This summer I was blessed with an unexpected and awesome trip to Peru. Even more excellent, I was hosted throughout the trip by several Peruvian friends. As a result, not only did I develop some cool relationships, but the view of the country I had was both more in depth and more realistic than I could have had as some backpacking foreign tourist.
I was welcomed into more than one household during my trip by the relatives of those I traveled with. Two different times, people gave up there beds for me, a stranger in their country. Everywhere I went I was treated to amazing food, met incredibly warm and hospitable people, experienced Machu Picchu (which is certainly one of the most scenic and impressive historical sites I have ever witnessed), and felt constantly intrigued with my surroundings and blessed by those I was with.
My fortune was great especially in that my Peruvian friends gave me perspective and stories of what their nation has gone through, and this was not something I took lightly. I’ll probably reflect on these conversations for the rest of my life.
As I have traveled in a number of developing countries in the past and spent time in college studying factors of development, I am always trying to discern what the best way is of connecting, engaging in outreach and making an impact on development for the better. The few groups embracing practices of downward mobility as a preferred lifestyle for outreach and ministry continually impress me. I didn’t see any ministry going on in Peru of that particular nature, although there must be people engaging in this manner there (I later found there is). However, I did have a thought provoking conversation with two Peruvian friends with regard to religious outreach.
In the midst of talking about Christian outreach and church development in Peru, I asked if it was possible for foreign Christians to come in and make an impact. One of my Peruvian friends remarked, “James, there are many poor people who would join any church or say anything if it meant their lives could simply be better.” This kind of desperation is something foreign to my experience. I may have met people struggling in such a way, but I have never experienced this kind of need. It caused me to reflect on how my own circumstances and need influence my ability to connect with others in need. Indeed, there is such a gap between experiences, my own as the offspring of an upper middleclass suburban white American family, and that of others, working simply to eat and survive, and sometimes not succeeding. Forget a language barrier: how could I ever say something to people from such poverty stricken backgrounds that could be taken seriously? And moreover, how could I know if anything I might say was actually received and not just humored in order to get something from me, my friends or whatever wealth I am associated with in America?
But maybe I could live something: transcend words and really be with those struggling. Make my home as their neighbor, in their corrugated metal ramshackle neighborhoods, with the hunger, the grief, the pain, the death and the reality. Not just showing up on an outreach from some far off land for a couple of weeks, handing out clothing and taking videos of the poverty with my digital cameras and iPhone, all the while furthering the chasm between the haves and the have nots, but identifying with those in the midst of desperation. Raising a family in their midst, encouraging my kids to play with theirs.
And maybe, at some point, it could go further. Maybe in being neighbors and surrendering my identity (something all Christians must surrender anyway), I would be fortunate enough to realize that in the midst of missions, outreach, and various well intended but disconnected modes of service, there has been an objectification of ‘the other’. Instead of following the example of Christ and putting ourselves at the effective mercy of those we serve, we have put them at our mercy. Maybe by being neighbors in the midst of desperation, we can be instructed, informed, related to and blessed by those experiencing the epitome of need and desperation. Suddenly, the barriers of “us” and “them” challenged, pushed aside. What a beautiful role reversal. Is this possible and could it make a difference?
I tried to explain to several of my Peruvian that not all foreign missionaries are the same. A few strive to live an ideal like this. I asked them if they thought it could make a difference. “Maybe,” they said, “but it would take a revolution guided by these ideals.”
All this has caused me to reflect on the times in my life where I experienced this dynamic shift of power and outreach. There have been few times where I was in need and experienced God’s grace through those around me who whether by socioeconomic inequality, historical enmity and/or the mere fact that I was an apparently wealthy stranger traveling in their land should have ignored my need.
To be at the mercy of others in such a way is a humbling and uncomfortable thing. To be served and befriended in the midst of need is something one must experience if one is going to learn reliance on God, know his provision and embrace his grace. (I think Jesus encouraged his followers to embrace this truth, as evidenced in Luke 10 when he sent out 72 people without material provisions, commanding them to stay with those who welcomed them. This was a precursor to healing and restoration wherever his followers were welcomed.) It is all the more powerful when those who serve you evidence the kind of need I will probably never fully understand.
While none of my own experiences of this nature have come out of any life style shift of my own, each one has served to challenge me to reconsider what outreach and relationship really mean. Humbling moments such as these never last long enough, but they have given me a glimpse of something that brings fresh understanding to my own notion of God’s kingdom on earth.
“For whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me….”
If I am not also privileged enough to be one of the least of these, even just for a moment, I will have missed an opportunity to know and identify with my savior in an important way. I will have missed what it means to be human, too. Could it be that as the least of these have reached out to me, in essence, God has reached out to me?