The spiritual implications of being prepared for the unexpected on a mission immersion trip are grounded in an image of mission being like a treasure hunt, an adventure in which we discover God through the encounter with the other, often the one who is poor and marginalized. This is an image that is quite different than an older idea of mission that you show up somewhere with God already in your suitcase, like a door-to-door salesman. You are the there to deliver the Good News, carefully branded and packaged from your own culture and experience and damn those who are not ready to accept to it.
The notion of discovering a God already present and at work in the people and culture is one that Jesus tried to impart to his disciples. When he sent the 70 out on mission for the first time in Luke 10, he tells them to take nothing for the trip, no money, bag or even sandals. It puts the disciple at a disadvantage and in an uncomfortable position of dependence. Unlike the person showing up self-sufficient and loaded with product to sell, the disciple enters the encounter poor and needy. One person described mission as “one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.” At first I interpreted this as me being the beggar with bread to share. I’ve come to learn though, that I am the beggar in need of bread.
God hit me across the head with that realization in a new way on my recent mission immersion trip to Jamaica. Many think of Jamaica in terms of the beautiful white sand beaches, luxurious all-inclusive resorts, the delicious jerk chicken, reggae music and tropical rum drinks. However, Jamaica cannot be reduced to a postcard. The Jamaican people and culture are complex with a rich history. A land of many blessings and beauty but also challenges and difficulties. In Jamaica the average salary is roughly 1/10 of what it is in the United States. Although great strides have been made in independence over the years since the horror of the middle passage (slavery), the economy remains saddled by IMF (International Monetary Fund) policies and debt that dims the future.
Last week I was in Jamaica with a group of parish ministers from the U.S, mostly deacons, for a mission immersion trip and one of the places we visited was Blessed Assurance. This a ministry of the Mustard Seed Community that serves severely disabled children (cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy, blindness, developmental delays, scoliosis, microcephaly, progeria, etc.) , some of whom who have been abandoned by their families. Maryknoll Fr. Leo Shea connected with the community when he was on mission in Jamaica several years back so we always try to spend a good part of the day there.
To be honest, this hasn’t been a highlight of the trips for me. I have had difficulty in being present to people in this community who suffer from these problems, and it’s an issue that I’ve had to look at as to why it disturbs me. I think it raises questions for me about what it means to be human and how this fits into God’s plan for creation that kids would be born with these problems.
When we went last week, the children were gathered in a covered veranda. Many were in wheelchairs and only a couple could speak. I tried my best to go around and greet most of the children. Some were more responsive than others. There was one young man, in a wheelchair, with whom I tried to connect. He seemed vacant, unresponsive to my words or touch and his movements were spastic. I felt uncomfortable and moved on.
After a while we moved to the chapel for the daily prayer service. We helped push the wheelchairs and get the children to the chapel. The wheelchairs were lined up in the back. By happenstance, I ended up next to the young man I had encountered earlier. I was tempted to move and sit next to one of the more interactive kids, but decided to stay.
When the singing started I was surprised by how he seemed to come alive. As I sat with him, I became more and more aware of him as a person. He reached out to me and we held hands. He tried to move in closer so I put my arm around his shoulder. I began to feel a strong connection with him..
Towards the end of the prayer service, he leaned into me and put his head on my shoulder. I looked at him and his eyes were intently focused on me. A broad smile was on his face. I returned the gaze and as our eyes locked, I felt a surge within me, a sudden realization that I was looking into the eyes of God himself. As I held the gaze, I felt the most pure experience of love. Through this young man, God was looking up at me and telling me how much he loved me. It was one of the moments when all time stops and everything fades away. I became overwhelmed and then as suddenly as it had happened, he turned his head.
In the look and smile of this young man, who I was so willing to dismiss as a broken person and who seemed incapable of doing pretty much anything, God showered me with love. I was humbled to realize that it was I who so desperately need the love, perhaps more so than the young man. I was the beggar who received bread from another beggar.
And, that is the paradox of mission. As Pope Francis reminds us, we go forth as a community of missionary disciples seeking the encounter with the other to share the Good News of God’s love. But we quickly realize that in this holy exchange. we receive so much more than we can give.
Matt Dulka is a deacon for the Diocese of Oakland in full time ministry with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers as a Mission Promoter.