Inspired by Luke 10:1-11; 16-20
Ten years ago I participated in my first (and only) international mission trip. As part of a Conference organized mission trip, my youth group, along with several other youth groups, flew to the Bahamas for an entry level experience into international missions. Since this was a Conference sponsored event, I was relieved to have the details and arrangements of the trip squared away and taken care by someone other than me. All the youth groups would be staying in the same hotel and participating in the same devotionals and eating the same meals. The mission sites and jobs would vary from group to group. Out of a list of probably 5-10 mission site options, our youth picked a village located in the center of the island where people with HIV/AIDS had been sent to live. This site we felt was both the least likely to be chosen and the most likely to need help.
Our first morning in the Bahamas, we loaded up in a jitney and headed to our site. Full of youth from various churches, the jitney headed away from the shoreline dropping each group off at their assigned mission site. Each group being dropped off within a 15-mile radius of our hotel, until only our group was left. We drove and drove until I was pretty sure we were lost. We drove onto a highway and through a neighborhood and down a few dirt roads. In the middle of the last dirt road, marked by nothing in particular, the jitney driver stopped and opened the door. I looked at him confused and he nodded his head and waved his hand signaling that we needed to get out of the jitney. With the jitney pulling away I began to panic that we were in the wrong place. There was a dumpster maybe half a mile down the dirt road and small, silent broken-down tiny cabins where there seemed to be no one living. I was told the director of the camp would come to meet us and tell us what to do. I waited for about half an hour for someone to come greet us. No one came to greet us.
I called the organizer of the trip who just repeated back the same thing he had already told me about the director coming to meet me. This did not feel helpful. I left the adults and youth at the base of the dirt road and ventured in to the village to see if I could find anyone who knew what we were supposed to be doing. I did not find anyone. There was no director, no organizer, no bathrooms. The later becoming a greater concern as the humidity and heat of the day rolled in and the instructions to, “drink water!” and to, “stay hydrated!” transitioned into the panic of sending youth off to find a private spot in a rainforest. I imagined we would all die in this place. “Youth leader leads group to death,” the papers would read the next morning. This was where it would all end; poisonous snakes, dehydration and red ant bites.
When I read the story of Jesus’ sending of the 70 this week, this is the story that came to mind. More than the story as a whole, the feeling of standing in the middle of that dirt road swallowed up by a mixture of fear, panic, despair, and failure. If this scripture is, as the commentary says, a rare window into what it looked like to follow Jesus in the first generation, then this association suggests that we are in big trouble.
It is not the going that triggers the PTSD of being abandoned in a foreign county with seemingly no purpose and lots of responsibility. It is the fear of what I will find when I arrive. And, having thought this through way more than is probably healthy over the past few days, I think this is a fear Jesus understood because after wondering where Jesus found 70 people to send and what the message that the kingdom was near really meant and how peace would return in the face of repeated rejection, a curious clarity came over me. I was so focused on what Jesus was telling the 70 as they prepared to depart that I failed to notice what he wasn’t telling them, and this, I think is the key.
Here is what Jesus did not tell them before they left. Jesus did not tell them the ending of the story. Jesus did not tell his 70 eager recruits that after they went out and shared the peace that passes all understanding and announced that the kingdom of God was near, that Jesus would later be accused, tried and crucified. Given this omission in messaging, there was also no pep talk about Jesus’ return and resurrection. Jesus skips the ending to ensure that they enter into the story.
There is absolutely no way that I would have taken youth to the Bahamas if I been told how that first day would begin. As a responsible adult, it would have been both reckless and wasteful to show up to a place with no purpose and no plan. But having avoided this ending would have robbed us of the new beginning that revealed the reason God had brought us there.
After swatting away bugs and sweating through our clothes for about an hour, I accepted that we had been abandoned for at least the next six hours. No one was going to come to tell us what to do. I told the kids to grab their stuff and led them to the closest house where I told them to start painting. The house appeared to be empty. I assumed that it was part of the village. Still, the uncertainty of my assessments resulted in a constant fear that someone was going to run over or pull up and scream at us for randomly painting their porch. It was a risk that I held my breath through hoping the worst-case scenario of being arrested in a foreign country wasn’t on the day’s agenda. Best case scenario, I thought, we might be wasting paint. Either way, we needed a purpose to pass the time.
At the end of that day, sitting in the middle of that dirt road, I felt completely lost and frustrated that no one had shown up for us. Wondering what I was doing there would have been bearable but beating myself over bringing my kids there was a whole separate emotionally punitive process. Just as the jitney was scheduled to arrive, I saw a stranger walking toward us; a younger man with white skin and a confused smile. At, what I am sure was an embarrassingly desperate speed, I began to walk-running toward him.
Andrew Atwell was the onsite coordinator of a long-term mission project for an organization he co-founded called, NextStep Ministries. This was not the person we were planning on meeting. This was not the organization we were planning on working with. For the rest of the week our group worked under Andrew’s leadership building tearing down old cabins and building up new cabins.
I am thankful that what happened the first day wasn’t the end of our story. I have no idea what we would have done if Andrew hadn’t walked down that dirt road at the end of that first day. If he hadn’t greeted us with a spirit of hospitality and continued to be such a generous host to a youth group that hadn’t even contracted with them. Every year after that experience in the Bahamas, I insisted on contracting with NextStep Ministries and I avidly advocated for others to do the same. That’s what happens when someone saves your life. When someone finds you stuck at the end of a story and opens a door to a chapter you never expected to enter; your life is changed, trust is built, and loyalty develops.
I wouldn’t say my kids and I fell in love with Andrew. That makes us sound slightly creepy. But we did fall in love with NextStep Ministries because of the loving action Andrew showed to us in our time of need. I didn’t need to see their business plan or be assured of the financial sustainability of their organizational model to promote their mission trips to every pastor and parent that I knew. The kids didn’t need to review Andrew’s credentials or call any references to fight over who got to represent “Andrew” in the Life Boat Game because they always voted him as a person most worthy of surviving. We didn’t need a sales pitch about their services or their mission destination to be our personal preference. Where they were, was where we wanted to be, because we knew that in a world where we are likely to feel abandoned, they would never leave us alone.
Seventy people stood in the middle of a dirt road, stuck at the end of a story, and Jesus showed up to offer a new beginning. It was this experience and this love that led them to one another. It was this love and this experience that formed a new community. The love for Jesus and the support of each other overshadowed the guarantee of a happy ending with the possibility of a beginning. Sharing their experience of what Jesus had offered them mattered more than the response received to what they shared. Going where Jesus asked them mattered more than what happened when they arrived. Regardless of how their stories would end, the love they experienced from Jesus made it worth investing their lives in the reliability of a new beginning.