All that mission stuff – is it worth it?
“Why do you do that?” The guy who asked me that question was a Brit. We were standing in “queue”…
“Why do you do that?”
The guy who asked me that question was a Brit. We were standing in “queue” together at the airport in Nairobi tonight. First he asked why I was in Kenya, which gave me opportunity to tell about the strategic planning session I’ve been a part of this week for Missions of Hope International. Leaders from Kenya and the U.S. gave three days of our best energy to dream about the future God might have in store for this great work. Our church has been partnering with this life-giving, life-changing ministry for years, so when he asked if this was my first time to Africa, I said, “No, no – I come often.”
This seemed to baffle the gentleman in the tweed coat. He traveled for business. His job was to keep his company’s customers happy. He flew around the world doing that. He seemed to think my traveling to Africa for mission work was on par with someone cutting the grass with scissors: possible to do, but odd.
“Do they pay you?” he queried.
“You mean with money?” I asked with a smile, proud of my quick-wittedness. I wondered if he would pick up on my meaning.
His English brows bent downward with enough disapproval I could tell he was trying to decide if I was a dolt or a jerk.
“No, it’s voluntary,” I quickly added, “but it’s an honor. And one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of.”
He was struggling to make sense of me and what I was saying. I could tell he was about to stuff this conversation – and me – into the rubbish container Brits have for certain Americans. But his question had struck close to my heart – and I felt, close to God’s heart. My tone changed from standing-in-line small talk to “this matters” conversation.
I explained how I was part of a church in the U.S. and how, back in 2005, we felt like we were supposed to do something about HIV/AIDS and global poverty. We wanted to get involved, but really wanted to be sure we were not just throwing money at a problem in order to make ourselves feel better. We wanted to make a difference. That led us to Africa on a search for partners who were getting the job done. I could tell he was intrigued. I picked up the pace.
I reminded him how Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, is 5 million strong. But 60% live in a massive sprawl of slums. The cobbled together shanties are oppressive valleys of difficulty, drugs, darkness and despair. I described what it’s like to be there. Sewage runs through the by-ways they call streets. Garbage stands in heaps. Abuse, violence, fear and hopelessness lurk around every corner, visible in the staring faces of the people who are trapped here.
In Mathare Valley 800,000 people are jammed in less than one square mile. The government turns a blind eye. There are no schools. No running water, no sewers, no electricity, no police, no fire department. For many there is no hope, either. Men abandon their families. Women sell their bodies. There are “glue boys” who start sniffing at a young age. They stare listlessly, their brains fried and future forged.
My first time to Mathare, I tip toed through the refuse, the sights and smells overwhelming my senses. Amidst the chaos, my eyes locked for a moment on a toddler meandering aimlessly through the streets. His clothes were tattered and filthy, a patch of baldness on one side of his scalp. He had an empty bottle in his hand, a makeshift toy he had retrieved from the mud like a prize. He was tottering along a muddy mound where the edge of a jagged metal roof bent down, directly in his path. He was headed straight for it, unaware. Where were his parents? I looked around. Hundreds of people in every direction, but no one who seemed to know or care about this little guy. As he ambled on his collision course with the rusty metal, I called out to him to get his attention: “Hey buddy!” He turned toward me. Beneath the dried snot on his lip he revealed a huge grin. He took a couple steps toward me and said something I didn’t understand and then was off again, busily waving his bottle – but his path sufficiently diverted so that he escaped bashing his scalp on the edge of the low hanging roof.
My brief exchange with that little boy reminded me that kids are kids, wherever you find them. And it showed me how easy it was to notice just one child and to change his direction – to prevent him from walking blindly into danger.
That moment was symbolic for me. And a turning point for my ministry. God wrecked my heart for the children of Mathare. God elevated the importance of changing the trajectory of children all over the world.
I told the Brit that story. I also told him how we found someone who was there, on the ground in the slums, loving kids and changing their futures through holistic ministry in the name of Jesus. It began with an amazing woman and her husband from Nairobi who started taking in children and then began a school, then a center that provided basic health and other care. When we connected with Missions of Hope International in 2006 there were about 200 children in one school. Today, eight years later, with the help of U.S. partners, there are about 12,000 children in 14 centers, each with a school and a host of programs, plus 14 churches, all working together.
I could tell the Brit was with me now. His face had softened, whether as a result of my passion or more likely, because what I was saying seemed to matter to him, too. I went for it and announced, “Together, God is using ordinary people to transform that valley of despair into a Mountain of Hope.”
He squinted, as if to say, “How? What do you mean?” I was on a roll. I explained how lives are being changed significantly, beginning with children, then their parents, and then entire families, which is changing the villages.
“I have seen it and felt it. I’ve witnessed the change with my own eyes. Poverty is not primarily about lack of money. It’s about loss of hope. It is combated through opportunity. It’s about dignity and purpose. And those things aren’t given through programs or money or governments. They come through love. And I believe God put some of His love in each of us, and we never feel more in the center of what we’re supposed to be doing than when we share that love. Love like that isn’t a feeling or sentiment, but a world-changing power. It’s very powerful – for those who receive it, and those who give it.”
The Brit said nothing. I am convinced that serving and difference making is the new apologetic for the church today. In a post-modern secular society which views God as irrelevant, the best argument for God is when his people come out of their buildings and serve in such a way as to meet real needs and make a difference. Like Jesus.
The Brit smiled faintly, in keeping with English modesty, but enough that I knew he respected what I was saying. And whether he figured it out or not, I had done my best to answer his initial question.
The line moved forward and he was called to the counter. Quickly gathering his things, he turned to me and chirped, “Cheers, mate. And keep it up. That’s a good thing you’re doing.”