deeply into our call that
came in the form of an invitation I found myself returning again and again to
one of Scripture’s most familiar stories – the story Jesus provides in answer
to the question “Who is my neighbor?”
Consider that story. The Samaritan passing along the road has never met the man accosted by robbers, lying alongside that road. They are not neighbors in the sense of two people who greet each other from gate to gate across a little lane on which they each live. They are strangers. And yet the man who the world now calls “The Good Samaritan” responds to the man left beaten on the side of the road as his neighbor.
Among the things Jesus
is teaching through this story is that there are times when we are placed in
situations where we see even a stranger in a new light, as a neighbor deserving
of our attention and care. Times of opportunity, when if we listen we hear the
still small voice of God, a voice that transforms our unquestioning acceptance
of the familiar, and directs our perceptions of the world toward God’s
perceptions. To a world where neighbors can come from a place half a world
away, even when they’re sitting at your dinner table. To a neighborhood at once
vast and yet surprisingly small, where there is valuable work to be done, where
one is invited to participate in that work, though the work may take place half
a world away.
No doubt there are
people who sit down and make a decision to go someplace and to serve there,
whether the “someplace” may be in the homeless shelter in their city’s downtown
core, or to an orphanage in the foothills of the Himalayas. Catherine and I
respect and honor those decisions. In our case – and in the case of many who
are called to serve in mission – the decision to serve is a response to an
invitation to serve that God offered through friends in an unexpected way.
There is no one answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”, but in a broken
world, the God we acclaim invites us to see neighbors whom we may not
previously have considered, whether they may be reached via a bus ride
downtown, or by a flight across the world to the heart of Africa. There is so
much work to be done.
In our case, though we
did not recognize it at the time, we met our neighbors from Uganda at our
In many ways I have been a walking miracle these past 7 years. The previous 16 years had seen me laid low by Crohn’s disease. I had seen enough doctors, surgeons, and specialists to fill an auditorium. I had tried multiple drugs, had so many surgeries that I lost track of the number, and been on the kinds of restrictive diets that make people ask, “What CAN you eat?!”
After 16 years of struggle I had resigned myself to a life of limitation. Then my dear friend Fr. Josh Miller asked if I believed in healing prayer. My answer was that I did, but that I didn’t believe in it for me. I had been prayed for many times. But Josh can be pretty persuasive. So, along with fellow conspirator Jonny Cagwin we flew to Jacksonville, FL to visit Christian Healing Ministries. Over the course of multiple hours I was prayed for and prophesied over. And healing was proclaimed. And the next day I flew home in as much pain and agony as I had been in before.
But slowly something started to change. Erika and I began to watch as my body was restored. I was able to do things I hadn’t been able to do for more than a decade. I began to ride my bike again. We started a family. We started a ministry. And for 7 years my Crohn’s became an afterthought.
This past spring we were given the amazing gift of twin boys. While noticing the amazing ways that they were growing, I was also noticing that my body wasn’t working quite right. The things that I thought were behind me were back. The pain and isolation of my disease crept back into my life at first slowly, then at crippling speed. And I was shattered.
In the midst of all of this, we watched as God worked wonders in the lives of our Fellows. We watched a nascent idea for a diocesan-wide youth service day become a reality. We watched as our home parish welcomed and was ministered to by our friends from Thailand. Despite the physical and emotional limitations I’ve been experiencing, God has been at work sending the ripples of Agape Year deeper than we could have imagined.
One area of ministry that has been set aside while I have been laid low is support raising. If you do not currently support our ministry, is that something you would consider? Is a year end gift an option? We would love to share more with you how we are more convinced than ever of the need for deep discipleship of young people in our churches. Support can be given here.
I often don’t know how to pray in this struggle, and I admit to being more than a little confused as to what God is doing in my life and the life of our family. Like Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands when he was too tired, I have dear friends who are walking alongside and holding me up in prayer when I don’t have the words. Thanks for being tangible reminders of God’s presence in my life through your friendship, prayer, encouragement, and financial support.
Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and there are the people! Have you heard that children’s rhyme and finger game before? Or how about- Here is the ground, here is the tent, the family of God says, come and join in! The latter would be a more accurate description of a little community of God that meets in a shantytown, under a tent on a small property lovingly tended by Maty. Maty is a Peruvian woman whom God reached through the ministry of our SAMS missionaries Juan and María Marentes. As María shared the Gospel with members of a shantytown south of Lima, Peru, Maty began shadowing her and helping her tell people the Good News, even before she had clearly confessed Christ. In the Marentes’ words:
“In 2005 we met Maty when she came to be a volunteer at the weekly breakfast for the children in the “pueblo joven” (shantytown) of San Francisco, south of Lima. She was a woman without any schooling, she had suffered a lot in her life. She looked about 10 years older than her real age. She had prodigious hands to knit by hand.
Once the weekly women’s ministry was started by María Isabel, Maty never missed a gathering. She was always attentive and willing to help. Little by little she began to join the evangelistic visits to the surrounding homes. She gave her very simple testimony, but always coming from her soul: ‘Although I don’t know how to read or write, I tell you that the most wonderful thing in my life has been accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior. That has made me a new and a happy person.’”
María, with funds from supporters, found an opportunity to give a small piece of property to the Diocese of Peru for the purpose of hosting a Christian community. Years after the Marentes left Peru to do ministry elsewhere, the Bishop of Peru reported that Maty faithfully defended from “invaders” that piece of land, and now she and a youth group tend the property and draw people into this small church in the San Francisco shantytown, Peru.
We at SAMS are deeply grateful for Juan and María’s faithful service to God’s call in 33 years on the mission field. Originally from Colombia, they retire in Jacksonvile, FL this year after decades of service in Ecuador, Honduras, Peru, Belize, and California. Yet, we know that God’s servants don’t truly retire as much as they take on a different shape of ministry, encouraging us as we all press on toward the goal of knowing Christ and making him known.
“From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 6:14 NIV
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