“So how was Spain? What did you learn?”
This is for those of you who want an actual honest answer to that question and a tiny peek into my heart at the same time. If you only want to hear some platitudes about what you think was a vacation where we kissed babies for a picture, don’t waste your time reading this and wait until you ask me in passing.
I first heard about this trip last November, via a campus-wide e-mail at my college saying there was going to be a mission trip to Spain summer 2013 and that there would be an information meeting in the evening. The first email piqued my interest, merely by being a travel opportunity, but I deleted it, attributing my interest merely to my own incessant wanderlust and nothing more, because “I don’t think God is calling me to Europe”. Two or three more reminder emails later, I read through the details of the meeting and checked with my hectic schedule with the realization that this meeting coincided with the one time my night class had been canceled. Honestly, I took that as a sign I needed to go, along with the gut feeling that it was imperative that I went to this thing.
So I went. And I was one of three people who did. My leader was there, with as much information as she had at the time: the team was going to be working with a couple of long-term missionaries in Madrid with immigrants from a Moroccan tribe that is completely unreached. The team might be cooking with the Moroccan women, might help with a needed project at the Friendship house, might be doing something with the kids, or might be doing something that wasn’t even on the radar yet. Whatever it was, God was opening doors in Spain and He was calling some of His people to go. Looking back, it’s possible she never said that last bit, but I can’t be sure because all throughout the meeting God was right there with me, not suggesting that this might be a cool idea, but telling me that I needed to go. No question, no doubt. After the meeting, I called my mom right there in the HUB and told her about this meeting and this weight that God put on me telling me that I was going to go, because He knows me intimately and knows I wouldn’t turn away from a calling that obvious. After talking with both parents on the phone, it was confirmed that I would sign up at the first available opportunity.
The next nine months brought my jam-packed schedule (with coffee dates planned 3 weeks in advance with close friends), 2am support letter stuffing after homework (Colby, you’re a champ for helping me), and having to rearrange school and work commitments in creative ways to attend team meetings and retreats in preparation for this trip.
Granted, all the team meetings in the world could not have fully prepared me for what was coming.
I knew that God was going to use this trip in big ways in my life since November, simply because His leading could not have been more clear to me if I had a neon sign replacing my mirror in the morning. However, I had no idea how to brace myself for God’s refining fire.
It started the hour I left camp to go to my home church. Everyone at church was quite busy with VBS that was to start that evening, and I was taken by surprise by a lack of some of my closer friends there and an abundance of unfamiliar faces. My perception was skewed, and I allowed myself to entertain emotions of feeling like there was this great distance between me and my church family. These feelings of separation were abetted by having conversations with various people during VBS and realizing that I have been very out of the loop of the lives of some of my closest friends. All of this was magnified by my inability to get together with friends in the 3 days I was home and the necessity of unpacking from camp and repacking for Spain, alone.
Thursday morning, I left. Still unsure what to make of my teammates, I traveled with four of them across the country and then the Atlantic. About 17 hours later, we were through customs and picked up on what we were told was Friday morning. We were united with the Portland half of our team and began talking and asking questions about each other and what we were going to be doing over the course of the trip. I forced myself to be outgoing but was inwardly not trusting any of my teammates, simply because through various personality tests we had to take as part of our preparation, I knew that I was in the midst of a team chalk full of non-confrontational introverts (who happen to be harder to read than you lovely extroverts who wear everything on your sleeve. Surprise!).
Saturday, I woke up struggling. My friends Amanda and Michael were getting married that day, and seeing as I played a key role in introducing them, it was breaking my heart that I wasn’t in Spokane that day to hear their “I Do’s. We spent an exhausting day cooped up and planning the upcoming week of English camp while having no freaking clue what the kids were going to be like or where their English was, and I felt useless after an overheated afternoon of troubleshooting ideas and coming to the realization that I didn’t know what it was going to be like to teach 5-15 year olds English. However, I was refreshed ever so briefly at dinner when I was given a glimpse of how Abba had prepared me for this trip when I was able to keep up in a conversation with five Spanish speakers. (Oh yeah, for you folks at home who I “suck at keeping up communication” with [these being the exact words said to me by a friend] I just took a year of Spanish to realize that I won’t be continuing with it for my major, instead I will fulfill my requirements first by taking a year of Swahili and then two years of Chinese. Go ahead and call me crazy. If I had a dollar for every time someone has said that to me [now also in Spanish!], I would be able to pay off all my student loans.)
Monday, the missionary we had joined told us his testimony. For some reason, the part that stuck with me was telling us about his college years and figuring out where to go with his life and saying “I was ready to follow God and I was only sure of one thing: that I wasn’t going to be a missionary overseas.”
Read that first sentence again. Clearly that worked out just like he thought. Granted, this seems to be a very common sentence in the midst of a missionary’s testimony, but it stuck with me.
That evening, my team went into Madrid, and as we were walking I was talking with God and He was talking back. Telling me that I don’t know where He’s going to send me, but I couldn’t rule out the US like I have been. That it doesn’t matter if I never leave the United States again after July until I die, or if I end up living abroad indefinitely. What He’s concerned with is if that’s even an option for me and my heart. Like Abraham climbing to the top of that mountain, my heart needs to be prepared with again surrendering my dreams and plans. The point is not that God gives me that sacrificial ram at the last minute, but that I will still serve Him with all that I am if He has other plans.
Ok, Abba, I see why You brought me here. I was more willing to listen to You telling me to stay put when my feet were wandering like they itch to. Got my big life-changing lesson for the trip. Cool.
(Meanwhile, Abba was up there gently shaking His heaven and saying “Babygirl, this trip has only just begun for you.)
Oh yeah, and as this story progresses it should be noted that all through this I was also fighting off unexplained, weighty sadness, distrust of my teammates, missing friends back stateside, feeling like I was being negatively judged, feeling useless, trouble sleeping, heat that zaps energy, frustrations with different cultural expectations, stereotypes, and shallow judgments, and a lack of anyone to vent to.
Tuesday my heart was broken by gaining a fuller understanding of the oppression and hopelessness of these women and children we were working and living among. I began to gain a more thorough and practical understanding of the importance of unity in the body of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to break down barriers we use as petty excuses, such as different views or even different languages, and unite His people in ways that should not even be possible, much less doable. But He is able to do what we scarcely hope to dream. We were privileged to witness a glimpse of what the ministry might grow into in the future; a blessing that took the team and the long-term missionaries by complete surprise. The next day I found my niche working with the teenage girls instead of the little kids for one day. I was positively steeping in blessings, but could hardly enjoy them because I was caught so off-guard by the feelings of isolation and despair that I was spiritually paralyzed. I continued to be in the Word, but struggled with having any meaningful time talking and listening to God.
Protip: when going on a mission trip, particularly one to an unreached people group, letting your guard down in regards to your past weaknesses, struggles, spiritual attacks, etc. = bad move.
Friday I hit breaking point. During English camp. I had to separate myself from the kids for a solid ten minutes while I just melted into a pile of tears and sweat and exhaustion. The entire team was absolutely drained and exhausted from the week we had, so we went back to our respective dwelling places for the week to rest after English camp. Five of our teammates went into town, and against my own philosophy, I stayed back simply because I knew I could not emotionally handle walking around with people for another three hours. I took my journal, my Bible, my iPod, and went to the only possible place I could think of to be alone and undisturbed. I cried. I sang at the top of my lungs. I worshipped. I talked to Him. And for the first time in days, I listened as He said to me, “Why are you crying? It doesn’t matter if you feel useful or appreciated. That’s not why you serve. I have promised to use you if you let me. You let me. So I’m using you. It doesn’t matter if you see how. You need to trust Me. Remember that it is not you working; it is Me working through you. I am God. I love you, and I love my people. And it is I, who knit you and everyone you come into contact with in your mothers’ wombs. I know how you will affect one another. Trust Me.”
Ok, Your grace is sufficient. In my weakness, Your strength is used and Your power is shown. Trust You; You know what You’re doing and where You’re leading. Got it.
But wait! There’s more!
After this breaking session, God granted me a time of rest… but not complete peace. I finally got the opportunity to talk with one of my sisters back home who I could just tell everything to. After a few more minutes of chatting, she mentioned how assorted people back home genuinely missed me.
My response was one of surprise. Which, logically, made no sense. These people who have missed me are the same people I have missed. We’re close.
Still troubled by this, later I had some time with God and was talking to Him about my surprise and the confusion with those feelings. It was then that He showed me just how much I had let my guard down with the enemy and how deep his lies had lodged themselves in my heart. I had actually been tricked into believing that some of the most meaningful and spiritually feeding relationships in my life were more or less one sided, with them not bothering to think of me and miss me back home. Things that, when brought into the light of truth, turn out to be even more ridiculous than the tree branch outside a child’s window that convinces them of a certain death by boogeyman during the night.
For I am surrounded. By Love. By a great cloud of witnesses, cheering me on. By my brothers and sisters in Christ, scattered all across the surface of this tiny blue ball we are on. By my friends and family and the people who are so much a part of me that I’m not sure which category they belong to. And most of all, I am surrounded by my Creator, my Abba, who holds galaxies in His hand but whose thoughts of me outnumber the grains of sand.
This is my story of Spain. Finished at 2:05 am Madrid time, eight hours before my plane will leave to take me back to my side of the Atlantic, because writing is what I do and I know I will be asked “how was Spain?” and when I speak on a big question like this I always look back and mentally facepalm myself because I never say what I wanted to. Believe it or not, this is the shortened version, not even touching on the incredible brothers and sisters I met on this trip who have made such a deep impact on me in such a short amount of time. My faith has been deepened, my heart has been opened, my mind has been enlightened, my defense against the enemy has been sharpened, and God is continuing to move me towards the next adventure.
Don’t worry; I’m working on my barely-even-an-answer answer to that question for the people who want 50 words or less. 😉