Sometimes it feels that missionary work is like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. There are so many needs around with no end in sight.
I like to think of each drop of kindness as having a rippling effect that touches many other lives. I’m not one for cheesy Halmark card theology but I also believe we are not equipped to judge the eternal significance of what we do.
Take Annette for example. She is a widow, HIV+ and mother of three daughters. Her youngest daughter, Doreen is probably 25 years old but has the mind of a child. Despite Annette’s diligent care and faithful protection of her daughter, Doreen was raped and now has a two year old son named Joel. Suffice to say, What satan meant for harm, God meant for good. Little Joel is a blessing to all who know him and a treasure to his grandmother.
Recently, Annette’s tiny mud hut developed cracks after a huge rain storm. My husband saw it and invited them to live with us. I was in full agreement of this decision and very excited to hear the pitter-patter of little feet in the house again. In fact, before long we not only heard his feet, but his laughter, yells and even cries. Joel was most definitely, in the house!
We enjoyed a lively interaction with this dear family. Annette has a fun loving, easy going personality and was soon working hard around the house, helping us cook and clean. Doreen, who is mute even picked up a few words and began learning sign language. But it was Joel who took over the place. We soon realized that he was deferred to in every situation and basically was treated as the king he knew himself to be.
We were all busy living on love and sunshine when the dark clouds of culture began to appear. First of all, I needed my children to translate for me if I was going to communicate anything to Annette. She didn’t know a lick of English and I was just as hopeless in Lumasaaba despite all my efforts. Next, one of Annette’s other grandchildren, Hope, appeared. She came one innocent Sunday afternoon and never went home. We took it all in stride and thought the more the merrier. Hope was cute and loving, so we welcomed her and added one more plate at the table.
Then the table required many more plates as each Sunday lunch expanded to include Annette’s other two daughters and their children. At one point the Annette’s out number our family two to one. But I laughed it off and told Annette to cook more rice next time.
Then Annette began to spend more time in her garden and would come home late, only to find food ready and waiting. We started getting the kids ready for school in the mornings as well. Soon, it was as if we were the parents and Annette had lost her ability to care for her own. I was afraid we were creating dependency. I fear paternalism in missions more than the plague.
My pathetic attempts at communication with Annette to address the problem, were met with shy laughter and promises to do better. This compounded my guilt and kept me up at night. As an American I had been to direct and impatient. Little things took on mammoth proportions and I felt like the honeymoon was over.
Then Annette’s daughter, Faith, gave her life to Christ and began faithful attendance to church with her children. Faith’s husband wasn’t as happy with this new development as we were and began threatening her. The wife of Annette’s son, ran off to Kenya leaving her children to Annette’s (and therefore our) care. We now had more grandchildren staying with us and the pressure mounted.
One weekend, I’d had enough. My husband was away on yet another mission trip and felt I was stuck in the house with people who had backed me into a corner. Then the Lord opened a way where there seemed to be no way.
I am still amazed at His guiding hand. When Rev. Shissa came, as usual, to read the Bible in Lumsaaba for our audio recording, we began talking. As professional colleagues, I had never shared with Rev. Shissa on a personal level, but was at my wits end and needed expert advice about this culture. And who better to ask than the man who had taken the last 13 years of his life translating the Bible into Lumasaaba for the Bible Society of Uganda. Oddly enough, Rev. Shissa was the one who officiated my wedding in Uganda some 16 years ago.
I debated whether or not to cross the line from office relationship to friendship, knowing there would be no going back. I’m usually a very private person but felt I had no choice. I needed help.
As I opened up, I found Rev. Shissa understood my fears not only about opening up, but about failure, effectiveness and doing God’s will. I also found out that he is a psychologist by training and actually teaches psychology at the university level. He was able to give me practical steps to manage stress, reduce self-accusation and improve follow-through. We never made it to recording the Bible that day, but I knew from that moment on, I would be more effective in all aspects of ministry and my personal life.
The next morning I had an eye opening conversation with my 12 year old daughter Kana. She has lived in Uganda since she was one month old. While talking with me, she was able to act as a bridge between cultures. Kana compassionately explained to me that we were not creating dependency in Annette, but actually relieving the burden on an overworked godly woman.
Sure the ripple effect is a powerful metaphor. Sometimes I still feel like I’m only making tiny drops in the bucket. And let me tell you, sometimes that constant dripping can feel like Chinese water torture. But in the end, I have to say, like the Psalmist David,
“You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”