Posted on April 24, 2017
I have for some time believed that the purpose of short-term mission trips is concerned much more with the development of those who go on the trip than it is with the actual work done by the goers. I don’t think I’m alone in this belief – people frequently return from a week serving away from home claiming some version of the statement, “I thought I was going to bless others, but I was the one who was blessed.” In only a couple of weeks, most trips lack the longevity necessary to cultivate relationships and empower locals to enact meaningful change within impoverished communities. OSA has undoubtedly shaken free of this paradigm by investing in long-term, continued commitment to significant relationships with the people of Collíque, with the result that the Peruvian people are now enacting significant positive change in their community. And yet, in spite of being part of such an encouraging and committed partnership during our week in Collíque, I still could not escape the feeling that the work we were doing paled in comparison to the work that was being done in us.
This feeling arose often in our medical clinic, where the benefit of the work we did could was usually marginal, at best. Our work felt small when we encountered a kind old man whose prostate cancer had metastasized to the bone, leaving him to struggle for sleep against his pain every night. Our work felt small again when we met a moto-taxi driver whose bladder cancer had likely grown undetected for years. And our work repeatedly felt small when we encountered woman after woman whose backs and legs ached less from internal pathology and more from years of carrying children up and down the foothills of the Andes, only to rest at night by lying on stiff, thin mattresses or the unforgiving Peruvian ground. In most of these cases, we could offer our patients little more than mild pain relievers and the prayer that, between feeding their families and providing for themselves, they might somehow find the money required to follow up with the local clinic or hospital. Yet while the benefit that we offered the people of Collíque was in most senses minimal, we still left the clinic each day feeling that we had been changed in some way.
What was the reason for this? How did we come to understand that we had received some service by offering minimal medical assistance and rusty Spanish translation to a people in significant need? Was it that in interacting with, listening to, and touching these people we were mimicking the actions of Christ and thus demonstrating for them the love of God? That may be part of it. But the story I kept returning to as I asked these questions each day was the illustration Jesus gave in Matthew 25. In this passage, Jesus describes a scene in which all of humanity stands before the judgment throne of God, separated into a group on the right and a group on the left:
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (v. 34-40)
In sitting with this passage throughout the week, I came to wonder if the change that we noted in ourselves – the blessing we received – was not a result of whom we were mimicking each day, but whom we were encountering each day. Christ does not say that the group on his right is blessed because in their service they showed to the poor what the love of God looks like (although there is certainly an aspect of such demonstration present in their service). He declares the people blessed by the Father because in their service they encounter in the poor the very person of Christ himself. It is whom they meet through their service, not the benefit derived from their service, that blesses the righteous.
As the week progressed, I thus came to wonder whether the feeling we shared together as a group – the feeling of being served rather than serving, and being blessed rather than blessing – was related not to the ibuprofen we dispensed or even (only) to the way in which we were demonstrating love, but rather to the fact that in meeting ill patients, singing songs with children, and conversing with moto-taxi drivers we were encountering an incarnational God whose face we saw in each wrinkled, sun-worn, beautiful Peruvian face. What a true blessing it was to be able to enter into the presence of our Lord together with a group of people committed to being the people of God in Peru just as in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, and even to the ends of the earth.