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The First Real Mission

It’s almost the end of the week, and we’ve run out of projects, supplies and motivation.

For the past few years Todd and I have sponsored our church’s youth mission trips to Queretaro, Mexico. In general, we know what to expect. A little paint here, a little polish there, some late-night tacos, an evangelistic drama—all in the name of the Lord.

The truth is, no one really cares. As I unpack the paints, I think, “Haven’t we painted this wall before?” We are frustrated, the students are uninspired and, worst of all, the nationals we have come to serve are unaffected. One of the men from our group comes up to us and says, “About two more hours, and we can clean up here and head for dinner.”

“Two hours, huh?” I sigh.

I close my eyes and try to think how to fill that time, until Todd interrupts my thoughts: “Remember the orphanage we visited in Albania?” he asks, his back to me, bent over, cleaning some paintbrushes.

“Sure. Why?”

“You think there are any in this town?”

Even before he can stand up and turn around, I’m gone. I dash over to where our teens are talking to some of their Mexican counterparts.

“Orphanage-o? Orphanatorio? Orphanagorio?” I try every combination with my best Mexican accent to get a reaction. “Aquí?” (“Here?”)

“Sí. Sí.” They look at me, laughing, either because the answer is obvious or because of my funny words. I don’t know which.

I wish I could say that Todd and I sat down right then and made a plan, but we didn’t. The truth is, within 10 minutes of his question, we leave the students with the other adult sponsors, and we’re in a taxi trying to find an orphanage.

Looking back now, it seems foolish. We didn’t speak much Spanish, didn’t have much money if we got into trouble, and were in a city where we could have easily gotten lost. An hour later, we’re standing in front of a children’s home on a dusty road, knocking at the door as we wave goodbye to our taxi driver.

We hear a series of locks, bolts and chains being unlatched, and the door swings open. Have you ever heard the expression “his face is an open book”? Well, the title of the book on the face of the man who answers the door is Who the Heck Are You? Even though he’s sitting in a wheelchair, he seems eight feet tall. Seeing him makes us wonder if all those locks are to keep people out or keep children in. While he waits for us to explain ourselves, I catch a glimpse of a child over his shoulder.

We struggle with our bad Spanish for more than an hour but don’t get far. Finally, frustrated, Todd gives up and starts playing basketball with some of the boys, leaving me to continue the conversation. For a while we watch Todd in silence, our host with a blank expression on his face and me hoping we really are on a holy errand.

The thought crosses my mind, Has this man already asked us to leave in Spanish and we just didn’t understand? Or is this something that You planned, Lord?

Finally, the man turns to me and says, “I can understand you. I’m an American.”

I can’t believe it. Why did he pretend? I know I should be mad—but my first thought is gratitude that we can now communicate.

He continues, “I’m a Vietnam War vet. I came to work with abandoned children because I know what it means to be tossed aside. Like them, I’m trying to forget the people who failed me. I don’t always trust outsiders.”

I say nothing.

Todd, who has overheard everything, walks over from the court, with the ball under his arm, and says, “We have $200, 25 eager students and a whole day left in our trip. Is there anything we can do for you if we come back tomorrow?”

The man shifts his eyes and says softly, “The children haven’t had meat in a year, and that window up there is broken.”

Sometimes just talking can cost you. His admission costs him something, and our request costs us as well. We all overcome our fears and say things that are uncomfortable. But we do it. As we sit there on that bench, sipping our lemonade, I know what’s happened: Our first real mission has begun.

The next day, with a much clearer sense of purpose, we set out for the children’s home. On the way, we stop at a market to buy food and toys. When we get to the front door, the children are waiting, laughing and asking if “Michael Jordan” has come back.

We have 200 hamburgers, a new window, and our crew of teenagers.

The orphanage is built like a bullfighting arena, with a large open area in the middle. Steep stairs go up to the dorms on the top layer, which encircle the courtyard below. We set up the grill in the courtyard and begin serving the meal.

After all 40 of the kids receive their hamburgers and second helpings, we find ourselves still flipping burgers. From behind the grill, Todd whispers, “What’s going on? These kids can’t still be hungry; go see if you can figure out where all the food’s wandering off to.”

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So I mingle with the kids, who are holding napkins full of hamburgers. Some are carrying them up to their rooms; I follow one little preschool girl up the stairs to the dormitory, and with each step, it’s almost as if I can feel her leading me, wanting me to see something. When we reach the top, she hesitates only slightly as she enters and leaves me standing in the doorway.

She’s hiding the hamburger patties under her mattress.

When I walk into the room, some of the other girls are startled and one of them starts to cry. Why? Do they think I’ll be mad? Yell at them? Hit them? Take the hamburgers back? I don’t know, but none of those things even occur to me. I simply help the little girl I followed lift her heavy mattress.

After we carefully hide the girl’s hamburger, I take her hand, and we head back out the door. Then I stop and send her down to get Todd. After he bounds up the stairs, we stand together in that doorway, and something happens to us, right there, that we don’t even realize at the time. But when I chart the events of my life that followed, they trace back to that moment in the doorway.

We walk slowly down the stairs, trying to think of how we might be able to buy more hamburgers. At the bottom, the director is watching us skeptically, waiting for our reaction, and he explains that the kids often save food for later. Even though we know the hamburgers won’t keep long, none of us has the heart to stop them.

That day Todd and I had a defining moment—an experience that impacted our thinking, touched our hearts and compelled us into a new course of action. It changed our lives. I used to be afraid of that word, change, as if it implied, somehow, that I need to be corrected. But now I have a different view of change. It is a shift in perspective, and not the Extreme Home Makeover kind of change we see on television. It is a shift in what we think we are capable of. In where we want to see our life heading. In how we are willing to spend our time, talents and resources.

When people tell me about how God “moved” them, it is that kind of shift, I believe, they are talking about. It’s a step in a new direction that we couldn’t have taken on our own. Sometimes defining moments result in immediate and complete life transformations, like it did for the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus; but more often, such moments are more subtle, things we can only see in hindsight.

For me, the hamburger incident was not a defining moment that lit up in neon lights. Not at all. I flew home the next day, went back to work, headed to the grocery store, called my friends—but there was a difference. I have since described it as being like a burr under my saddle. I knew I would never feel quite comfortable again. Something inside me had shifted, and after the supernatural pleasure of that “defining moment,” like an addict, I knew I wanted another hit.

Before that trip to Mexico, I was not a bad person. I wasn’t doing anything wrong that required major discipline in my life. But that trip was more like a big wooden marker in the shape of an arrow pointing to someplace I couldn’t see—a place I was nervous about, but excited to explore. Just a week before the trip, the path I was on in my life had seemed fine, but now, in light of that experience, I didn’t want fine anymore. For a year afterward, I moved around on that saddle trying to get comfortable again, but there was that silly burr, always reminding me that I had changed that afternoon in Mexico. That is what reckless faith does—it propels me faster and harder toward God’s true plan for my life.

Todd and I talked hundreds of hours in the following year about those hamburgers and about all the people we knew who could buy food for orphans if they only knew there was a need and how important they could be in meeting that need. It became clear that the arrow was pointing us back to Mexico, and so, without much guidance other than a vague sense of the rightness of the decision, we moved to Monterrey.

Today, when people look at our organization and ask about strategy, vision casting, projection and planning, we just smile. It would be tempting to spin it all so it seems more polished.

But the truth is, it started with a little girl hiding a hamburger under her mattress.

Taken from Reckless Faith © 2008 by Beth Guckenberger. Used by permission of Zondervan.

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