I’m a missionary. My mission field is located in a small, dilapidated office building in Houston, Texas, USA.In October I re-entered the American workforce, when the Lord graciously provided a job that allows me to provide for my family and also work with refugees.
In my opinion, America is as challenging a mission field as Vietnam was, where being who I am - a Christian - is illegal. It’s as challenging as the desperate slums of Uganda. As challenging as the hostile Hindu village in India, where I called home last year during the Christmas season.
The Lord has LITERALLY brought the nations to Houston ... Every day I walk into my multicultural office and I feel as though the Lord has handed me the nations on a platter. I share a cube wall with Iraqi Muslims. A few paces away sit a few self-proclaimed atheists, Hindus from Nepal, a few buddhists from Burma.
My job is to teach life skills and to serve over 15 different refugee populations. In an endless stream, they come from Ethiopia, Burma, Egypt, Cuba, Nepal, Iraq - just to name a few.
They’ve arrived in this land of plenty by proving that to stay in their country would be to place themselves in immediate danger of serious bodily harm. That’s the story their visa tells with its stamp: “REFUGEE.”
And I see their eyes, haunted and yet hopeful. I look into their faces, adoring me for the small help I can give.
And some days I feel like Atlas, that mythical figure who carried the world.
After giving up everything - saying goodbye to siblings and friends, parents and sometimes even spouses or children - after undergoing rigorous testing by the UN, external agencies, and the US government - when they receive the YES they’ve been waiting for … they make that long flight from East to West. I’ve done it before - the confusing mix of days and nights, airports, sleepless hours, security checks, transfers.
They step onto the flat, humid land of Houston with only a suitcase and the hope of a better life.
... And then my office steps in. We provide a small, semi-furnished apartment with the rent pre-paid for a few months. We provide a week’s worth of food and access to services like health care and food stamps.
In a strange land of strange tongue, they are promptly told they have exactly 3 months to learn English, find a job, begin paying taxes, and navigate a brand-new country. Overwhelming doesn’t even begin to cover it.
These people who grew up in deserts, jungles, and tented camps now attempt to navigate the Houston bus system that covers over 15 major highways and interchanges.
Single mothers that can’t write their name in their own language are told that to feed their children, they have 90 days to learn English. Doctoral professors in Engineering are told that despite their education and experience, they must start by taking the GRE - that in America, everyone starts over. Many for better. Some for worse.
And sometimes I think God made this heart of mine too sensitive. Because I ache for their situations. I’m keenly aware of the challenges, because a year ago I got lost trying to take the bus across Kathmandu. I couldn’t read or speak Nepali and so for about three hours I wandered the city, desperately trying to remember my “address” … wishing someone spoke my language.
I remember the shame when I was told my modest (to me) clothing was causing the catcalls as I walked down a muddy Rwandan road - my knee caps were showing - and how inappropriate that is in Rwanda! I might as well be naked, I was told.
I remember my tongue twisting, trying to master the tones of Vietnamese merely so I could thank the woman who made my breakfast each day. I never did say “Thank You” successfully - not once in 35 days of repeated attempts.
I remember wondering HOW the skills I had from home - my college degree, my ability to type 100 words a minute, my knowledge of drilling wells -- how would any of this contribute to the rural society of Tanzania, where prized abilities included being able to to skin and cook a chicken with ease, to preach in Swahili, to drive a Dala-Dala (a 15-passenger van used as a taxi) down the left side of rutted roads.
I was completely unemployable, nearly useless, and mostly unable to build solid relationships without help.
And so when they come to my humble desk, and I’m told: “Teach them to be successful, responsible American citizens” … I know, I know how impossible that seems. And yet I also know what love and patience could do for them.
This is my mission field. The fields are ripe for the harvest.
And yet I’m mostly miserable, constantly at war within myself because I can’t seem to find the courage in this “tolerant,” politically correct, anti-Christian society to declare (or even whisper): “Jesus. The most important thing this place can offer you … is the freedom to know Jesus.”
And on Tuesday nights I gather with a small group, and we read his word and we speak of how difficult it is to tell of the Lord’s goodness … In a corporate office. In a public school. In groups of stay-at-home-moms, quick to judge but slow to be real. In the messy families we call our own.
And I pray to be given courage but mostly I feel like Peter ... in his early days, well-meaning but all-too-quick to deny that I know anything about THAT MAN - the one that divides, the one surrounded by misperceptions … the one I’m so secretly and so desperately in love with.
Were I to write a gospel, it might read: “I tell you the truth: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for an American Christian to honestly and lovingly spread the Kingdom in his homeland.”
and with the disciples my mind wonders: “Who then [in America] can be saved?”
and this Sweet Savior Jesus, he looks to the core of me and says: “With man this is impossible, but with God all.things.are.possible.”
So ... where do we go from here?
Stay tuned for Part II …