For the last four days, and the next six, Amy and I are running a mission. Well, not really running it as much as just ensuring that something that has endured for more than 50 years does not collapse over the course of ten days. (No guarantees.) You see, the real missionaries, Wikus and Carina van der Walt, are taking a much-deserved holiday, and we’ve agreed to hold down the fort, or hold up the mission as the case may be, in their absence. We didn’t come to Canzibe to be missionaries – our purpose for being here is to build 25:40’s ministry of helping orphans and other vulnerable children survive the daily barrage of challenges presented by poverty, abuse, violence and disease. But we’re fairly open people – for ten days we’ll try just about anything. So what’s it like to be a true-blue missionary? Truthfully, I can’t tell you now and probably won’t be able to after ten days either. But I have a few observations. (And yes, I can hear you now saying, “Of course you do, Alec. What else is new?”)
First, we missionaries are key people. And I can say that with complete humility, because I am not saying we are important people. No. We literally are “key people.” You see, as the mission temps at Canzibe Mission, Amy and I have sole access to some 11,343 keys (at last count), of which about 11 actually relate to some lock somewhere. At first, the mountain of keys struck me as, well, a sign of slight disorganization. But I’ve since learned and come to appreciate that it is actually part of a very complex and intricate, if not entirely functional, security system (something that strikes me as being of French design – and unless you’ve owned a Renault, you probably won’t get that joke). The elaborate array of keys truly serves to utterly confuse the enemy, sending him into a tailspin of frustration that begins with a major stampy footy and ends with the inevitable banging of one’s head against a wall for a prolonged period. Of course, there is some collateral damage, as this condition also presents itself in missionary temps, as evidenced by the welt on my forehead. But it’s a small price to pay for security.
I’ve also noticed, in my mass of experience here, that missionaries actually spend about 1.3 percent of their time actually missioning (i.e. spreading the Gospel). This is because spreading the Gospel is something they intend to do. And, as a missionary, everything you intend to do inevitably gets interrupted midcourse by something someone else intends you to do. Like, for instance, find them a key. A typical experience, might go something like this:
Missionary: “Welcome, brothers and sisters. May the peace of the L….”
Interloper One: “Tata?” (that’s Xhosa for Father)
Missionary: “Yes I-One, what is it?”
Interloper One: “I need the key to the store room.”
Missionary: “Ok… I’ll be right back brothers and sisters.”
Thirty minutes and one welt later.
Missionary: “And as I was saying, may the pea…”
Interloper Two: “Tata?”
Missionary: “Yes I-Two?”
Interloper Two: “I cannot start the mower.”
Missionary: “Hmm, that’s probably because it is out of petrol. Why don’t you check?”
Interloper Two: “Ok, Tata. I will check the petrol. Enkosi (that’s ‘thank you’), Tata”
Missionary: “You’re welcome. And where was I, ah, yes, May the p…”
Interloper Two: “Tata?”
Missionary: “Yes, I-Two, what is it now?”
Interloper Two: “I’ll need the key to the garage.”
Thirty minutes and two welts later.
Missionary: “Ok, I’m back. Sorry. Now where was I?”
Little Biddy Interloper: “Dad?”
Missionary: “Arrg. Yes, Rebecca, what is it?
Little Biddy Interloper: “Can I play with your IPad…”
Anyway, you get the picture.
My third observation is that once you get to the missioning part, it’s really not easy. Especially when you can’t speak Xhosa, and have to rely on an interpreter and simply trust what you are saying is coming across as you intended it to. (Don’t worry, Wikus. I’m not actually doing any of this, and won’t, in the course of these ten days, reverse the three years of hard work you have done here. At least, not knowingly.) Can you imagine trying to explain John 6:54 to people who have never heard of Jesus, and think communing is what you do in a kibbutz? By the way, if you don’t know John 6:54, its Jesus message that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…”
My fourth and final observation (for now) relates to the last two. And that is, in my vast experience and incredibly deep knowledge base – which I’ve found fits comfortably and with room to spare in a regulation-size Bic ball-point pen cap – real “missioning” actually occurs almost every waking second of every day here. When you drop everything and leave behind everyone to help that one guy locate a lost key, so that he can finish serving the Lord by mowing the last blade of grass on the mission station, you are doing just as Jesus asks. (Luke 15:4). And when you stop organizing that prayer session to hook up the gas tank for the cook, so she can prepare a meal for 40 hungry children, you are doing just as Jesus asks. (Matthew 25:35) And when you set aside writing that really, really important blog that your followers (all 6 of them) are anxiously awaiting with bated breath to help a child out of a tree, give them a hug and tell them how much Jesus loves and wants them, well, then you’re really doing what Jesus asks. (Matthew 10:14) Alec with boy on swing
I suspect that by the end of these ten days, I’ll love being a missionary the way a fastidious grandfather loves his grand babies. I’ll really enjoy it until there’s a dirty diaper, then gladly hand it back over to Wikus. But the experience will have formed in me a new appreciation for the work missionaries do. Not based on the peril of spreading the Gospel in a world where, in many places you might be killed for it, or based on the transformative power that a well-placed sermon might have on a lost life, or even based on the long hours put in for what must often feel like thankless work. No, my appreciation is based on knowing – as good missionaries do – that when, in every moment, you act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God – when you truly believe and place all of your trust in a loving God – every little thing you do is missioning. That, truly, is the key.