I recently received an email from a reader. She had a question for me. “So what’s an Accidental Missionary?” she asked. “I want to follow your blog, but I’m a bit confused about what it’s all about.”
So here's the answer in two parts. To understand the roots of this blog, we gotta' go back a few years.
(cue dream music and wavy screen distortion)
The Accidental Missionary: Part 1
As you have heard, Gabby and I went on a long term-hiatus from our corporate jobs roughly ten years ago to spend a year doing mission work in Guatemala through the Presbyterian Church USA's Young Adult Volunteer Program.
We were not qualified.
Sure, we had both gone to church all our lives, but never prepared for official spiritual service. To give you an idea of how green we were, one day we were scrolling through a devotional together and ran across a reading from the book of Amos. We looked at each other and said,
“There’s a book of Amos in the Bible?”
You get the picture.
My job in Guatemala was supposed to be to teach leadership and project planning to a group of pastors in the Southwestern part of the country. This was totally in alignment with the work I was doing in the States. The idea was to encourage the pastors to transform their tiny churches into outlets for social service. Nutrition projects. After-school programs. Preventive health education.
The sponsoring organization through the Presbyterian Church told us ours was a “ministry of presence.”
“Just be there,” they said.
Who wants to “just be?” I thought. Where's the glory in that?!
So I devised a plan to save the world. Upon arrival, I was dismayed to learn that the pastors simply didn’t have time for the training I could offer. Most of them worked 6 days a week in back-breaking labor on the coffee farms, earning just 2-3 dollars per day to feed their families. On Sundays, they spent time with family and worked at the church.
They were dismayed to learn that I had the Spanish skills of a cashier at a Taco Bell drive-thru.
Given these realities, my plans to save the world were quickly scrapped. At the urging of my supervisor, we agreed that it was best if I just taught music instead. My Guatemalan supervisor thought there would be a lot of benefit in teaching songs about Jesus. Songs with a positive message. It will be “una bendicion”, he said.
So that’s what I did.
I made phone calls to the various villages and schedule classes. Sometimes when the phones wouldn’t work, I would have to send messages the old fashioned way by word-of-mouth. When the agreed-upon day arrived, I would hop a chicken bus crowded with my fellow Guatemalans and accompanying poultry or livestock and cross my fingers that I would arrive in one piece.
It was amazing.
No matter how delayed I was – sometimes one or two hours - I always found the tiny churches full of women and children ready to sing with me. Seeing a tall, gangly, red-headed guy was such a novelty that people would often gather at the open air windows of the wood or cinder block churches to catch a glimpse. I felt a bit like a gringo Garth Brooks. I was surprised at how overwhelmingly generous people were. One group even handed me a live chicken before I left as a thank you for my visit. I nearly peed myself, both from excitement at the gift and terror at trying to corral the still-clucking bird.
But I still wondered what I would accomplish during my year as a missionary. What good is music?
One week in the month of November I traveled to the village of Canton Los Angeles, a tiny place tucked away in the trees just a dozen miles or so from the Santa Maria Volcano. I had been there before and noticed that the people loved music and responded to it with tremendous energy. However, most of their songs reflected struggle, pain, and hardship. It’s what they related to the most.
Preparing for my visit, I made sure to select some positive stuff, per my supervisor’s instructions. Songs of hope. Songs of happiness. Songs of joy. With Christmas fast approaching, I yanked a bunch of tunes from Kasey Kasem’s Holiday Favorites list and rode 90 minutes by bus and pickup truck to the village.
When I arrived at the church, I greeted everyone face-to-face. Shouting “Hello Everybody!” to the room was viewed as cold, so I made sure to shake every hand and exchange pleasantries.
After meeting everyone, I looked around the room. Roughly twenty people had arrived. Some were there as participants. Others were there as tag-alongs. Everyone was eager and attentive. However, I noticed one boy in particular sitting next to his mother, staring off into space. He was probably eight years old, wearing a pair of brown, well-worn jeans and a hand-me-down plaid shirt that was misbuttoned. His mother would lean over and say a few words to him every so often, but he was unresponsive. He had a blank look on his face, and looked completely miserable. I wrote him off as someone who simply didn’t want to be there and focused on the others who were engaged.
For the next two hours, we talked about joy, empowerment, fulfillment and relationships. We used songs and spiritual passages to punctuate points. There was a lot of activity. Everyone tried their hand at playing a tiny electronic keyboard someone brought from home. We belted out happy Christmas songs until we were hoarse. Most sang loud enough to rattle the tin roof. Though many couldn’t read (including the boy’s mother), they participated by quickly memorizing songs. The energy in the room was contagious.
Still, the boy was a lump. A complete void. Never moved.
Once we had finished, I gave the floor to the pastor of the church. He was incredibly gracious and thanked me for being there. There was genuine appreciation in his voice. What’s more, he wanted the group to pray for my health and safety for my remaining time in Guatemala.
“It can be dangerous here for tall gringos like Scott” he said.
Everyone laughed. My face turned red.
Then, he motioned to the mother of the boy. She took her son by the arm and led him to the front of the church to stand next to me.
I thought, what’s this all about?
The pastor then looked in my eyes and said,
"Scott, I'd like to introduce you to Josue. He fell down an incline four years ago and badly hurt himself. Three months later, he lost his eyesight.”
He then pointed to a six inch scar on the boy's head, visible through his close-cropped hair.
“The doctors in Guatemala City operated to remove a tumor that had formed, but that's about all they could do. So... today, we would also like to pray for Josue. If you would be so kind, we would like you to say a few words in your own language."
I was floored. What an ass I had been! I finally realized why Josue was so miserable. Poverty is hard, but it is especially hard on the handicapped. The expectation is that a disabled person is a drain on society as there just aren’t enough resources to provide adequate care and development. Josue had been tossed aside. He had spent the past four years sitting around the village or being led around by his mother on her errands.
Humbled, I prayed for the boy. I prayed for a miracle. I prayed for healing. And I silently prayed for God to open my eyes to the world around me.
When I had finished, many people came up and touched Josue and said "God bless you". There was a lot of pity and compassion for the boy, but it was obvious that they didn't see much hope for him, save for some miracle from above that would give him new eyes.
The people continued to mill about. In the crowd, a man invited me to join him for lunch at a his family's house. Another asked for music. Another woman asked when I would be coming back. Through it all, I noticed Josue sitting in the corner by his mother.
That’s when I heard the voice inside. A powerful voice. Like James Earl Jones mixed with Charleton Heston. It was prodding me to action.
So I walked over to Josue and said,
"Josue, would you like to play the keyboard?"
He didn't respond. He wouldn't talk to me. Then, his mother turned to me and said
"El no puede."
Normally, I wouldn’t challenge a mother. However, this was different. By pure luck, I was born in a country where Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles do American Bandstand and sing Pepsi jingles.
I grabbed the boy by the arms.
"Tu Puedes! Ven Acá!"
You can! Come here!
I basically kidnapped the kid and carted him up to the front of the room. There, the keyboard sat on a table. Josue was still expressionless. I took his hand and ran it around the perimeter of the keyboard. Finally, placing his fingers on the keys. I said,
He was incredibly shy. Understandably so. After an uncomfortable moment passed, he pressed down on one of the keys and it made the sound of a pipe organ from a tiny speaker. He giggled as the corners of his mouth turned upward.
We spent the next fifteen minutes running his hands across the keys to learn the difference between the black ones and the white ones. We learned where middle C was. I asked,
Can you feel it?
He answered me,
As the minutes wore on, he responded more and more. Then, he started pressing the keys without prompting. He was smiling and giggling the whole time. I stood behind him with my arms around him, holding his hands in different positions so he could play actual chords.
Finally, I asked Josue if he wanted to play and sing "Silent Night."
He agreed with a big nod. So, with my hand over his, we played and sang the song.
Noche de paz Noche de amor Todo duerme en derredor…
When I looked up, I noticed the whole room was watching us. Silent. How long had they been standing there?
Someone motioned to me that we needed to leave. It was getting late, and darkness was not a friend to guys like me, so I walked Josue toward his chair. I asked him if he had a good time.
“Sí”, he said.
As he sat down, Josue’s mom was smiling. A tear hung on her cheek. She put her hand on his head and mussed his hair.
Like moms do.
It was then that I realized my calling for the year. It was not to create huge training programs. Or teach leadership.
It was to give Josue the gift of music.
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