Friday, October 19, 2012

Let the children lead them

About eight years ago, when I was the youth elder at the church we were attending, the idea formed of a transgenerational mission trip. We envisioned taking families, high schoolers, singles, couples, seniors...any and everyone who felt called to it. And while we were still in the talking stage, somehow, the whole ball of wax became my baby, or at least I was the human in charge. I never once thought I was really in charge of any part of it.

We had a whole lot of takers that spring. Before we reached our air-ticket deadline, we had 52 people on our team, ranging in age from 5 to 72. There were actually six children on that trip. We were all very excited about what God would do in and through us that coming summer. We were "Blessed to be a blessing," as we put on our matching yellow shirts.

But then one Tuesday night, I went to my very last meeting with the other elders, along with the man who was taking over as Youth Elder. With his wife and two young daughters, he was also part of our mission team. At that meeting the mission elder told us that the mission committee had decided that no one under the age of 11 should go on mission trips because they'd be unlikely to actually be team members. Read that to mean, they didn't think children could share the gospel.

My reaction was fast and furious. And I mean red, hot furious. Thankfully, I only asked what Beve would call clarifying questions that night. I wanted to make sure I absolutely heard this correctly. Then I went home and wrote a response (which I found tonight):

In 1995, on our second high school mission trip to the small Tlinget village of Hoonah in SE Alaska, a family of two brothers and one sister came to our M.A.D. (Music, Arts and Drama) camp, that our youth group was putting on for the children of Hoonah. Crystal, Frankie and Jeremiah were wild, wild children. Tlinget families, all native Alaskans for that matter, receive monies from the government and many of them drink and smoke this substantial amount of money away while neglecting their children. These children's family was no different. Jeremiah, who was five that year, came with his siblings each day with a huge backpack full of candy. I mean it was LOADED--and they didn't need an ounce of sugar, if you know what I mean. The three of them were so out of control that our high schoolers wanted to bar the doors of the little First Presbyterian Church of Hoonah (like there might ever be a Second?) as soon as they saw those little hellions coming on their bikes, Crystal carrying Jeremiah behind her, while Frankie toted the backpack. Before the second day was over, we were calling them "the Herdmans," from the Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
We tried putting them in appropriate classes, but they wouldn't stay there. They collected like dust bunnies under the stairs to eat their candy and bounce in the sun. The teen teachers came to us in concern, then frustration, then annoyance, then downright disgust. They couldn't handle them, then they WOULDN'T. We had a mutiny on our hands.

Except we also had children of our own. SK who was six. KM, who was eight. These two little girls liked candy. A whole lot. They liked these kids who were handing out treats from a bulging backpack every morning. And before you knew it, our kids had brought those 'Herdmans' downstairs to climb all over Beve like little monkeys (and Jeremiah really did look like a little monkey!). And by half way through the week, SK was sitting in the basement helping a couple of them make those bead bracelets--you know, the ones where each color represents something different about Jesus and salvation? And KM had Jeremiah at a table with her dad, who was drawing boats for him. Talking about things they knew--they lived on an island, they knew boats. 
And one afternoon, while the others were out playing on the gravel, I came out the front door where SK was sitting on the steps with little Jeremiah, quietly telling him the story of those colored beads. Who Jesus was, Did Jeremiah know Him?  Had he ever heard about him before? It was a simple thing. She was six. He was five. What could it mean?

Then the last evening we were in Hoonah, just before we had to march down the one paved street to catch the ferry, we stood up in the old clapboard church to sing to the pastor and his wife. They'd been good to us, we wanted to bless them. I remember we were singing, "Will You Be The One?" It was our theme song. "Will you be the one to answer to His call and will you stand when those around you fall?...YES, I'll be the one." Anyway, the back door swung open and there was Debbie, the Herdmans' mom. She wanted to thank us. She'd seen us at the musical we'd put on, but she wanted to see us again, to say she might start coming to church if Pastor Greg didn't mind. Debbie only had one front tooth and she was a big woman. She'd lived a whole lot of life. Rough life. Those three kids we'd gotten to know over the last ten days were the last in line of a whole lot of kids. She'd lost one, too. One named Jeremiah, so she'd named her baby after the one she'd lost.  Someone loving her baby--her babies--meant a lot to her. So we sang another song for her, and by then SK, and KM and...well, all of us were bawling because we were leaving. When it felt like we were right on the verge of getting to the best part. If you know what I mean.

By the next May when we'd decided to return to Hoonah for a third year, we'd heard that the church had grown from 40 to about 120, in part because Debbie had become a Christian, and was telling everyone she knew about Jesus. One Sunday morning, just before church, Beve was called into our church office to take a call from Pastor Greg in Hoonah. Little Jeremiah had been hit by a car the day before and had died instantly. Our Jeremiah. And Pastor Greg was calling with a request straight from Debbie and her Tlinget clan. In Tlinget culture, 40 days after a person dies, the spirit ascends into heaven. And on that day is held a feast. The 40 Feast. Exactly 40 days after Jeremiah died, we'd be in Hoonah. We'd almost decided not to go back to Hoonah that year. I'd almost decided not to take SK that summer. But all those 'not's didn't happen, because we were going to be in Hoonah, where we'd sing at Jeremiah's 40 day feast.

This gives me tingles and tears to write, even now, so many years later. To invite a non-native group into a sacred Tlinget ceremony, to ask us to feast with them, was huge. We were their honored guests. We did, of course. Crying, singing, thanking God for the privilege, remembering that wild, dirty-faced gap-toothed little boy and his mother who stood through every song. And afterwards, the elders of the clan stood and spoke in Tlinget about us. And then someone translated the words that had been spoken. What we later learned is that it's almost unheard of for any translations to happen during such occasions, so that alone spoke to what we'd meant to the people. A door was opened between our people, they said. We had truly brought God to them.

Debbie later wanted to see SK. To hug her. KM wasn't there that year, so it was only SK to hug. But Debbie told me how much Jeremiah loved that bracelet, how he'd tell her what every color meant, how he called it his Jesus band.

I don't know how God looks at all of this. I will say this. What if SK and KM hadn't gone to Hoonah that year? The high schoolers weren't doing it. They didn't like candy enough, for one thing. They had certain expectations of how their classes would go. But our children--younger than 11!--just took what was offered, accepted who they found and shared what and WHO they knew. And it was life-changing. For Jeremiah, for his mother. For a town.
And yes, for me as well.
I know I'm biased. Of course I am. But the fundamental truth is that people are in the Kingdom because children led them there.

PS. The children on our Mission Team were not only 'allowed' to go to Mexico with us, but given full status as members of our team. We should never be surprised at how God's faithfulness in our past is the very help in times of trouble that we need for THIS day. Over and over I learn this. Praise Him.

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