by Song (Joseph) Cho
Through describing his own personal journey, the author shares how God’s people can do their best work, following the leading of the Holy Spirit.
A TYPHON TEMPORARILY STRANDED a monkey on an island. In a secure, protected place, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he spotted a fish swimming against the current. It seemed obvious to the monkey that the fish was struggling and in need of assistance. Being of kind heart, the monkey resolved to help the fish. A tree precariously dangled over the very spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey moved far out on a limb, reached down, and snatched the fish from the threatening waters. Immediately scurrying back to the safety of his shelter, he carefully laid the fish on dry ground. For a few moments the fish showed excitement, but soon settled into a peaceful rest. Joy and satisfaction swelled inside the monkey. He had successfully helped another creature. (Elmer 2002, 14) The above is a prelude to saying that all too often I act like the aforementioned monkey. This is especially true when it comes to short-term missions. Frankly, I have lost count of the times I’ve made decisions based on faulty, erroneous assumptions despite having been involved in numerous STM trips with different Korean churches in the past. The following incident may illustrate what I mean.
I remember one summer going back to a remote village in Tixkokob, Yucatan (Mexico). As I entered the local church (the only one at the time), something caught my attention.
In one of the corners of the room, I noticed an old, wooden shelf stacked with books of the same length, width, and color. It took me a few seconds to realize that, to my dismay, they were the Spanish NIV Bibles (Nueva Versión Internacional) we brought the previous summer.
“Aren’t they supposed to be in the homes of the congregation?” I innocently wondered. I vividly remember them being distributed among the church members. I turned around and kindly asked a señora who happened to be there sweeping the church floor: “Why are those Bibles sitting on that shelf?” Little did I expect that her reply would force me to change my way of thinking in significant ways.
“Our members,” she answered, “prefer another version…the one they’ve been using since they were young.” After a momentary pause, she added, “So that’s why they put the [NIV] Bibles over there.”
With a gleam in her eyes and a faint smile on her face, she resumed sweeping the floor. I stood there pensively. A year prior, we had brought a handful of Spanish NIV Bibles thinking that the members would naturally prefer a more contemporary version than the one they had. I bemoaned the fact that it never occurred to me to ask the people whether they wanted the newer translation. The thought that I should first inquire about their likes and dislikes did not enter my mind. Needless to say, this served as a poignant testimony to my lack of cultural sensitivity—a topic I will return to later.
Arriving in Tixkokob
Rewind a year. We were all very excited at the prospect of going to Yucatan. After all, this stunningly beautiful peninsula has a vibrant history that one cannot help but think of the beautiful beaches and the temples in Chichen Itza, for example.
Once we arrived at our destination, however, our initial rush of enthusiasm clashed with the mundane reality of hardships that enveloped this remote village of Tixkokob. The sordid conditions of the houses were simply overwhelming. Stepping out of the bus, I saw a group of children with splotches of mud on their clothes. They were standing at a distance while some curiously peeked out of their doors while clinging to their mothers’ legs.
Intent on developing close friendships, I signaled them to come nearer. They came in quick strides and we instantly engaged in a lively conversation. After briefly explaining the purpose of our stay, they were introduced to the youth group members of our team. The children took an immediate liking to them and showered them with questions.
The youth group members tried their best to communicate in the language of the host country, but the children were simply intrigued and amused by what they saw. What is to be emphasized here is the need to learn the host language so that there may be greater interaction with the locals.
Before proceeding, it seems appropriate to ask why so many Korean churches in the U.S. are involved in STM trips in Yucatan. In 1905, many Koreans left their homeland in search of a better life. A large number worked in Yucatan as indentured laborers in henequen plantations under very harsh conditions. However, when their contracts ended, many laborers found it difficult to return to the home of their ancestors; therefore, by force of circumstance, they had no choice but to stay there.
Missionary work in Yucatan received a boost when many of the first Korean immigrants in the U.S. after the Immigration Act of 1965 learned about this history. It seems that church leaders planning STM trips today are regrettably unaware of this part of the nation’s history. It is no surprise, then, that a large majority of Koreans and Korean Americans are hardly exposed to the historical circumstances that fueled missionary activities in the latter part of the twentieth century. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a wider issue. Robert Priest writes,
Missiological writings, historically, have rather consistently had career missions in view, not STM. The STM movement, by contrast, has been a populist movement with minimal connection either to missiology or to seminary education. Key leaders in the STM movement have sometimes exemplified strong anti-intellectual strains, while missiologists have often been dismissive of, and even hostile to, STM. (2008, v)
There can be little doubt that by bringing to life the historical dimension of the work, one’s overall experience can be significantly enriched. This informative aspect can situate the trip within the larger framework of the history of the Korean diaspora and, hopefully, spur even further interest in the region.
A Time to Eat and a Time to… Be Compassionate
I often hear that Korean missionaries lack cultural sensitivity (Cook 2008, 14). Regrettably, over the years I have seen a handful of Korean church leaders (i.e., elders) and missionaries (who are supported by Korean churches in the U.S.) in the Yucatan peninsula treat locals—both pastors and laypeople alike—unflatteringly in more ways than one. The locals, who in most cases depend on these outsiders for financial assistance, hardly voice their complaints.
Having served as an interpreter, I encountered occasions where Korean church leaders expressed their impatience with the locals all too quickly, especially if things didn’t work out according to their plans. I even witnessed a missionary criticizing a local pastor because his congregation had not grown in size.
There is no denying the fact that these leaders come to Yucatan to spread the good news of Christ, but this is one area which has not been addressed adequately within Korean churches in the U.S. (Note that I am not offering a portrait of Korean church leaders as mean-spirited folks. This is far from the case. In fact, many of these leaders wake up early every weekday to attend sunrise service and faithfully pray for these STM trips. But it is incumbent upon us to discuss such lack of sensitivity with sustained awareness, before and after the trip.)
It goes without saying that cultural insensitivity can take many forms. Allow me to narrate what transpired one afternoon.
It was lunchtime, and I was quite hungry after a morning full of activities. I went inside a small building near a park, where we normally ate lunch together. As I was about to take a bite of my sandwich, I saw a child of 8 or 9 sitting with her knees clasped to her chest by the entrance. Then, I noticed another child much younger standing next to her.
There was something inherently wrong with this picture. Everyone started eating while these two kids watched in silence. Were we just going to pretend ignorance as if they weren’t there, hoping that they would go away? I scurried over to the table to grab some extra sandwiches.
“What are you doing?” asked one of the leaders, sensing my intention. “I’m going to give these to them,” I replied nonchalantly, shifting my gaze to the door. The leader responded, “Kindly tell them to go home and to come back later for Vacation Bible School (VBS). If you give them those sandwiches, more kids will eventually come and then there won’t be enough for the rest of us.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell those kids to come back later. Against this leader’s wishes, I approached the children. As I moved closer one of them glanced at me expectantly. I gave them the sandwiches and their faces brightened. Contrary to this leader’s expectations, the other kids didn’t come. Traces of displeasure, however, lingered on his face—at least for the remaining of the afternoon.
One of the glaring ironies of this incident is that earlier that day one of our VBS activities centered on the Lord’s Prayer. The message we sought to convey was that God is our loving provider, who gives us our daily bread. In light of this message, it would have been morally indefensible to ignore the kids by the doorway. They followed us after VBS for a reason and our indifference toward them as a team demonstrated that perhaps we weren’t emotionally attuned to their most basic needs.
Troubling questions remain: Why did this happen? How can we avoid it? And perhaps we would do well to bear in mind the definition of compassion as outlined by Henri Nouwen:
The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean ‘to suffer with’…Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. (1982, 4)
What about the Young People?
Let me share a conversation I had with one of the local señoras. I was taking a walk one afternoon when a little girl whizzed past me. She stopped abruptly and turned around smilingly. With immense effort, she tried to communicate something in English, then switched to Spanish, asking me to follow her. She led me to her house, where her mother waited patiently for her return. After exchanging pleasantries, her mother invited me to have a seat in front of the house. “Thank you for everything that your church is doing for the community,” she said. Her face displayed a modicum of concern, however, which struck me as odd.
After a short pause, she expressed her wish that we help the teenagers in the village. Although we did offer VBS for the children, we didn’t offer anything concrete for that age group. To my shock, I realized that hardly any teenager attended our events. She proceeded to tell me that many of their young people have taken to drinking and smoking in order to escape from their harsh reality.
These vices do not germinate on their own. Many families have fallen on hard times, some hitting rock bottom. Internal family conflicts have led many to leave their parental homes. Like our youth group members back in the States, these young men and women have dreams and aspirations. Under such constrained circumstances, however, it’s difficult for their hopes to materialize. This is how she ruefully spelled out some of the pressing issues facing the parents, who watch in horror the devastating effects these habits have on their sons and daughters.
There was a hushed silence, but only momentarily. One of her children appeared from the back with a small bag of chips. The mother’s countenance brightened as she cupped the child’s face, planting a kiss on her forehead. I stood up and thanked her for sharing her concerns. As I was leaving, she added, “By the way, would you be so kind as to talk to this man on the other side of the park? He’s an elderly man living by himself who spends much of his free time drinking…his son left him some time ago.”
Upon hearing this, I knew we had to address this issue as a group. We had ignored the fact that they, too, were once children who joyfully and actively participated in VBS in years past and these too demanded careful attention.
What exactly is a good Christian leader? James Plueddemann describes this person as follows:
Good leaders are fervent disciples of Jesus Christ, gifted by the Holy Spirit, with a passion to bring glory to God. They use their gift of leadership by taking initiative to focus, harmonize and enhance the gifts of others for the sake of developing people and cultivating the kingdom of God. (2009, 15)
To supplement this thought, let me make a few points.
First, we must consider the Holy Spirit. Without an adequate understanding of God the Holy Spirit, leaders can easily inflate the importance of their human efforts and slowly but surely succumb to the ravages of pride. How often do we talk about the role of the Holy Spirit when preparing a STM trip?
Second, every ministry work ought to glorify God, not those in leadership. We must ask ourselves, Is our relentlessly goal-oriented focus blanketing everything we are doing?
In The New Global Mission, Samuel Escobar demonstrates the centrality of the Holy Spirit when it comes to mission. He highlights four major points:
1. The word of promise becomes a reality by the work of the Spirit.
2. The ministry of Jesus is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.
3. God uses people filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
4. Jesus teaches about the work of the Holy Spirit in mission. (2003, 120-123)
These facts must be internalized before anything else can be done. That said, creating a space at church where members can talk about the need for God’s guidance is crucial. Several summers ago, I heard a praise song called Cansado del Camino in Yucatan. The lyrics described a worn-out individual longing to be immersed in the river of God’s Spirit, which fittingly mirrored the locals’ thirst for God. With humility glazed in their eyes, the locals sang this song for us on our last day in Tixkokob.
They no doubt understood that God is in control and that he wants to fill his people with the Holy Spirit. To engage in a reflection on this truth will lead us to consistently focus on Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. And as we do so, we can all cry out, “¡Gloria a Dios!”
Cook, Richard B. 2008. “The Great Commission in Asia.” In The Great Commission: Evangelicals and the History of World Missions. Eds. Martin I. Klauber and Scott M. Manetsch, 149-163. Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Publishing Group.
Elmer, Duane. 2002. Cross-Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting In Around the World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Escobar, Samuel. 2003. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic.
Nouwen, Henri J. M., Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison. 1982. Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. New York: Image Books Doubleday.
Plueddemann, James E. 2009. Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic.
Priest, Robert. 2008. Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Song (Joseph) Cho is assistant professor of Spanish at Oklahoma Baptist University. He has been involved in several short-term mission trips in Mexico, particularly Yucatan. Song received his MA in Christian Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.