I often blog about best mission practices to help others create a mission experience that is a faithful and life giving response to the injustices we witness. However, it does not mean that as a person living and working in the mission field that I do not get caught up in the messiness of mission, too. This earthly world is one that contains unspeakable inequality, and I, too, find myself wishing for and wanting those quick answers. The following story I share from a recent experience during one of my travels.
I was visiting a small community of Kekchi women in the department of Alta Verapaz (northeast of Guatemala City). This group of women were part of a new presbytery joining the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala (IENPG), and I participated in a delegation on behalf of the Union Sinodica to welcome these women into the organization. However, I found myself becoming overwhelmed by the immediate needs of the families I saw. It was all I could do to force myself to stay focused on the task at hand.
When the activity ended, I was invited individually to meet with a few select families. This often happens, that even through I am traveling with leaders from the Union Sinodica, folks want to gather with me separately. It often is a sign that they have a special project in which they believe I can find funds to support. I braced myself to give the usual – we really should work through the official partnership channels speech – when I was met with a very different sight.
I walked into the church building to find three families sitting and waiting – adults and children. I was invited to take a seat. The pastor (and interpreter) began to explain a graver issue here; the children of these families were sick, and they did not know what to do. As they started explaining the symptoms, my heart broke. These children were suffering from effects of malnutrition for various reasons. The answer to their health problems was seemingly quite simple – they needed access to clean water, access to proper nutrition provided through a balanced diet, and the education necessary to explain the importance of using clean water and offering a balanced diet. At least this seemed like a simple answer…
However, I knew the barriers that stood in their way. Finding water can take a day’s work of walking to the nearest spring or river, gathering firewood to build a fire, and then boiling the water. It takes an entire family’s input to work. Access to a balance diet means access to available land, out of reach for these families, and the knowledge of growing techniques for types of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and animals that they have lost through various generations. If they decide to use genetically modified seeds (what is readily available here), they will need additional income for purchasing seeds and chemical fertilizer. This was not a simple answer after all.
Looking at the solemn faces, lost in fear and helplessness, I understood in that moment that the only difference between these mothers and children and myself and my son is circumstance. Unfair circumstances that exist due to unjust systems. I began to feel the tensions in the room of the expectations being formed. I knew I could not fulfill all of them, especially not immediately. The feeling of panic set in. What do I do? Then the familiar nudge returned – just reach into your pocket and offer them the few quetzales you have for right now. It may only last them a few weeks, and they probably will not use the money to pay for a medical clinic visit to test their children for intestinal worms or infection, but at least these sad, expecting eyes will be diverted for a moment. I take a deep breath and realize this nudge is more about me so that I will feel better, not about providing these individuals with lasting answers. So instead, I took one of the mother’s hands in mine, and we prayed, and we cried.
As we conclude our time of prayer, I promise to be in touch with several other organizations that might be able to help. Organizations that offer expertise in addressing the problems facing this community so they could provide appropriate, local solutions plus the necessary follow-up to maintain these projects. It is not easy to work across organizational lines in Guatemala, but I am determined to try.
As we offered our farewells, my hand did the inevitable. I reached into my pocket and pulled out those quetzales to leave with these families. It was not much money, and it was not going to change the difficulties facing the families, but at least they could afford food for the next few weeks. Immediate needs demand immediate response – ABSOLUTELY. But, I felt empowered with a plan that would also hopefully bring long-term solutions. Offering the money was no longer about me feeling better, it was about helping these families get through the next few weeks. Now it’s onto that harder work of finding those answers so the immediate needs do not return.
NOTE: I have lots of pictures to share from this trip and will upload them in another post so you can enjoy them.
Scripture passage for reflection: 1 John 3:16-18 (New Revised Standard)
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
God we come to you as a people who often seek the easy answers when we know that they will not relieve the pain and brokenness of this world. Forgives us and have patience with us. Help us to understand that we are called to accompany each other in difficult circumstances and must be willing to ask the hard questions and seek lasting answers. Many of us enjoy your abundant gifts and must work constantly to learn how to share in that abundance through just solutions that allow all to live.