I’ve never felt so out of place in my entire life.
Last July I went on a mission trip to Taiwan. As it turns out, July is the worst time of the year to visit Taiwan. Temperatures reach 95 degrees on a daily basis, not to mention the dense tropical humidity.
Aside from the oppressive heat, there is the language. I like to consider myself a linguist. I’ve lived all over Europe and have even become pretty adept at speaking some foreign languages. But Chinese? Nothing. After a few days of practicing, I was still not sure how to pronounce hello or thank you. Even though I had been looking forward to visiting Taiwan for almost a year, most of my days on mission centered around feeling inadequate, disappointed that I had come so far only to offer the people there so little.
While Taiwan is not a place with profound physical poverty, there is a great sense of spiritual poverty. Very few people have ever heard who Jesus is, churches are few and far between, and a great sense of hopelessness permeates many families.
More than any of our other activities on the mission, I had been looking forward to visiting an orphanage. While it had been difficult to relate to and communicate with many of the adult Taiwanese people I had met, I convinced myself that connecting with children could not possibly be that complicated.
However, immediately upon walking through the entrance of the orphanage, I felt uncomfortable. Kids were running all over, mostly playing with each other. Looking around, I tried to make eye contact with some of the children. I felt awkward. I wondered, how do you say hello in Chinese again?
After some attempts to play with some of the children, I thought, “This is futile. I have come so far and have nothing to offer them. All I have brought them is a small toy.” I wanted to tell them about Jesus, but I could not even remember how to say hello in Chinese. Feeling defeated, I thought, “What could I possibly offer these children, who have no home and no family?”
Then, I heard Sarah, the four-year-old daughter of a missionary family, shrill with joy when she recognized a little girl who had become a friend of hers. She quickly ran over to her in the clumsy way that four-year-olds run and grabbed her in a jubilant hug. They were two friends reunited. They sat down to play and took one another’s hands.
Watching this scene, I wondered, is that it? Could being a missionary really be that simple? Following her lead, slowly, I abandoned my desire to take control. Seeing a little boy in a wheelchair who had been left alone, I walked over to him, smiled, and sat down next to him.
This moment changed everything for me on mission; for the following weeks, I grew to be at peace with my smallness and inadequacy, allowing myself to focus on becoming friends with the people I served, grateful for the opportunity to get to know them.
This is what a child taught me about mission. As an adult, I often perceive going on mission as an opportunity to serve those who are poor, to use my experience to fix underlying systemic reasons for poverty and oppression and to impress people by sharing the Gospel using my most eloquent words. However, in Taiwan, I was too hot to concentrate on anything and too verbally inept to say anything understandable, let alone profound, in Chinese.
Instead, what this child taught me is that to be a missionary is to love, to suffer with and to simply take the hands of those we are serving and be with them. Now, when I go on mission trips, I look for opportunities to relate to those I serve as friends, to invite them into my life and to become a part of theirs. I pray and rely on the Holy Spirit to do the real work of evangelization.
Through her childlike innocence, Sarah did not see the children in the orphanage as a project to be worked on or as a slew of problems to be solved, but as dear friends whom she loved. As we serve the poor, may we also see them as friends and fellow humans to be loved and cherished, recognizing that Jesus loves the poor far more than we ever could.