It was the summer of 1999. I remember it like it was yesterday. The first time I participated in a cross-cultural mission trip was to Haiti, a small island in the Caribbean Sea with a rich cultural history. Students from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Kentucky State University met at Miami National Airport to take a quick hop over to Haiti. I am sure in the hearts of each student there was a slight hint of fear, not knowing what to expect upon arrival in Port Au Prince.
Unfortunately, I was not with the group since my passport arrived late.
My campus minister told me that I could travel to Haiti alone, but he would understand if I decided against it. As my wife and I prayed about the foray into a foreign culture, I prayed feverishly to discern God's will. Frankly, I was afraid to travel to a developing nation without the protection of Uncle Sam. I wasn't going to Haiti as an infantry grunt on military orders, but as a short-term missionary who knew very little about the country and its people. Nevertheless, I placed my trust in God because I knew every Christian must strive together to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). I purchased my ticket.
During the flight, my heart was beating furiously as I wiped my hands on my shorts to keep my sweaty palms dry. I thought to myself, "Man, I need to go to the lavatory again." This was the fourth time in two hours. So, I quickly dashed to the latrine before the stewardess could say, "It's time to land. Go back to your seat."
Once the plane landed in Haiti, I received a dose of culture shock that continues to challenge my use of money, food or clothing. The vast amount of poverty that I encountered after exiting the airport terminal stills my heart. There was a crowd of about 200 people, tightly squeezed together, with multiple voices simultaneously yelling, "Hey…hey…taxi…let me help you!" A man reached for my small handbag, beckoning me to go with him. I clinched it tightly, sternly saying, "No thank you!" My emotions vacillated between fear and sadness. The eyes of a small child pierced my heart as he stood with his mother outside the gate. Without his speaking, I could hear him asking for help. Or, at least I thought I could, because as I came closer, I could see his mother selling some small trinkets. They were saying, "Let me help you."
I dropped my head upon entering the vehicle outside the airport.
I didn't know what to think or say until Jean Baptiste, my sponsor, asked a question, "How was your flight?" I said, "It was good." Then we began to discuss some of the things that I had witnessed. He asked, "Is this your first time in the Third World?" I answered, "Yes."
He replied, "Well, remember this: it may be dirty and impoverished, but this is my home."
Those words marked me for life! You see, ministering to the economically impoverished is not about seeing them as a special project or program; it's about building true relationships with people created in the image of God (imago Dei), while modeling the incarnational ministry of Christ (Philippians 2:1-8). As we seek to minister to hurting humanity, let's remember that in God's sight, we all are spiritually poor, dead in our trespasses and sins, apart from His amazing grace (Ephesians 2:1-8).
I am thankful that I am still locking arms with other Kentucky Baptist pastors who are serious about cross-cultural missions. Each mission trip overseas brings new challenges. You can never take anything for granted. You must rely on the Spirit of God to guide and comfort you amid uncertain circumstances. God will always help short-term missionaries "adapt and overcome" temporary setbacks to proclaim Christ and build up His church in any geographic location. God says, "Let Me help you fulfill the Great Commission." We are never alone when we follow His orders to make disciples of all nations.
God promises to help you. Are you willing to give others hope?
Curtis Woods is associate executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.