Commentary

End of an Era?

Mission trips stopped at the border

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Mission trips for teens from Twin Cities area Lutheran churches go back for decades. For any number of local Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) and Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) teens, such trips began 15 to 20 years ago. Travelers stayed relatively close to home; they mainly provided spiritual and practical help for outreach efforts already taking place on the reservations of South Dakota. Canvassing unserved villages, providing bible study materials, painting the weathered homes of needy families, and landscaping work and fresh paint for a local mission chapel were the types of activity there. The projects were followed by several days of youth rally activities in the Black Hills.

It was a spiritual work of sharing the gospel, as well as the practical assistance of helping those in need.

There is a paradigm shift that has taken place in recent times among Christian groups when it comes to spiritual efforts among unconverted people. It appears to be a movement away from an actual sharing of the gospel itself as understood with the Lord’s commission, and more toward mainly “living it” through service.

WELS youth at play with Spanish-speaking teens. Photo: Matt Behmer

Youth mission workers today are faced with this question: Should young people on mission trips provide acts of  service or share gospel teachings about Jesus?

Sharing work and word

In 2006, a dozen or so mission-interested Spanish-speaking teens from the Twin Cities began assistance to a group of Tucson-based WELS volunteers with the Mission to the Children (MTTC) organization and its gospel outreach work to 14 villages located in the Altar valley of Sonora. MTTC began about 20 years ago in this outreach among the people of the area, with the result that three churches and pastors (including two Mexican nationals) were recently put into position. This was the result of the Spirit’s work through the gospel, of course, by teaching the story as well as the saving words and work of Christ.

The assistance offered by Twin Cities area Spanish-speaking teens there included working with 20 to 60 children at a time, at three or four villages a day, with songs, Bible stories, and activities, while the local missionary conducted Bible studies for the adults often under a tree in the village square or at a local facility. (Some older children scheduled for instruction at the local Catholic church on the square occasionally excused themselves for that, then came running back to these mission group activities apparently with the local instructor’s blessing.) MTTC volunteers there also provided certain basic humanitarian aid of food, health care, and other high-priority family needs.

Is there a role for such practical assistance working along with this gospel outreach? Probably so. But not, one believes, to the neglect of the converting and life-changing aspects of the gospel. The board of Mission to the Children programs allocates about half its budget for each, and calls such aid a “bridge to the gospel.” Well-meaning folks might be comfortable with just bringing material aid. These Minnesota Spanish-speakers were attempting to balance both Word and action in their outreach activities.

Unbeknownst to the teens, this work in the Altar region was being carried on over the years under the benevolent oversight of the local Mexican cartel leader. That “peace” was shattered in the spring of 2010 when violence broke out near several of the villages served as this cartel was challenged by an outside group seeking to extend its control into the area. MTTC volunteers began to receive warnings from the locals and were sometimes stopped by truck loads of dark-shirted armed men. The growing danger of robbery, kidnapping, or worse brought on a decision to suspend operations in Sonora for a time.

The border in effect was closed to planned mission trips in Mexico for Minnesota Spanish-speaking teens.

Where to go from here?

Plane tickets to Tucson had been purchased long before and were not refundable. So a decision was made instead to spend that July week working with the Santo Tomas church of Phoenix and its local gospel outreach, as well as on the Apache reservation where significant numbers of Spanish-speaking people have been showing up. Efforts at sharing God’s word were not completely halted by the terrible situation that is sending many of these people in Mexico fleeing from their own homes and their villages. But for the time being, Minnesota teens have been stopped at the border.

Minnesota WELS and ELS youth also participate in faith sharing. Photo: Matt Behmer

Youth mission workers today are faced with this question: Should young people on mission trips provide acts of  service or share gospel teachings about Jesus?

Will humanitarian aid, helpful as a “bridge” for mission workers to reach those in need, ever be an answer in itself to the problems of Mexico, or, dare we say, to growing problems in our own land? While it may play a role in opening doors, it doesn’t really accomplish the more important changes in hearts and minds that one seeks. Only the love of Christ as found in the gospel can do that, recognized inidividuals involved in the efforts. In the end, there seems to be a role for both service and the Word. A balance that must be sought.

Until the border opens again as safety and order is restored, these Spanish speaking teens from the Twin Cities in the future will seek an outlet for their mission trips in other areas. It may be a more secure place deeper in Mexico; or perhaps the Caribbean. It may be by joining the other WELS / ELS teens from the Twin Cities who each year travel in larger bus groups of 50 or more, and who in recent years also have been making mission trips to Orlando, Houston, Denver, and this year to the San Diego area. There, outreach work with a dozen or so churches at a time takes place, and potential Spanish-speaking opportunities for work can also be found.

Perhaps this is the end of an era along the southern U.S. border. Perhaps events there will keep that area closed to Spanish-speaking mission interested teens from Minnesota.

Wherever they end up, a continuing question will be: Is it just humanitarian aid that is to be offered? Or, will these mission trips resist the popular “new paradigm” by still following the Lord’s commission in personally sharing a gospel message too? Can a realistic balance of service and Word be found? One that will help open doors, yes. But one which also will allow real changes of heart, mind, and soul to take place. Much depends on the answer.

Arnold Lemke is a Wisconson Evangelical Lutheran Church pastor and a youth coordinator for the Saint Croix Conference of WELS.

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