What does it mean to live as a family in mission? For many families who engage in cross-cultural mission, this question is thrown into sharp relief by the contrast between lifestyles, expectations, and values. But for families in mission in a North American context, this question is no less pressing. What have these families learned about proclaiming the Gospel? And how can God’s family — the church — be enriched by these insights? The Anabaptist Witness blog will be exploring in our Families in Mission blog series. This post comes to us from Aaron Kauffman, who serves as the president of Virginia Mennonite Missions.
My wife, Laura, and I moved to Colombia for a three-year mission assignment in 2005. Believe me, that was not an easy decision to make. At the time, Colombia was still in the throes of war rather than on the brink of peace. A worker with the Colombian Mennonite peace organization, Justapaz, had been kidnapped by the FARC the year before. So when Mennonite Mission Network invited us to consider an assignment in Colombia, we had a knee-jerk reaction. “Absolutely not!” After all, we had our newborn daughter, Abigail, to consider. We eventually said “yes” to God’s call to serve in Colombia. And I’m so glad we did. Those three years proved to be some of the most joyful, stretching, life-giving years of our lives.
Part of our assignment in Colombia was to join the life of the La Mesa Mennonite Church, a congregation planted by missionaries some sixty years prior. At first, attending worship there was uncomfortable, to say the least. The music was loudly amplified, reverberating off the hard brick walls and wooden benches. The service was an exercise in endurance—an hour of energetic singing, followed by an hour of preaching. The messages focused a lot on how God can meet your needs and help you in times of trouble and often ended with emotional invitations to prayer. Our church in the US, with its tightly scripted hour of solemn hymns and left-brained preaching, simply hadn’t prepared us for this.
Over time, the worship grew on us. We came to love the full-bodied, full-throated singing that taught us God was someone worth getting excited about. We heard the scriptures read and preached as a source of comforting good news to the working poor who struggled to make ends meet, to single mothers who needed reassurance and support, and to displaced families mourning the loss of their land and livelihood due to the threats of armed militants. And we witnessed and experienced the touch of the Holy Spirit in the midst of fervent prayer. We learned to appreciate in a new way the words of Jesus when he says that God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:27, NIV).
We also learned what it meant to receive from those we were intending to serve. A year after moving to Colombia, we began to look with anticipation to the arrival of another child. We were ecstatic. Then, just nine weeks into my wife’s pregnancy, on September 11, 2006, the bleeding started. We rushed to the clinic to see if anything could be done. The doctor could find no heartbeat. We’d suffered a miscarriage, many miles from our friends and family back in the US. I’ll never forget sitting next to my wife in that examination room, clinging to her hands as Pastor Martín González read the words of Psalm 23 from his small pocket Bible: Jehová es mi pastor; nada me faltará. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. It’s one thing to embrace the people of another culture, seeking to share the love of Christ with them. It’s another to allow the members of another culture to embrace you in your time of need.
Embracing Colombian culture and people has changed me in profound ways. But I’m under no illusion that I’ve arrived. There’s so much I don’t know about the rich and complicated world of Latin America. My Spanish gets rusty when I don’t use it. And no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be Latino. In that way, learning about another culture is a lot like discipleship. We don’t become followers of Jesus by accident. It requires intentionality and the willingness to learn. When we claim Jesus as Lord, we also become his lifelong students. Over time, as we join others in the pursuit of loving and obeying Christ, we begin to reflect his character in greater measure. We become more fluent at what Stanley Hauerwas calls, “speaking Christian.” But we never graduate from the school of discipleship, at least not in this life. Following Jesus is an endeavor that lasts a lifetime.
Thankfully, our salvation does not depend on our getting it completely right. The Bible proclaims a God who didn’t wait for humanity to ascend to godliness. Instead, God became a full participant in the human experience by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ. As the Gospel of John puts it, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). God translated God’s very being into speech we could understand. The Creator of the universe became a native speaker in the language called human so that we could finally get the message loud and clear: “You were created to reign with Me over a world resplendent with My glory. Yet you’ve turned your back on me and suffered the consequences of isolation, idolatry, and injustice. Turn to Me, open your arms to my embrace, and I will give you life as it was always meant to be.”
Así sea. May it be so.