hero default image
One of my most meaningful mission engagements was my first mission experience.
A van full of adults and two teenagers (my brother and I) left early one morning from East Tennessee for a day trip to an Appalachian region of Kentucky.
There we met another group of people, and we were all separated into two groups.
One group divided and delivered clothes from the local Baptist center to families in the area, and the other group built outhouses.
Yes, you read correctly – the second group built outhouses.
This is not how I imagined mission work to be.
Let me explain.
I participated in GA’s (Girls in Action), a Baptist “Girls Scout” club for elementary girls to learn about missions.
I read books about missionaries from around the world, learned about foods people ate in other cultures, and listened to visiting missionaries speak of what they were doing.
I donated toiletries that the adults would take with them on their trips to Africa, gave money to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for children around the world, and I prayed that people in far off places would come to know and love Jesus.
The world was also a much smaller place then.
There were no cell phones or internet with information in my hands, instant television with an array of options, vast opportunities for international travel, or many cultures within a few blocks.
What I learned about other cultures and missional work was limited to my surroundings, and this was rather small at the time I grew up in East Tennessee.
Back to my first mission experience.
I was not so much disappointed in the outhouses or passing out clothes.
I am half Puerto Rican half Tennessean, with my Tennessean half being from the Appalachia mountains of Tennessee.
I was familiar with outhouses.
In fact, my grandparents had one, and I had experienced it quite often.
I had also been on the receiving end of others giving me used items.
No, I was surprised and did not understand why we could not do more.
I had envisioned missional work to be grander and more about taking Jesus to others.
Why were we not putting bathrooms in people’s homes?
Why were we not helping install plumbing?
Why were we not passing out new clothes?
Why were we not telling others about Jesus?
I did not learn the answers to these questions that day, but I learned other valuable lessons.
I learned about working with, not doing for.
We did not step in and do anything for this group of people.
They led the building projects and clothes distribution.
They knew who needed what in their community.
We were there to be extra hands and do what needed to be done.
I learned the value of listening to what those in a community need and want – not what I think they need.
This group of people identified what they needed for their families and received it.
They were also extremely grateful. They took great pride in their community and showed it by caring for each other.
I learned that missional work is not all about giving but also about receiving.
People welcomed us into their homes, their lives, and their families.
They shared lemonade and sandwiches and offered water during breaks.
They taught us their skills and how things were done in their community.
I learned to think about what I donate to others.
Many organizations now give gift cards and let people choose and buy what they want for themselves.
People may say, “but the clothes are still good”.
This may be true, but I learned to let others decide what they need and want for themselves.
I learned that they were like me.
They too were doing the best they could in the world with what they had.
They too loved Jesus and wanted to do good things in this world.
Instead of “taking Jesus” to others, I learned to look and see what God was already doing there.
I could decide to join in or not.
I learned that missional work does not have to be on a grand scale in a far-off land, to look around me and do what I can in my own community, and to give back just as I have received.
I learned that change takes place on many different levels at various times.
I still would have liked to have done more for that community, just as I wish more had been done in my own.
I wonder at the disparities in the world when some people have so much and others so little.
I do what I can where I am and hope that it can grow.
I learned that anyone of any age can participate in missions.
I went on to lead missional endeavors in my own high school and town, and I even became a GA’s Camp Counselor!
In college, I participated in missional work in Puerto Rico, Latin America, and throughout the United States helping youth be leaders in their own communities.
As a minister, I worked with families who participated in local nonprofits and community development while at the same time developing and expanding partnerships with international nonprofits and communities to work together and learn from one another.
My first missional experience was 25 years ago.
It is no wonder that I am now a social worker and currently work as a psychotherapist.
Much of what I do now emerged from those lessons: I work with people to help them discover what they need for their lives at this time.
It is different for different folks; but regardless, I am invited into and have the privilege of walking with them on their journeys.
How we want to help others may not be what they need or want; but if we can open our eyes to what is already there, we may be surprised what we ourselves learn.
God is already at work in this world. How do you want to join in? No one can tell you how to do this with/for your life. The work is to get clear for yourself. At the same time, you are not alone. There are others who are on the journey with you.
If you would like to know more about how you can be a leader that utilizes guiding principles and values to help your ministry and life, I encourage you to check out the Leadership In Ministry workshops also offered through CTS CLL at https://www.ctsnet.edu/lifelong-learning/postgraduate-programs/leadership-in-ministry/
Vanessa M. Ellison, MSW, MDiv. is a Bowen Theory Psychotherapist and Coach in Richmond, Virginia. She also serves on the faculty of the Leadership in Ministry clergy training program at the Center for Lifelong Learning. Vanessa has clinical experience with individual, couples, family, and group psychotherapy and community-based services and ministerial experience serving local congregations, missional settings, and non-profit organizations.