Underwear? Check. Deodorant? Check.
Suits, ties, and dress shoes? Check, check, check.
This was not your typical mission trip packing list. But then again, this was not your typical mission trip.
I was preparing to spend spring break not in a remote African village, but in the heart of the Big Apple. Our goal: advocate for authentic human dignity. Our destination: the Headquarters of the United Nations.
I’m not gonna lie – it felt pretty weird packing sport coats and cufflinks to go on a FOCUS mission. A mission trip, I thought, should be an opportunity to meet Christ in the poor. I should get dirty. I should sleep in a mosquito net and pop malaria pills and take bucket showers.
But instead, I found myself in the air-conditioned conference rooms of the UN, surrounded by some of the most influential men and women in the world.
This was definitely not your typical mission trip. In fact, one might argue that my team’s week in Manhattan bore such little resemblance to a typical third-world mission that it shouldn’t qualify as mission work at all.
That person, however, would be wrong. After all, we weren’t the first Catholic missionaries to traverse the halls of the United Nations.
The Most Powerful Woman in the World
On October 26th, 1985, the UN Secretary General introduced the afternoon’s speaker as “the most powerful woman in the world” — Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Mother Teresa taught me two lessons about what it means to go on mission at a place like the United Nations.
First, advocacy is a critical aspect of the Christian life. Though she dedicated her life to serving the powerless in the slums of India, Mother Teresa never hesitated to pull up a seat at the table with some of the most powerful world leaders.
Whenever she found herself in the public eye, she took every opportunity to speak out against attacks on human dignity. In that speech before the UN, for example, she boldly called abortion “the greatest destroyer of peace.
We are called to be advocates for truth in the public square – and advocate we did! We participated in Q&A sessions. We struck up conversations with UN officials. We tweeted, blogged, gave one-minute elevator speeches, and did our best to proclaim the truth on the world stage.
But as important as advocacy is, Mother Teresa taught me an even more important lesson about mission work – and this goes for mission work anywhere, first or third world.
The end goal of mission work is neither the spreading of good ideas nor the transformation of material poverty. The end goal of mission work is to facilitate an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.
What made Mother Teresa, a feisty, 4-foot, 11-inch Albanian woman, “the most powerful woman in the world”? Mother Teresa’s “power” came from the fact that her public witness was grounded in a lived experience of the dignity of the human person.
For her, it wasn’t just politics. She knew firsthand the depths of human suffering. When she looked into the eyes of the poor, she saw the face of Jesus Christ. And it was His face that she radiated to those around her, whether in the streets of Calcutta or the UN General Assembly.
Too often, we Catholics choose between “political activism” and “serving the poor.” Those who pick the former often have a deep love of truth, but can make the mistake of caring more about ideas than about persons.
On the other hand, those who opt for the latter often tend toward a reductionist form of charity, addressing material need while ignoring a far-greater spiritual poverty.
We must learn to see beyond this false dilemma. Like Mother Teresa, we must root our mission work in authentic encounter. Our political activism and hands-on mission work alike must be grounded in a lived experience of the person, which is, at its heart, an encounter with Jesus Christ.
Sometimes, all it takes to have such an encounter is a quick prayer and a little bit of courage.
During the last day of the commission, we went to the UN to distribute flyers for a prayer service. We were all exhausted, and, frankly, a bit nervous to be handing the flyers to complete strangers. But Abigail, an outgoing, fiery college senior from Texas, grabbed a stack and bravely handed them out to everyone nearby.
Finding herself with one flyer left, Abigail said a quick prayer that the Holy Spirit would show her to whom to give the last flyer.
Spotting a woman (I’ll call her “Jane”) sitting alone about twenty feet away, Abigail approached her, handed her the flyer, and invited her to the prayer service.
“I don’t really pray – I’m not really religious,” Jane told Abigail, glancing up from her laptop. “But this flyer says ‘Pray for Life.’ What does that mean?”
Abigail explained to her that our team was at the UN first and foremost to pray for a culture of life – a culture in which fertility is seen as a blessing rather than a disease, a culture in which women never feel that abortion is their only option.
Without making eye contact and without saying a word, Jane patted the seat next to her, inviting Abigail to take a seat.
Over the course of the next two hours, Jane shared with Abigail something deeply personal. She shared that she was post-abortive, and though she rarely talked about it, she was in deep need of healing. Abigail simply listened.
After her talk with Abigail, Jane came to the prayer service. She sat in the back row, read her Bible, and cried. When I saw her at the reception afterward talking to a religious sister who specializes in post-abortive healing, Abigail whispered to me, “Just pray.”
Late that night, Jane sent Abigail an email. She wrote, “I just want to reiterate how meaningful it was to meet you. Maybe God does have a plan after all.”
This was not your typical mission trip. There were no mosquito nets or bucket showers. There were no threats of rampant disease or impending natural disasters.
But there were conference rooms full of passionate, articulate men and women in business suits making pivotal decisions on behalf of nations. And we, like Mother Teresa, had the unique opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless in the public square.
More importantly, there were men and women with intrinsic dignity, each and every one of them starving for authentic human encounter. Our mission was to be Jesus to them.
And in at least one case – by the grace of God – we succeeded.
Are you called to be involved in a mission like this? Check out FOCUS Missions and some of our partner organizations for this trip: the Sisters of Life, Pure in Heart America, and the World Youth Alliance.