Mission work isn’t just a Cinderella story

The shoe that doesn’t exactly fit

By Ellen Sherby
Ellen Sherby

Presbyterian World Mission’s Ellen Sherby gave up visions of glass slippers for mud boots as she learned that both mission and marriage are about long-term partnerships. (Courtesy of Elmer Zavala)

In some ways, my marriage is a reverse Cinderella story, one in which I realize that no matter how hard I might try, the shoes of my husband’s family might never really fit me—and that’s OK. I’ve learned that when it comes to marriage—and mission work—it’s not about making the shoe fit, but the relationship that develops after we try it on.

I married Elmer, a Honduran pastor from a large, mostly rural family who would be considered poor by middle-class, U.S. standards. Early in our marriage one of my brothers-in-law asked me point-blank: “Your dad is rich, right?”

I paused to think how to respond. Relative to Elmer’s family, my family is rich. I grew up in an affluent university town. My parents both had advanced degrees and worked. They owned our three-bedroom house, and we never worried about our next meal or how to cover a medical bill. We could take family vacations each year, and it was expected that my brother and I would go to college.

In the community in which I grew up, my family was not considered wealthy. But to Elmer’s family we are rich. The idea of what it means to be poor or rich has been shaped by our communities and life experiences. In the United States, I’m middle-class. In Honduras, I’m rich, even if I don’t think of myself that way. I know this intellectually, but I can never truly see myself from my brother-in-law’s perspective.

I just cannot get into his shoes to see myself clearly. Nor can he fit into my shoes to see himself either. But that’s what the mission journey is about: trying on different perspectives like shoes and discovering new ways of seeing the world. My in-laws’ shoes and perspectives will never be my own, but every time I try to put them on, my worldview gets bigger.

By knowing that we can’t truly walk in another’s shoes, we can become humbler and gain a healthy perspective of God’s mission as a journey founded in grace-full, equitable and sometimes challenging relationships.

My journey

Elmer and I met through a PC(USA) mutual mission program. We fell in love during the program’s orientation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in which a group of five Central Americans and four North Americans lived in community together, learning about one another’s countries and life stories, learning a new language, and sharing faith and fellowship.

Afterward Elmer and I each returned to our country of origin, sustaining a long-distance courtship for two years without the use of the Internet. It was the 1990s and so our relationship grew through handwritten letters, recordings on cassette tapes and monthly phone calls.

Finally the time came. Elmer moved to Nicaragua to continue his theological studies, and I packed my wedding dress in my carry-on bag and moved to Central America. We got married on a beach in Honduras not far from his village, and we began service and mission work in Nicaragua.

After over 11 years in Central America we moved to Louisville, Kentucky, for me to accept a call to work in the office of Presbyterian World Mission.

The romantic view

During our courtship and early marriage, I confess, I romanticized the relative simplicity—some might say “poverty”—in which my in-laws lived. Somehow life seemed simpler and purer in the countryside, without electricity and with a staple diet of tortillas and beans.

I loved walking up the footpath from the two-lane road to get to their house, crossing streams and trekking uphill under orange trees and through a cow pasture, arriving breathless at their adobe and concrete block house as a chorus of barking dogs rushed out to announce our arrival.

But with time I realized that Elmer’s family was anything but simple. They are just as beautiful and complicated as anyone else’s family anywhere in the world.

I wasn’t born in a country village off a beaten footpath in Honduras. Neither were my children. I’m not Honduran, and our family doesn’t live in Honduras. When we visit family there, we are guests for a short time, soon to return home. With each visit the romantic view fades, and I learn more about them and their world.

The things I’ve learned in my marriage are similar to the experience many of us have on an international mission trip. Often, we have a romantic notion about helping people who are poor and making the world a better place. But the reality is that rich, poor and what it means to help are all seen differently, depending on where you are from.

For example, those who might be considered rich think of poverty in terms of material things like food, clothing and shelter. Low-income people around the world often describe poverty in far more psychological and social terms, not as a lack of material wealth. They often express a profound sense of shame, inferiority, helplessness, vulnerability and social isolation, explain Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in their book Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions: Leader’s Guide.

Elmer and Ellen

Ellen Sherby and Elmer Zavala learned that in the marriage of different cultures the romantic vision gives way to the understanding that people everywhere are both beautiful and complicated. (Courtesy of the Zavala-Sherby family)

Jo Ella Holman, PC(USA) World Mission’s regional liaison for the Caribbean, remembers discovering how different people experience the world on one of her first shopping trips when she began her mission work in the Caribbean.

“During my first year living in the Dominican Republic, standing in line at the local fruit and vegetable stand to purchase food, I had my list, as usual. I watched and listened to those in front of me as they made their requests: ‘Two stalks of celery, one onion, one tablespoon of butter.’ One tablespoon of butter? How was that possible? Then I watched the merchant take a stick of butter from the refrigerator, cut off one tablespoon and wrap it in paper. This small episode shook my sense of ‘wealth’ and ‘poverty’ as well as my sense of justice to the core. ‘Food for today’ became a real prayer.”

She says there will often be a disconnect between some U.S. citizens’ perception of poverty and how those living in poverty experience it.

Recognizing the local culture

Hundreds of thousands of Presbyterians get involved in mission and outreach locally, nationally and internationally. We have the best of intentions for helping others. “But how do we know we’re really helping?” asks Fran Early, co-author with Connie Newton of Doing Good . . . Says Who?

Elmer, Ellen and family

Elmer, Ellen and family today (Courtesy of the Zavala-Sherby family)

“Connie and I have seen so much goodwill among those who work to improve the lives of people in another culture, and yet the disconnects loom large. We wanted to explore the many viewpoints and discover where connections happen best,” Early said.

Newton says that even building a new medical clinic can create challenges.

“When a young mother and her baby die in childbirth, tensions rise among older and younger generations, within families, and among local midwives. Will the new clinic be able to bridge these differences?” Newton said.

Newton added that an effective partnership recognizes the local culture and doesn’t simply import and impose its own standards. Newton and Early suggest these guidelines for successful partnership:

  • Be humble. One gift of the dominant culture in the United States is a drive to get things done, to fix what is broken. We are good at this! But more often than not we are not the best ones to “fix” anything for an individual or a community in a different culture and context (whether in the U.S. or in another country). It is humbling to learn from and to listen carefully to the people whom we hope to serve and call partners.
  • Listen to what is needed. Even as we go into a culturally different community eager—and often able—to help, there is no easy way for us to know what the person whom we are serving really feels, thinks, needs or wants. But all is not lost! Over time we may be able to learn (or come closer to learning) what is truly needed in a community by actively listening to our partners and seeking cultural interpreters to “bridge the gap” between our world and theirs.
  • Do “with” rather than “for.” Each community brings assets, strengths and priorities to the table. Engaging in mission together is easier said than done. Partnership requires a truly mutual decision-making process. Some communities may say yes to a project they don’t want or need because accepting gifts is part of their culture. As in marriage, we must remember that our partners are people who can lead and participate in their own development, in their own context and on their own terms.
  • Develop realistic expectations. Understand what can reasonably be accomplished during a short-term mission trip or while working on a mission project that is far from the people we seek to serve. It may be most realistic for mission and outreach activities to focus on developing a partnership for at least a couple of years before starting a project together.
  • Seek long-term relationships. This takes time, patience and vulnerability. It means recognizing that we can leave, but they can’t. When I visit my husband’s family, I do so knowing we have insurance plans, credit cards, protein bars (when beans don’t quite hit the mark) and a plane ticket home. Becoming partners means two-way giving and two-way receiving. In mission this means deciding on projects and outcomes together. Building cross-cultural relationships takes time, growing trust over years. Experience helps. Mission co-workers can be useful “bridge people” in international partnerships.

An ongoing process

Mission partnership is a commitment that leads us to the unspeakable beauty of relationships across an ever-shrinking and ever-widening globe. As Christians we never stop learning, loving and living into God’s mission. We keep striving humbly to walk in one another’s shoes. In doing so we continue to discover new, more faithful ways to engage in God’s mission, together with brothers and sisters in our communities, our nation and around the world.

Ellen Sherby is the coordinator of Equipping for Mission Involvement for Presbyterian World Mission.


Learn more

Resources for planning a mission trip, beginning or growing a mission partnership, finding a mission worker and related information: pcusa.org/missionresources.

Doing Good . . . Says Who? Stories from Volunteers, Nonprofits, Donors, and Those They Want to Help, by Connie Newton and Fran Early. This book delves deeper into the points in this article and includes a discussion guide.

Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions: Leader’s Guide, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. The authors use a paradigm-changing approach for mission leaders and participants. An accompanying video series is available at: chalmers.org/media/entry/helping-without-hurting-in-short-term-missions-haiti.

The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community, by Eric H. F. Law. This book offers insights and suggestions for living and working with people of different racial or ethnic groups and cultures.


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