A letter from Tracey King-Ortega, regional liaison for Central America, in Nicaragua
I was bitten by the mission bug long ago. I was a freshman in high school when I went to Tijuana on that first contagious mission trip. I remember it to be an amazing experience of being in a place so different from home and falling in love with people who taught me more about God than any Bible study ever could.
“Easter Project,” as we called it, was all about that mountaintop experience of God that can only be had when recognizing and serving the Christ present in others. Getting really dirty and not showering for days, sleeping on the floor, being wakened by roosters long before the crack of dawn, meeting the family of five living on the edge of the city dump in the back of their station wagon and trying to get my head around that were the experiences that gave these mission trips their real power. I felt as if I were really making a difference in the lives of the people I was serving, and I was surprised in realizing that I would gain more than I could ever give.
This was just the beginning of a life involved in mission, because I wanted those experiences to shape me. After several more Easter Projects I went off to college and was immediately drawn to participate in a semester-long study-service tour in Central America. There I learned that it was less about doing and more about being and learning. The poverty of Central America is connected to my life in the U.S., and I wanted to understand what I could do. Next was a year volunteering in Chiapas, Mexico, and then an indefinite move to Nicaragua as a full-time mission co-worker for the PC(USA).
It’s now been 13 years since that move. I’m still a mission co-worker, but at times I worry that I’ve lost sight of what brought me here. The mountaintop experiences of decades past feel like distant memories. Time in front of a computer screen—responding to emails, connecting people, facilitating mission involvement, and theorizing about mission—has made me forget about the power of the experience of mission.
Fortunately, I’m not always stuck at my desk and do get out to make human contact. Recently I was invited to participate in debriefing with a mission team from First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Not five minutes into their reflections, tears were rolling and I was once again reminded of the real power of mission trips. When people have the opportunity to connect with and listen to those who are poor and marginalized, Christ’s message becomes real. I heard stories of hearts connecting. Because they weren’t there to “do” but rather to “be,” they had the time and the space to listen. They listened to stories of mothers with limited resources but abundant love struggling to meet their children’s basic needs. They didn’t have the answers, but they sat and gifted them with the time to listen, to pray with them and to be present in their pain. Hopefully tears come later when we feel impotent and frustrated with not being able to fix it. But in that moment there was a true human connection as children of the same family of God. It was good for me to be witness to that once again.
Then the long-term missionary in me kicks in and the questions flow. These trips do provide deep experiences of Christ for many First World Christians. But mission doesn’t stop at the gate when we board the plane to go home. My hours in front of the computer are spent trying to move those short-term mission experiences to have meaning beyond that one week a year. How do we take that spiritual high we return with and make a difference? How do we keep alive the struggle to make sense of the stories and images etched on our hearts? How do we honor our experiences and translate them into real change in ourselves, our congregation and/or our community? And, how do we make this not just about us and our own experiences?
My job as regional liaison is to serve as a resource by asking these kinds of questions and facilitate dialogue around them so that in an educated way we are aware of the impact of what we have. In doing so, I find myself caught up in the theory, and I forget the exhilarating sense of feeling transformed. Time spent with visiting teams is a gift that reminds me of the power of the experience.
I want to close this letter with a Franciscan blessing that I read to the Ann Arbor group at their final reflection. Something I pray for everyone as they participate in God’s mission.
A Blessing As You Go Home
May God bless you with DISCOMFORT!
Discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with ANGER!
Anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with TEARS!
Tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them,
and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with FOOLISHNESS!
Enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
May God bless you. Amen.
Blessings and peace,