The Adventist Church is well known for its mission work. Academies, universities, and churches coordinate mission trips regularly. We have a student missionary program that sends college students all over the world for yearlong missions. As Adventist Christians we have a desire to serve, to change, and to prepare the world for Christ’s return. Yet sometimes I struggle with the intention behind our mission work. Are we being authentic in our service, or are we simply searching for our own blessing, our own recognition, when it fits into our busy schedules?
I will be the first to say that I am guilty; I am a selective servant.
On my first mission trip I felt useless. I was the only English major on a medical trip to Brazil with Loma Linda University students. We floated along the beautiful Amazon River for two weeks, stopping at villages along the shore. At each village my job was to keep the children occupied while their parents received medical attention.
Most of the time the children were too shy to play with me. I didn’t know a word of Portuguese, so I would make wild gestures to try to interest them. I would wait until one of them was brave enough to let me paint a flower on an arm. Or sometimes we would kick a soccer ball, color, or blow bubbles together. I was the glorified mission-trip babysitter. Because of the language barrier, I could only smile and open my eyes wide. I probably looked like a cartoon most of the time.
I first learned about the Brazil trip while studying abroad at the Adventist college in Collonges, France. After traveling for nine months, I needed a way to ease the back-to-reality pain and reverse the culture shock of leaving Europe. A mission trip would also keep my travel bug satisfied. I would have the opportunity to visit a new country under the guise of serving others. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love helping people; it makes me happy. But I’m not going to lie and say that I would have gone on a mission trip to a less-exotic location. If I’m being completely honest, my motivation was purely selfish.
But while others were pulling teeth, draining ulcers, and giving ultrasounds, I was just sitting there. Sometimes I felt like just an extra body, taking up space. I wanted to be doing something.
I was living on a houseboat on the Amazon River. No stress. No technology. Just adventures such as searching for alligators or swinging upside down in a hammock during a midnight storm. I would spend my mornings sitting in a chair looking out at the water and watching the sunrise. I felt so blessed. But I couldn’t get past the idea that I wasn’t blessing the people we had come to serve.
We had only a few days left out on the river, and I still had not done much to help others. Then at one of the last villages we would visit, I was told I could give away all the used clothes I had brought with me. We had all been asked to bring toys and clothes to give away, but I was the only one who had stuffed an entire suitcase! I was glad to finally feel I could be a little useful.
Stopping at a small hut made of grass and banana leaves, we crouched inside. The entire hut was smaller than my bedroom at home. It had a dirt floor and no furniture except for a small hammock. The hut smelled of grass, sweat, and lingering sewage. Sprawling in various positions around the hut was a family of five, and a young girl was lying in the hammock. I tried to keep my face expressionless, but their reality hit me like a 10-foot wave. I had to consciously will myself not to cry.
I tried to keep my face expressionless, but their reality hit me like a 10-foot wave.
The young girl appeared to have something wrong with her. She couldn’t look at us or smile or talk. Her limbs were angled awkwardly, and she was unable to sit up. She flopped her arms in greeting, and then I noticed drool dripping out the side of her mouth. She needed my clothes because she had cerebral palsy, and she had to have her pants changed many times a day.
When I handed her family the clothes, I suddenly felt embarrassed. While walking to their hut, I had been thinking that I was finally needed; I was going to make a difference. But as I set the bag down and strained a smile, I realized that this donation was really nothing. The family nodded their heads and looked grateful, but there was a palpable heaviness in their little hut. My small donation would not solve their problems; it was as though I had put a Band-Aidon a gaping wound.
The missionary’s curse is that there is always more to be done. Being a privileged person serving an underprivileged community brings the harsh realization that the world is severely unbalanced. I’m part of that world, and when I looked at the girl in the hammock, I realized how unbalanced I was.
I had come on this trip wanting travel, wanting to check off another country on my bucket list. Yes, I was excited about the opportunity to serve and feel good about doing something to change a small part of the world. But this mission trip had been all about me.
But how do we separate our selfishness from our desire for experience, our desire to feel good about all that we do to help those in need?
In time, I realized that I had not been making service a daily practice. How many times have I turned away from the homeless person by the freeway exit? Or accepted local volunteer opportunities? If a friend asks me for help on a homework assignment or for a ride to the airport, do I happily give them my time?
My answer, unfortunately, is almost always “no.” I am selfish with my time. Even though I will likely travel outside my home country for mission trips in the future, I must not overlook the chances I have to serve each day: helping the homeless in the park; donating clothes and shoes to Goodwill; sending money to an orphanage in Honduras. I dare not miss even small opportunities for service.
I had placed my “acts of service” in a box, to be taken out only for major mission trips or large charity events. I love the Adventist Church for its dedication to mission work and world service, but I worry that many of us, myself included, see serving others as only a small part of our lives. Yet God calls us to be His servants, to embody servitude in every aspect of our lives, not only when it is convenient.
Perhaps it’s time we answer Him.
Julia Ruybalid is a graduate student at La Sierra University in California.