People ask us frequently, “What do the people that you work with need?” Usually, they are asking what kinds of things can they bring to give away, or what types of projects that they should plan for their trip. But the question always causes me to think, “What do they need?” The fact is that each person’s situation is unique and entire books could be (and have been) written on that subject. What do they need? As difficult as it is to find an answer, we have to try.
I have learned so much about the people here, about this culture, and about myself since we arrived. Like so many other things in life, the more I’ve learned, the more I realize there is to learn. I had tried to educate and prepare myself before coming to Honduras. We received excellent training from some very wise former missionaries. But no amount of classes, book-reading, or internet research could have taught me what I have learned by living here.
What I believe the people here in Honduras truly need right now is for us to honor them. After many years of well-intentioned involvement from outsiders, many here have begun to wonder if they will ever be able to stand on their own. Many seem to be losing the confidence and dignity that God wants every human being to have. Many of the mission methods that have aimed to alleviate poverty have not proven to have the desired long-term benefits. Today, I am convinced that we could make a deep and lasting impact if we were to renew our commitment to an equal partnership with the local church and made it our highest priority to live out Romans 12:10: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
To honor those to whom we minister, we must show each individual that that we care about knowing them personally. It is right for us to seek ways to use the blessings that we have received in order to bless others. But, in order to make sure that our methods are truly blessing those we seek to bless, we must know the people to whom we are ministering. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to meeting people’s needs. Some missions methods of the past have been like dumping a huge barrel of water over the top of hundreds of glass bottles; the barrel gets emptied quickly, but more bottles can end up knocked over or broken than filled. A slow, steady individual approach is required to do the job. We can’t meet someone’s needs if we don’t know what their needs actually are. And what people really need is not always immediately obvious to us--especially as outsiders in an unfamiliar culture. We must commit to do whatever it takes to build real and deep relationships between ourselves and those we wish to serve, so that we can discern their true needs and demonstrate the love of Christ. This may require us to study a new language, to dedicate less time to work projects, or to slow down the hectic pace of our mission trips. But, mission work is people work; the time and energy we invest into our relationships with people will always be worth it.
Another way we honor those we serve is to be honest with them and with ourselves about our own shortcomings. We have much to offer, but it is God who changes lives. We can only point people to the Savior. When we land in a foreign mission field, we need to remember that the local people have been living their lives in that place long before we arrived and will continue to do so long after we have returned home. Having realistic expectations about what we can accomplish in our time on the field can help to avoid frustration--ours and theirs. We can make an impact on people’s lives in our time on the mission field, but we can also contribute to widening the gap between the two cultures if we think more of ourselves than we ought to. We are only human. Even if we come from a wealthy country or are highly educated, we don’t have all the answers. We should ask for advice from wise local people about culture, language, and even how to go about our activities in their country. We should ask for forgiveness if we know we’ve made a cultural misstep. If one of our family members or friends is sick, if we are having personal struggles or our church is experiencing difficult times, we can and should ask for the prayers of the local Christians. We should ask some of the local brothers and sisters if they would like to share with us a favorite verse from the Bible and what it means to them. We should ask them to teach us a song, a game, a joke, or how to make one of their traditional foods. Sometimes, allowing someone to give to us can be as big a blessing for them as anything we can give. We can honor and bless others by showing them that we value what they have to offer.
Finally, we can honor people in foreign mission fields by simply doing what they do. We send a message of disapproval when we don’t follow local customs. We could narrow the cultural gap and have a greater impact on people’s lives if we would--respectfully and lovingly--do as the locals do. The people to whom we are ministering would be much more willing to hear our message and accept us as friends if we would simply do what they do, go where they go, talk how they talk, eat what they eat, and become interested in the things that interest them. Certainly, matters of conscience and safety should be considered. But, if our goal really is to impact the lives of others, then let’s commit to doing all we can. We simply will not be as effective as we could be if we don’t, to some extent, ‘go native’. And little things can make a huge difference. I have had many people here in Honduras tell me on many different occasions how much they appreciate it when visiting North Americans eat the local food. On the other hand, they have also expressed how shocking and hurtful it is when visitors turn up their nose at what, to them, is good food for which they are grateful. Our message will not be heard if we demonstrate a sense of superiority. If we tell them with our actions that the food they eat is not good enough for us to eat, or the places they live aren’t nice enough for us to spend time in, or the way they do things just isn’t quite logical or efficient enough for us, the effectiveness of our mission shrinks. We show the love of Christ when we put honoring others ahead of our own comfort.
I am convinced that we can make a profound and lasting change in the physical and spiritual well-being of people like those here in Honduras if we would make it our ultimate goal to show them that they have something to offer to the rest of the world, that they are worthy of our respect and honor, and that they are loved by God. Someone may ask, “Isn’t it obvious that we love the people to whom we are ministering? We spend lots of money and energy going down there to give to them and to do our projects for them in the name of Jesus. How could they not see that we love them and that God loves them?” It might be difficult to understand, but for many of the people that we have come to know, for us to give our selves to them would speak more love than any project or any thing ever could. Maybe it would seem strange to think that a conversation in broken Spanish could mean more to them than a bag of food. Or that spending time sitting with someone in their home could mean more to them than some new clothes or shoes. Or that sharing a simple meal with a family could mean more to them than even giving them a new roof over their heads. Here in Honduras there are many who could use a new house or new clothes or more food or more stuff. But I truly believe that there are also many people who have a greater need for honor, respect, encouragement, equality, unity, and solidarity.
I still love carpentry. Every once in a while, I find a way to use my skills in a way that--I hope--can be a blessing to many different people and that can glorify God in some small way. I enjoy the creative process of building and the satisfaction that it gives me to complete a project. To be honest, sometimes I wish I could use my talents more in that way. But I am certain that who I can be for God is greater than what I can do for Him. I know that if I can be a friend, a partner, a listening ear, a neighbor, a companion, a brother, and an encourager for the people here, then God can use me to make a difference.
I believe we all can use whatever talents and abilities we might have to glorify God. It would be a real shame to never use your construction skills, or your nursing skills, or your sewing skills to help others. But just as God tested Abraham’s commitment to see if he was willing to sacrifice the son that he cherished so much, we must also be willing to sacrifice our will, our plans, our satisfaction, our comfort, and our own sense of fulfillment so that we can truly serve others and that they might see God in us.