If you engaged in word association with the average Christian, she would likely respond, “Africa” to the prompt, “missionary.” For some reason, our notion of a missionary is someone sent to far off lands to live in huts among primitive people who speak some strange gibberish.
When I was a teen, my church youth group was thrilled to have a good-looking youth minister who was the son of missionaries in Papua New Guinea. Yes! Distant countries populated by headhunting tribes; now that’s where we send missionaries.
Clearly, Jesus did not intend for us all to go to Africa or Papua New Guinea because then who would be left at home to share the Good News with those who need to hear it right here in the good old U.S.A.?
Of course, the Great Commission does not say we are to go to a far off land to spread the Good News. Jesus commanded in Mark 16:15, “Go ye into all the world.” We tend to focus on the “world” part of that verse, but not that small three letter word “all.” Last time I checked, the world did not begin at the U.S. border. In fact, the “world” begins just outside my personal bubble. My immediate “world” is my family, but there is a world at hand (my neighborhood, office, etc.) as well as a world off in some exotic spot outside the U.S. Clearly, Jesus did not intend for us all to go to Africa or Papua New Guinea because then who would be left at home to share the Good News with those who need to hear it right here in the good old U.S.A.?
Having attended a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church as a teen, I have always considered missions to be an integral part of my faith. My parents hosted missionaries on furlough in our home, financially supported those on the foreign mission field, and regularly prayed for the missionaries who pictures were posted on our refrigerator. Breaking bread with or praying for missionaries were activities I joyfully and easily undertook; however, later in life I began to ponder whether I was supposed to do something a bit harder, i.e., go to “the mission field.”
So those on the mission field have to “do” something, right? I have a law degree. I was not aware of any great demand for lawyers on the mission field. Being a doctor, nurse, construction worker, or pilot, etc. is a much more practical occupation for a missionary to have. Sorry, God. Apparently I am not of much use to you on the mission field. Ha! Of course I forgot that God’s thoughts are not my thoughts and His ways are not my ways. (Isaiah 55:8) God’s response? Well, if you aren’t going to the mission field, why don’t I bring the mission field to you?
And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. Mark 16:15
When my youngest child left for college, I began looking for alternate volunteer activities. No longer having to spend hours helping with activities at my children’s school, I felt let to devote more time to helping my Father. When our church held a commitment Sunday, I eagerly scanned the laundry list of suggested ways to serve. What caught my eye was the need for an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher/assistant for the ESL program as part of a joint effort of churches in the Niceville-Valparaiso area. Just outside Eglin Air Force Base was a community outreach ministry. Hey! I can speak English. No training required there. I had assisted for years in children’s church and had taught college classes as an adjunct B.C. (Before Children). Surely I could help out as an assistant in the classroom. So, I volunteered. I spent a handful of weeks assisting before the regular teacher went on vacation and never returned. (Well, she came back to the area, but not to teaching.) I was swiftly promoted to classroom teacher.
Teaching English brought the mission field to me. No passports, shots or packing were required to teach an ESL class here in the U.S. I did not have to move to a hut; I could stay in my home sweet home.
Teaching English brought the mission field to me. No passports, shots or packing were required to teach an ESL class here in the U.S. I did not have to move to a hut; I could stay in my home sweet home. Encountering headhunters was not a danger–just road rage from testy motorists while driving to the local church where the free program is offered.
My community is surrounded by military installations. As a result, there are many foreign residents who literally married into our country. Their active duty spouses brought back living, breathing souvenirs of time spent abroad. And these souvenirs do not always speak English, but they want to learn how. The mission field literally came to me; foreign individuals were actively seeking out opportunities to learn English.
A variety of countries are represented in our ESL program. Students from China, Guatemala, Mexico and Vietnam were in my first class. Subsequent classes added students from Indonesia, Cuba, Colombia, Peru and Japan. I mingled with students from Turkey, Thailand, Spain and Germany during breaks. Talk about going into all the world….
My ESL class is small, so there is ample opportunity for personal interaction. Students are encouraged to talk to practice their English. While the course book is secular, I supplement it with Bible stories and Bible verses to illustrate unit topics and vocabulary. For example, for a unit on health we read about Jesus healing a blind man, and for our unit on free time we read about Jesus attending a wedding feast in Cana.
The ESL program’s class schedule includes a dinner break with a meal provided; a pastor offers a short devotional while students are eating. Students take great pride and joy in bringing ethnic dishes to share with their fellow students and teachers. Nothing bonds people faster than sharing food. One night during the dinner break I had a student ask me if I was paid to teach my ESL class. I told the student that I was not. The student was confused. Then the student asked,
“So, you work all day and then you come here and teach this class at night?” It did not make sense to her. Yes, we Christians are a strange bunch, helping people with nothing really “in it” for us. Our students know that their ESL teachers truly care about them. The goal is to have our students see the Father in us just as Jesus said the disciples could see the Father in Him. (John 14:9.)
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you such a long time, and do you not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father. How do you say, ‘Show us the Father?’
In my case, I did not have to travel to another continent to begin serving on a mission field. Teaching an ESL class locally has provided me with the opportunity to make friends from different countries and to share God’s love with them without having to move to a far off place. Mission fields are all around us if we just open our eyes to the possibilities—or God opens our eyes to them. The “world” Jesus commanded us to go into includes our own community. My melting pot mission field is in an air-conditioned church building a five minute drive from my house. I am not in danger of losing my head to a headhunter on my mission field, but I might end up with tears in my eyes from eating authentic spicy Thai beef salad made by an ESL student. God’s command to me to “go” involved a foreign world right in my own backyard. Where might He be telling YOU to go? It’s a small world after all.