I often refer to short term mission trips as a 7th grade dance. All of the locals stand on one side of the room waiting to be asked to dance, while all of the visitors stand on the opposite side waiting to be approached. Awkward tension is ripe in the air and everyone is wondering who will dance first.
For teams, it takes intentional relationship. I encourage visitors to just get over their nerves, not worry about how good their Spanish is, or what they will talk about but just reach out. And it works. Much like a 7th grade dance, everyone wants to connect but it just takes someone stepping out of their comfort zone and stepping into the awkward zone. Honestly, it is one of my favorite parts of missions because at worst, it can be painful (but normally downright hilarious–imagine a welcome event with your Senior Pastor where Salvadoran men dress in drag and lip sync) and best case you actually connect with someone.
There is no thrill like connecting with someone that God has placed in front of you. You may not share much language and most of your relationship may involve pointing to things, but somehow you can still feel something. There is a joy in connection, a rightness about unity. Often this is the big aha that people take home from their trip. There is one person, one moment of laughter, one shared experience and we are forever changed. I have seen this to be true throughout El Salvador, Uganda and Rwanda. God often calls us to unity but rarely do we experience it in such a intense shot of connection.
For me, that has happened pretty profoundly with a kid named Odongo Dickens. I met him last year, wrote this post about him in June and saw him again on a trip to Lira earlier this month. (Doreen made sure we went to his school because she knew I wanted to see how he was doing.) As I wrote previously, Dickens is a tough little kid that has already been through hell. He is a true orphan with no loving adult in his life. He has the most serious face of any child I have ever seen and always seems to be the odd kid out. Last visit I had to work at getting some smiles out of him and he has never left my thoughts. Every day I pray that God is near him and that he knows how loved he is. Every day I worry a little about him and wonder if he has had enough food or shoes on his feet. Every day his face burns in my heart.
Well, this recent visit was just as awkward as any other. We were only there for about 30 minutes and he was yanked out of class to sit in a circle of visitors. He literally did not say one word the entire time. We handed him a soccer ball and he mostly looked confused. And yet, it was a beautiful reunion because when Dickens came out of his class and seriously observed the faces of the visitors, he smiled when he saw mine. OK, maybe he half-smiled but that is saying a lot for this kid! And when he came to shake my hand as he did with all the other guests, he did not resist my fake out handshake that became a tight hug and leaned into it. Doreen and the head Master teased Dickens about his “mzungu mama” and he grinned and sheepishly looked down. The visit was over in the blink of an eye and that evening I realized that I will not make it back to Lira to see him anytime soon. That was hard to take.
Tonight as I sit back and think about Dickens, it dawns on me that God placed him into my life to burn a hole in my heart for kids like Dickens. A hole that is permanent. A hole that is bigger than any management frustration. A hole that will leave a scar. A hole that will ever lead me to action and never let me be OK with a little boy struggling in life on his own. I’m not sure how God will lead me to act. Prayer is obvious. Thanking the Krill’s for sponsoring him and keeping him in school is important. Checking up on him in any way that I can is good. Yes, I have even considered adoption, but no matter where God leads me with Dickens, I know I will never be OK with him being alone in the world–with him not experiencing the deep love that Jesus has for him.
It seems this is where some of the power comes from reaching out across an ocean or across the street or across a junior high cafeteria. God works through people and we have the power to impact one another like nothing else. I have always felt deeply for orphans, but Dickens has a name and a gorgeous half smile and there is no way I will ever forget him. I hope that in my mzungu goofiness I have also impacted Dickens and at least made him feel a moment of joy, a little lightness–at best that he truly is remembered and loved.
As I prepare to sleep, I encourage you to look around and see who god has for you to connect to today. I am sure there is someone and I bet it will be a little bit awkward, but that is where the best stories begin!