Monday, February 28, 2011

Mangos, Cakes & Bikes, Oh My...

atauflo mangos, grown in the state of veracruz, mexico

Last month I had a long breakfast with Dr. Alberto Zamacona at Marco Polo Restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Alberto and his wife Laura head up Project Compassion Oaxaca, an organization that shares the Gospel of Christ through medical outreach clinics to indigenous people groups in Oaxaca.

I listened as Dr. Alberto talked about his ministry and some of the lives that have been changed as a result of it.

At one point I shared with him about our ministry using photographers to give families a portrait and the church a way to connect to people they are not already serving.

That began a time where we talked about ways to really help people in some of the areas where we both work.

Let me first say that we are both engaged in ministry to some of the poorest people in Mexico. Oaxaca is the second poorest state in the country and home to majority of the 50 poorest cities in the nation.

Many people in the state lack access to basic necessities like running water and electricity. Concrete floors in many of the homes outside of the cities are a luxury and few people in the rural areas have a regular job that can provide enough food to feed a family.

Both Alberto and I have seen this first hand, and it is an important part of understanding why we believe in a holistic approach to ministry. Put simply, spiritual health is only part of the equation when you are serving in these areas.

Effective ministry in distressed areas must focus not only on the spiritual health of people, but their physical and economic health as well.

This is why my ministry, Adventures in Life, has been working to increase crop yields, provide basic economic help, and facilitate medical clinics in Oaxaca, alongside kid’s outreach clubs, camps, and pastoral training.

As I listened to Alberto, I was getting excited, because in a sense, he was preaching to the choir. Yet he was sharing from a much deeper understanding of the struggles of rural life in Oaxaca than I had.

He asked me if I had connections to some bicycle mechanics, and then went on to explain that many people in the outlying villages did not have cars so they got around on bikes. And like cars, those bikes would break down.

What if, he asked, we brought down a few bike mechanics, offered to fix bikes in the outlying villages, and then taught the skill to the people there? The result would be a blessing to the community and some folks, as newly minted businessmen, would be better able to feed their families.

What about cakes? Did I know a cake baker? Because every village has celebrations, but few have someone who can bake quality cakes. If we can teach that skill to a few women, not only will the village have cakes for birthday parties, weddings and quinceaƱeras, but again, some people will be able to make a living that puts food on the table.

And then he started talking about mangos. Mangos, that wonderful tropical fruit that during the summer months is all over Mexico, but in quantities too large to consume in the few months they are available. The result is that thousands of mangos rot on the streets and in the markets each year.

Maybe he suggested, we could use our connections to develop a women’s co-op to can and preserve mangos, or even mango salsa, that could then be marketed to the tourists that visit Oaxaca each year. Imagine of we could empower a large group of women in something like this. We could see real life change in ways that would make a real difference today in the health and well being of potentially hundreds of men, women, and children in Mexico.

Now imagine if all of this came through the Christian witness of the church.

When asked why we were doing this, we would respond that we were trying to radically model Christlike servanthood in a broken and hurting world. And then as the relationship, that started with a very practical living out of the Gospel grew, we might get that opportunity to share about spiritual healing, Jesus, and eternity.

You think that would make a difference for Christ in Mexico? What if all of our missions around the globe took this approach?

Mangos, Cakes & Bikes, Oh My!

Think about it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Thinking Outside the Box... A Different Portrait of Short-Term Ministry

[Julia and Santiago in the first portrait they have had since their wedding]

You have probably seen this before if you’ve ever been part of a short-term mission trip.

Some poor guy is hopelessly out of his element simply trying his darnedest to serve God and the people he is visiting. Yet the task he has been given is one that literally is designed to make him a failure.

And then in that failure, his leaders will offer up some verse from the bible, usually 2 Corinthians 12:9 where Paul says “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” The thought being that God has a chance to really work on us when we are in, and acknowledge our weaknesses.

But my question is this. As short-term mission leaders, are we really being good stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to us if we follow this line of logic?

Here’s what I mean.

You are a local church pastor trying to recruit a team for a short-term mission trip. Bill comes to you and says he would like to come. A local contractor, Bill has no language skills for where you are going to serve, and is not really a people person. However, since you know you need a certain number of people, you take him anyways, trusting that God will do something in his heart during the trip.

So Bill takes a week off work, gets on the plane with everyone else, and spends his week learning about God showing him strength in weakness.

While all of that may be good for Bill, perhaps the effectiveness of our short-term mission efforts would be enhanced if we, as leaders, thought a little more outside of the box.

I recently had a conversation with a doctor in Mexico who holds monthly medical clinics in some of the poorest areas of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Listening to him, I was challenged to move beyond the traditional ways of considering short-term mission.

Typically, as outsiders, we tend to focus on evangelism and construction as areas where we can make a difference. But as I listened to Dr. Alberto, I started to hear some affirmation of my own mission philosophy.

While not neglecting the incredible work God can do when people are stretched and forced to live in their weakness, he believes, and I agree, that even more can be done when people use their strengths on the mission field.

While I was in Oaxaca last month, some of the folks serving with me were photographers. Now I could have used those guys to dig ditches, move rock, pour concrete, or even participate in a small local outreach. But would that have been using the gifts and skills that God had given them?

Probably not, so I used them to take pictures. Of Oaxaca, of our work, of the people in the villages where we are working. I saw people cry when they were given some of the family photos Joe and his team photographers took during the week.

Did those guys shovel any cement? Nope. Did they share Jesus through the gifts that God had given them? Yes they did, and in that, their mission was successful.

Returning to Bill, let me pose a couple of questions.

1. Might Bill receive more out of his mission if there was a way that he could use the gifts and talents that God has given him for Kingdom good?

2. Would the field be better off if people were regularly put in situations where they could excel, rather than struggle?

3. What are some of the impediments that keep us as leaders from focusing on the specific gifts and talents of our short-term mission participants?

These will get you started thinking.

Next up I will be sharing more from my conversation with Dr. Alberto and his thoughts and ideas about effective ministry and American missionaries working in Mexico.

To see some of the photos that Joe and his group of photographers took with us in Oaxaca, look up their Facebook page, Mission Focused.