I once heard Ray Bakke, the “father of urban missions” and founder of the Bakke Graduate University respond to a question about the importance of going overseas to serve others versus addressing the needs of the urban poor in your own backyard. Instead of answering the question directly, Ray made an interesting distinction between missions and ministry.
Missions, he noted, is ministry that crosses borders.
Missions may mean going to the other side of the world to serve. Or it may simply mean crossing the street to meet with a neighbor who is different from you. Borders and boundaries show up in unusual ways and places.
I found this out shortly after I got married. My wife and I had recently joined a large church in an affluent area near West Los Angeles where we lived. We were a bit unsure of a church where most of the congregants lived in houses whose closets were bigger than our apartment. But they seemed like normal folks trying to do the right thing and besides, we adored the people in our “recently married” class and small group.
One day, we took advantage of an opportunity to volunteer with a group from church at downtown LA’s Union Rescue Mission (URM). I figured I was pretty savvy and sensitive about cross-cultural experiences and felt it a good way to serve those less fortunate than me. So off we went one Saturday to prepare meals for the homeless.
The leader of our little expedition was a woman that appeared to be the last person you’d expect to see working at a homeless shelter. I’ll call her Pauline. Her hair was bright: any more bleaching and it would have been transparent. Her false eye lashes created weather patterns of their own when she blinked. Her jewelry made the word “bling” seem understated. And yet, she led our group with a comfortable sense of purpose.
When we arrived at URM, I got assigned to the kitchen where the kettles looked like props from The Land of the Giants. Pauline, on the other hand, just took off. I helped prepare, serve and clean up the meal. I didn’t see Pauline during any of this until near the end of our time there. Then I spotted her. She was deep into a conversation with two of the homeless men listening intensely, fully present to them.
Then it hit me: I was Martha to her Mary (Luke 10:40-41). I engaged with the staff in the kitchen, but I was just another volunteer to them. She engaged with the guests out in the dining area in life-changing conversations.
We both traveled to the same place geographically, but I never truly crossed the border. She did.
I had an experience. She made a difference.
I found out later she regularly went down there. The staff and the guests loved her. They didn’t pay attention to her externals as I did. They saw her heart. Which is exactly what she did with them.
You can travel the world and never cross a border that matters or you can go the distance with the people right around you. Meaningful journeys aren’t always measured in miles.