When I was in middle school, I developed a deep desire to go anywhere in Africa. At the time I had no idea why. I just knew I wanted to go there someday. As I entered high school and then college, this desire only increased, until I finally heard of a United Methodist mission team traveling to Zimbabwe for three weeks. I quickly checked a map, verified that Zimbabwe was in fact in Africa, and began the process of begging my parents to go. They finally relented a few years later when I was over the age of 18 and were no longer legally allowed to stop me.
From the time I stepped off the plane in July 1998, I was smitten. My love for Zimbabwe was cemented that first day and has only grown each year since. I lived there for many years at a Children’s Home, and I still go back each year to visit people who are now as close as my biological family. They are a part of who I am. My life is richer and fuller because I was able to see a new piece of who Jesus is by experiencing another culture.
Now I serve as Mission’s Director at Chapelwood UMC in Houston, TX. We are still wading through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and trying to figure out how we can assist other states and islands that were devastated by the hurricanes and storms that followed. With so many disasters occurring around the U.S. this past year, it is natural to ask, “Why should we help people in a different part of the world when there are so many in need throughout our own country?” As with many issues, the answer is not always either/or, but requires a both/and mentality. Either/or signifies a limited capacity and in turn can limit God’s ability to work fully in our lives as individuals, families, and churches.
Similar to when we are told to put on our own oxygen mask in an airplane before we help others, we do need to make sure that our own well-being and that of our family and community are met first so that we have a stable base from which to serve. When I was in the middle of weathering Hurricane Harvey, I had no capacity outside of trying to do my job and figuring out how to move around a city where most of the streets were still blocked with water. But – before long the streets and businesses opened back up, and most people were able to find a safe place to stay even if it will be a long time before they can achieve a new “normal.”
We have churches, organizations, and government programs all working together to provide immediate assistance, and they will stick around for the next few years to make sure the city is back up and running. Unlike many other parts of the world, the structures we have in place throughout the U.S. make it much easier to respond quickly in disaster situations. In many cases, our resources far surpass the services available in other areas around the world.
Yet after we have experienced devastating disasters, our desire and ability to practice generosity to those outside our small bubble may fade even though the needs of our family around the world has not decreased. We need to remember especially during these times why it is so important to continue serving and building relationships with our brothers and sisters around the world.
We serve because God calls us through his Word to participate in his mission of reaching out and loving people from every nation and culture. We have the opportunity to form genuine relationships as a means of building up and unifying God’s kingdom, to learn from each other, and to see new ways that Jesus is at work. We grow in our faith when we observe how God has moved in the lives of people in so many different and difficult circumstances. The faith that I saw exhibited by my Zimbabwean family throughout the years shaped and changed how I responded when going through traumatic events, including Hurricane Harvey.
My experience is unique to me, but God has a unique experience ready for each of us who are willing to listen and respond in faith daily. Go where God asks you to go and do what he asks you to do, whether it is as a missionary in your own community, or in a place that starts out entirely foreign to you. The main reason I believe that we are to serve both at home and around the world is because when so many have looked into the eyes of Jesus and sat still enough to listen, that is what he told them to do.
So find out which partnerships your church has formed in different parts of the world and how you can participate in growing these relationships. Research an organization in your town that welcomes refugees and international students and invite someone to dinner. Check out the work supported through World Methodist Evangelism or other connectional mission organizations. Choose a country that God has set on your heart and educate yourself and your family so that you can actively pray for individuals and situations in a place you may never physically be able to visit.
Whatever you feel led to do, you are guaranteed to discover a richer and fuller love for Jesus and the life he has given you.