By Melanie Shankle
Maybe it was partly fear of not being good enough to be truly saved or fear of missing out on fun (this is most likely), but something caused me to sign up for the youth group mission trip to Reynosa, Mexico, the summer after my freshman year. At that point in my life, I’d never been on any sort of mission trip and probably thought I actually qualified as the less fortunate because I owned only two pair of Guess jeans.
This was back when it still felt fairly safe to travel to Mexican border towns. I mean, sure, there was a good chance you’d see someone selling a goat’s head on the side of the road and be bombarded by small children selling Chiclet gum, but that was about the extent of it. So my parents put me in a big blue van and sent me to Mexico. That last sentence sounds like the makings of a fantastic Lifetime movie.
Despite the fact that Texas shares a border with Mexico, it takes approximately nine hours to drive from Beaumont to Reynosa because you are literally traveling all the way across the state of Texas. I’m sure a Texan has never told you this, but we have a big state. We also like to own a lot of things in the shape of our state, but it’s not our fault God made Texas in a shape that makes a nice waffle.
Our van caravan was driven by brave, tireless youth workers with a high tolerance for tomfoolery. This was long before the days of cell phones, so our road trip entertainment consisted of occasional stops for fast food and marathon rounds of the alphabet game and Truth or Dare (although there are only so many truths or dares that can happen within the confines of an Econoline van). Several of us also had our Sony Walkmans so we could listen to music. We’d been told that we could only listen to Christian music since this was a church sponsored trip and we were on our way to do the Lord’s work, which apparently didn’t include listening to Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. Our musical selections were supposed to consist of artists like Michael W. Smith, Petra, Amy Grant and, for the real Christian rock music pioneers, Rez Band.
However, someone may have slipped in a cassette of Van Halen’s 5150 album and caused us all to gather around two earbuds in the back of the van as we listened to “Dreams” over and over again. No offense to any of the Christian artists previously mentioned, but it’s hard to compete with an impassioned Sammy Hagar telling you to “dry your eyes, save all the tears you’ve cried, because that’s what dreams are made of.” We made our way to Mexico as Sammy Hagar encouraged us to “reach for the golden ring, reach for the sky.” That song, along with “Glory of Love” from the Karate Kid II soundtrack, were the anthems of my summer of 1986.
When we finally arrived in Reynosa, the temperature was approximately 158 degrees. I can’t remember where we stayed except that it resembled a large dormitory with several rooms of bunk beds and a shared bathroom where we all quickly discovered there was no hot water. Also, there was no air conditioning to speak of, unless you consider two small oscillating fans to be air conditioning, which I personally do not.
Sleep came easy that first night because we were all exhausted from the long trip. We woke up bright and early the next morning, ready to begin our first day of mission work, which was going to involve visiting an orphanage and passing out rice and beans to families in a remote area of town. The girls had been told to wear skirts and dresses, so I put on my cotton Esprit dress with a pair of scrunchy socks and Keds because I wanted to look extra special as I began my first foray into the world of being a missionary.
Nothing could have prepared my fourteen-year-old mind and heart for everything we saw that day. Here was a whole world I didn’t know existed apart from the occasional Save the Children commercials narrated by Sally Struthers. I’d never really known what it was to think outside of myself and my little world until this moment. It was both humbling and sobering to spend time with orphans who needed homes, who craved love and attention so much that they congregated around us like we were rock stars even though we were complete strangers.
We spent the next several days painting churches, feeding the hungry, and sharing the love of Jesus with the help of our translators. The thing that amazed me most was how much the people we met wanted Jesus. They were desperate for him in a way that we rarely experience. How desperate can you be if you already have everything you need? The people we encountered that week knew what it really meant when we told them that Jesus was the bread of life because they understood what it meant to be truly hungry, both spiritually and physically.
However, there was one evening when the language barrier caused a little confusion. One of the youth workers spoke to the local church crowd in Spanish, telling them that God was their heavenly father, but instead of using the masculine el papa, he said la papa. Essentially, he shared a heartfelt message about how our heavenly potato sent his son to save us from our sins. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some heavenly potatoes in my time, and not one of them has saved me from my sins. But I still hope they have potatoes in heaven, and frankly, I can’t imagine that they don’t.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve heard criticisms of short-term mission trips. People question how much good you can do in a few days and whether or not the local people even need their church to be painted or to have a bunch of overly enthusiastic American teenagers teaching their children all the hand motions to Father Abraham. (Not to be confused with Abraham the Potato.) And I get it. Sometimes we barge into situations with the best of intentions but don’t know how to make the most of our efforts.
Anyway, that trip to Mexico was the first time I understood what it meant to live out these words of Jesus:
“‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I
was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a
stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you
clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in
prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did
we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you
something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and
invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did
we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did
for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you
did for me.’ ” (Matthew 25:35–40)
Sure, I spent a lot of time that week flirting with boys, listening to Van Halen, shopping for cute Mexican embroidered tops in the local market, drinking Big Red, and giggling with my girlfriends late at night, but something also shifted in my heart. Now I could put faces and names with real children who didn’t have a home or family. I knew real families who were unbelievably grateful to receive a few bags of rice and beans because it meant the difference in whether or not they’d eat that week. I met local pastors who worked tirelessly to spread the words of Jesus to their congregations, not for money or to build a big building, but purely for the sake of the gospel.
On that trip to Reynosa, my self-absorbed fourteen-year-old heart turned its gaze outward and grew ten sizes. I returned home with a greater appreciation for what I had, including but not limited to air conditioning. That one week laid the groundwork for trips I’d take as an adult to places like the Dominican Republic and Ecuador to serve the people there, to play a game of soccer with kids desperate for love and attention, and to pray with families who have nothing this world says is valuable but do have an unshakable faith that humbles me—especially when they ask how they can pray for us because they have all they need. It made my eyes quicker to see the needs around me and motivated me to figure out how I could help. It gave me a much wider view of the world, one that was very different from what I saw on the streets of my suburban neighborhood.
Maybe sometimes the point of a mission trip is God changing our hearts and our eyes to see what he sees more than about an orphanage needing us to sing some songs and put on some plays. If our purpose is to become more like Christ, then I think we take the first step on that path when we begin to see things outside of ourselves, no matter how small or insignificant that may sometimes seem. And sometimes we have to leave the comfort of home to get that perspective.
God doesn’t call all of us to live our lives on a foreign mission field, but we are all called to help when we can and to love at all times.
Adapted from Church of the Small Things: The Million Little Pieces That Make Up a Life by Melanie Shankle. Click here to learn more about this title.
Is my ordinary, everyday life actually significant? Is it okay to be fulfilled by the simple acts of raising kids, working in an office, and cooking chicken for dinner?
It’s been said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.” The pressure of that can be staggering as we spend our days looking for that big thing that promises to take our breath away. Meanwhile, we lose sight of the small significance of fully living with every breath we take.
Melanie Shankle, New York Times bestselling author and writer at The Big Mama Blog tackles these questions head on in her fourth book, Church of the Small Things. Easygoing and relatable, she speaks directly to the heart of women of all ages who are longing to find significance and meaning in the normal, sometimes mundane world of driving carpool to soccer practice, attending class on their college campus, cooking meals for their family, or taking care of a sick loved one.
The million little pieces that make a life aren’t necessarily glamorous or far-reaching. But God uses some of the smallest, most ordinary acts of faithfulness—and sometimes they look a whole lot like packing lunch.
Through humorous stories told in her signature style, full of Frito pie, best friends, the love of her Me-Ma and Pa-Pa, the unexpected grace that comes when we quit trying to measure up, and a little of the best TV has to offer, Melanie helps women embrace what it means to live a simple, yet incredibly meaningful life and how to find all the beauty and laughter that lies right beneath the surface of every moment.
Melanie Shankle writes regularly at The Big Mama blog and is The New York Times bestselling author of three previous books, including Nobody’s Cuter than You. She is a graduate of Texas A&M and loves writing, shopping at Target, checking to see what’s on sale at Anthropologie, and trying to find the lighter side in every situation. Most of all, she loves being the mother of Caroline, the wife of Perry, and the official herder of two wild dogs named Piper and Mabel. The five of them live in San Antonio, Texas.