Usually, for me, one of the most nerve wrecking things about air travel is air travel. If you get in a car accident, you get out of the car and put your feet on the ground. If a ship starts to sink, you put on a life jacket and swim to shore. When it comes to airplanes, the flight attendant is kind enough to make sure you know where the exits are. If something goes wrong, she wants you know where you can escape. Thanks, but escape to where exactly? Excuse me, where’s my parachute? Wait, we don’t get a parachute? We get life jackets..? I’m pretty sure there’s a failure there somewhere.
Anyway, for the first time, I don’t need a paper baggie when the plane begins to rise off the ground. And flying ten thousand feet above the earth doesn’t seem faze me. As I take off through the skyways headed to my first connecting flight, all I can think about are the people still on the ground in Grand Rapids. I think about my sister and her hilarious kids having VBS in the backyard with their Guatemalan neighbors. I think about my compadre Alex at work with folks in substance abuse recovery, teaching sessions in both Spanish and English. I think about my mentor, a Puerto Rican pastor, who is probably praying and looking for church planting sites in the barrio. For the first time ever, I will be beyond the usual phone, text and face to face contact that I share regularly with them and others. It will be at least 7 weeks before they could hold hands with me when I need prayer. 56 days without their jokes and encouragement. I’m on my way to Nicaragua and I don’t know if I am ready to leave my network of support behind.
My mind stays there all the way to Atlanta where I catch my final plane. The metal bird isn’t quite on the runway when the flight attendant instructs the passengers to turn off our cellphones, right after she makes sure we know where the exits are… Again, thanks. My eyes wander and I notice the plane is filled with a variety of tan colored shades of Central American travelers. There are a few white Americans, clearly marked by their matching mission trip t-shirts. The plane begins to rise, and I think to myself, this is it.
Up until this point, I haven’t talked with anyone on the planes or airports. That’s unusual for me. Now, I am in my seat stuck between two people. A guy going in and out of consciousness is on my right, and a young lady to my left, reading what looks like medical research articles in the light of the window. I pull out my own book and read for a while trying to ignore them both, but I feel like God is telling me to speak with the woman. Eventually, I give in.
“So… are you a doctor?” I ask. Immediately the young woman engages me in friendly conversation. Her name is Carolina and it turns out she is going to do a medical residency in Nicaragua. She wants to be a surgeon. She is a Christian, and talks about her faith openly.
After we discuss her medical studies for a bit, Carolina turns to me. She points to the book I am reading about the rising Latin-American church. “What about you, what are doing in Nicaragua?”
Good question. And with her question I breathe, and I feel God lifting me. I talk to Carolina about the Church and the change that is coming.
While churches in the northern part of the globe are slowly dwindling, the church of the global south of Africa and Latin-America are rising. And that includes the rise of Latin-American immigrant churches in the United States. The incoming growth presents new social challenges and well as new opportunities to address the related needs. We need radical leadership like that of the phenomenal staff at the Nehemiah Center in Nicaragua, to which I am headed. I am on my way there to learn how to serve the barrio back home, by first immersing myself in a Latin-American, community development context, where Nicaraguans are finding solutions for Nicaraguans, independent of toxic charity models that are so prevalent in missionary operations.
Thinking of home my heart becomes heavy as I speak of Latino immigrants and their American born children. I want them to know that there is a place at God’s table for them. The heaviness compounds when I consider those in south of the border, in the ashes of broken systems left behind by colonialism. Too long have they sat in the shadows and the margins hoping for scraps from missionary tables. It is time for them… for us… to rise.
Latin-American immigrants and refuges leave their home everyday and come to the States, desperate for a chance to have a sustainable living. And their sacrifice for their families is so much more than the one I am taking by sitting in a plane. And so, this is my turn. It is my turn to take one for the team, just as immigrants like my parents, have done so for me. It’s my turn to serve hard and learn from those who are working to bring God’s peace and justice in their own context, so I can come back home better equipped to serve in my own multicultural and Latin-American context. God sees fit for me to make this my turn. Not because I’m awesome. If anything, my stress level and emotional weakness up until that point in my travel proves otherwise. No. God sees fit for this to be my turn and God will be my support and strong arm. And when I return, it will be my turn to share what God has shown me with my family and friends, in the fight for those on living life on the fringes. And God will empower us to continue together, building God’s kingdom.
Learn more about the Nehemiah Center.
Photo credits: Ross Parmly