A letter from Tracey King in Nicaragua
September 10, 2009
Talk radio always reminds me of riding in the car with my dad. It reminds me of the countless times we would pull up to our house and just sit there, listening intently to the story being told. There was nothing that could get us out of that car until we heard the famous tag line “And now you know…the rest of the story.”
It’s been years since I have listened to Paul Harvey’s radio show, but as I am preparing to head to the United States for mission interpretation and reflecting on some of my struggles as a missionary, his famous line “and now you know…the rest of the story” seems to get at a lot of what I’ve been feeling and thinking lately.
As regional liaison for Central America, I talk to many people who share with me the life-changing experiences they have had through short-term mission. The sights, sounds, and stories of poverty have changed the way they see the world. The people they meet are powerful testimonies to faith and hope in the midst of devastating poverty. The stories that stick with them are an essential part of their mission experience. But after nearly 10 years in Nicaragua as a missionary, I’m finding it’s harder and harder to tell those inspiring stories.
God’s mission field is all around me, and great things are happening. I have traveled all over the region spending time with our partners and building relationships. I’ve made a long-term commitment to do my part to further Presbyterian mission integrity, especially in Central America. This commitment has helped me earn the privilege of becoming a part of the lives of the people here. I experience the day-to-day struggles, I see what life is like after the mission teams leave, and let me tell you, it is complex.
I wrote a letter back in July of 2002 about a young man named Nestor. (There's a copy of that letter on my home page.) Nestor was a street child on my block with whom I developed a friendship. One day after I noticed some changes in his personality and behavior, he shared with me his testimony. While visiting a local Pentecostal church something powerful touched him and changed his life. His conversion got him to stop using drugs. I shared Nestor’s story of God acting directly in his life because it challenged my own faith journey as I look for a balance between a social gospel and a message of personal salvation.
Soon after telling Nestor’s story I returned to the United States to get a master’s degree and was away from Nicaragua for a couple years. During that time I knew nothing of Nestor’s life, though I thought about him often. After I came back to Nicaragua in 2005, I began asking around about him. Some neighbors told me he’d been caught breaking into another neighbor’s house to steal food and spent two or three years in prison. This made me sad, but to be honest, with the life he was living he was lucky it hadn’t happened earlier. But having witnessed what seemed like real transformation in his life, I didn’t know how to make sense of it all. Now, when people ask me about Nestor, I’m not sure what to say. I don’t want to take away from his powerful story, but telling “the rest of the story” feels like some sort of betrayal to him and to the power of God to change him.
I believe that God did touch his heart. A miracle did take place, but then life went on. The structures of violence and social injustice surrounding Nestor remained the same. The harsh reality of living on the street, the pangs of hunger and temptations to use drugs and steal soon took back control of his life. He made some bad decisions and ended up paying a high price. But his story doesn’t end there either. Every now and then I get updates. Nestor’s been out of prison for a couple of years now. My friend and fellow missionary, Ellen Sherby, wrote about inviting him and a buddy to church one Sunday morning. He accepted that invitation and even participated in worship by reading Scripture. I have no doubt that life continues to be hard for Nestor, but it sounds like he has gotten it together to some degree.
Nestor’s story is one example of why I find it difficult to boil my mission experience down into poignant vignettes. Long-term mission service has given me the gift to go beyond the stories that fit into neat little boxes. It is messy and complex, at times disheartening, and it can even disappoint. God is at work, but there are many bumps and bruises along the way. Our work is never really complete. We must continue to engage and be active in the building of God’s kingdom. Our faithfulness is dependent on knowing “the rest of the story.”
There is a great opportunity coming up for you to hear “the rest of the story.” During World Mission Challenge (September 25–October 18), I, along with about 44 other PC(USA) mission co-workers, will be visiting hundreds of congregations to share about how we and our mission partners are participating in God’s mission around the world. Learn more at the World Mission Challenge Web site or by calling Ellen Dozier at (888) 728-7228, x5916.
Blessings and peace,
The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 274