Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Among other things, my job involves leading foreign mission teams. Specifically, I travel to Uganda, Africa. If you want to go, message me in the comments at the end of this article.

Leading a mission team is tricky. For one thing, people don’t always understand why they are going on a mission trip. We don’t go on missions to throw money at people, to build things they could have built better without us, or to create little American Christians.

That last one is especially true.

I was blessed to travel with a team in March of this year. It was the first trip since before the pandemic shut down travel, so we were all a little curious about the impact the virus would have on international travel. God provided an amazing spiritual experience for each of us—as He always does.

When you go on a mission trip, it can be a transformational experience in your life. God speaks to everyone according to the purpose given to each person. So, people often reflect back and find that they learned different lessons along the way. Here’s a few observations from the trip.

The Lesson
When I wrote the evening devotionals in early 2020, I had no idea, at the time, I would not get to use them for a year. I wrote them from my own personal experience as a way to walk through the trip with people and get each person to contemplate what they were experiencing each day.

The day I sat down to write the devotionals, a reminder popped up on Facebook from eight years earlier. I used it as the opening scripture for the first lesson.

“If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”

Psalm 139:9-10 (NRSVA)

I don’t even remember why I posted that verse on January 29, 2012 but maybe God knew I would need it on the exact same date in 2020. Context is important with scripture and that passage is part of a larger psalm about God being present and guiding you even when you are not seeking him—but the part about him being with you as you “take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea” is comforting to think about when you’re flying 7000 miles around the world.

The Real Lesson
When Jesus shared the parable of the Good Samaritan, he was responding to a religious expert who correctly said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” After Jesus commended him, the theologian followed by asking Jesus a question.

“Who is my neighbor?”

Then, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan who—upon seeing an injured man in need of assistance—took him to an inn, nursed his wounds, and paid for his care. Jesus’ answer was likely unexpected. Your neighbor is not limited to the person who lives next door or down the street. A neighbor is not limited by proximity, geography, nationality, race or any of the other ways we divide ourselves into groups in modern times. According to Jesus, your neighbor is the person who shows you mercy in your time of need.

In the study guide, one of the later lessons elaborates on this point by saying “to a Christian, a neighbor is anyone in need.” Right about that time in the week, the team learned the lesson first hand.

In the rainy season in Uganda, the dirt roads in rural areas can be precarious. There’s one cardinal rule to driving in the mud—don’t stop. We stopped.

After attempting to push our van out of the mud for several minutes, only to dig it deeper into the ruts, we experienced an amazing thing. People from the local village emerged from the fields and homes along the road with tools. They didn’t even ask if we needed help, they just knew and they started digging us out.

When the van was free, the locals turned and walked toward another vehicle stuck in the mud a few hundred yards behind us. Several smiled and nodded as they passed, but then they were gone as quickly as they had arrived. That day, they were the Good Samaritans. That day, the team found some new neighbors.

Lesson learned.

The Purpose
Relationship is the first priority for any mission team. Sometimes, people go on mission trips for the wrong reasons. Too much focus on the wrong things can do harm in the long term.

Of course, there are times of service to the community but it’s important not to invade someone’s life for a short term and expect long term change. You are not a super hero and you are certainly not a savior. Long term change will not take place on a short term visit. It’s important for the host organization to have a long range plan for the community and for you to respect those plans.

Short term missionaries should never throw money around and should not try to do jobs the locals could do better on their own. That robs them of their dignity and wastes valuable time. Short term missionaries shouldn’t travel around witnessing to strangers with hellfire and brimstone comments.

No one has ever been saved by those.

The Wanderer
In Uganda, and other parts of Africa, the word Mzungu is usually associated with white people. In fact, the word applies to any foreigner or tourist but people with white skin tend to stand out a bit. It’s not typically considered to be an insult to be referred to as a Mzungu.

In the original context of the word, Mzungu translates as “someone who roams around (aimlessly)” or “a wanderer.” Although it’s funny to think about how the term came into use, it’s also interesting to apply the term to our spiritual walk.

Believers are all on a spiritual walk, seeking purpose, seeking to serve (hopefully) and seeking a stronger relationship with Christ. Life can sometimes intrude and distract us. Problems emerge and challenge our faith. Even the good times can take us away from our prayer lives.

As Christians, we can all be a Mzungu now and then.

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