I grew up rich; I just didn’t know it at the time.
My father grew up in a single-parent household. He and his mother were poor. For my father, provision was a great way to show love. He figured that if he could give his family what he never had, he’d be a pretty successful dad. So he worked long and hard to make sure we had every opportunity a family could have. For that I’m very grateful. I’ve never known what it is to want or lack for anything, not even close. In reality, I lived a very cushy life growing up: ski trips at Christmas and spring break, my own bedroom and bathroom in a nice house in an affluent part of town, long family trips in the summer, new clothes, new cars, a summer house on the lake, complete with ski boat, and world-class educational opportunities. I don’t think these things spoiled me, but I do believe they numbed me to the reality of how people live who aren’t so financially favored.
I graduated from college, went on to graduate school, and then became a pastor without ever really coming face-to-face with poverty or suffering. But God would soon change that.
In the summer of 2002, I took a much-needed sabbatical from my job as a pastor. My church was gracious enough to give me eight weeks off and my wife was gracious enough to allow me to spend much of that time hiking in the Rockies with our son. We spent several weeks climbing fourteen-thousand-foot mountains in Colorado. In the next-to-last week of my break, I agreed to accompany my daughter and several other kids in our student ministry to Reynosa, Mexico, with a ministry called Mission Discovery.
Mission Discovery is a Nashville-based ministry that builds homes for the impoverished and supports orphanages in Mexico, Africa, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the United States. Our job was to build a small one-room home (it’s about the size of a small storage shed that you might have in your backyard, without electricity or running water) for a family.
Reynosa is just south of the Texas/ Mexico border and is the final stop for thousands of families trying to work their way north into the United States. Because most of them are unable or unwilling to enter the United States illegally, and because most are desperately poor, they are forced to create makeshift shelters out of anything they can find. Some families or groups of families live in those pitiful dwellings for years. It’s hard to imagine, but the little cubicles we build for these people improve their living conditions exponentially.
This is embarrassing to admit, but that trip was my first real missions experience. I was a church leader and had been a Christian for over thirty years, but I had never personally been involved in any form of missions. As a result, I really didn’t know what to expect and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to the trip. I was going to support my daughter and our student ministry, not because I had any sense of responsibility to serve the people in Reynosa.
In short, I got ambushed. It was without question the best week of my sabbatical. Don’t get me wrong; this was no easy or restful week. The temperatures were well over a hundred degrees each day on the work site, and we had to drive over an hour each way, including crossing the United States/ Mexico border just to get there. But what I saw, heard, smelled, and felt changed me. It broke me and marked me for the rest of my life. I had never before looked directly into the face of poverty. I had never stared into the eyes of a widow who was uncertain if she could feed her kids the next day. I had never seen children running about and playing in the dirt roads of the colonia in their underwear, simply because they had no other clothing.
I had never seen a special needs child roaming the streets alone like an abandoned pet because her parents could no longer care for her. And I had never seen men, stripped of all sense of dignity and self-worth because of the generational ravages of poverty, use drinking and sex (actually rape would be a better word) as a means of passing the time. I had never seen any of that before. What I saw made me angry. That’s a common emotion for many people who experience poverty for the first time.
I got mad and was even a little ashamed of how I’d lived with such wealth and such waste. I probably throw away more food in a year than some of those people will consume in a lifetime. I was mad at the disparity that existed between them and me. Here they were, just a few hours’ drive from my back door, and yet our worlds couldn’t have been farther apart. What do we do with that? How do I justify the inequity? Should I feel guilty because I was blessed to be born in the United States where life and opportunities are so much different from theirs? And where was God in all this? How could he sit quietly by while so many people suffered just a few hours away from so many who had so much? I didn’t have the answers to these troubling questions, and I ended up just being angry and frustrated. But if I’m honest, my anger isn’t what marked me the most. It was the joy of the people whom we served. Rarely in my life had I seen such high levels of passion for Christ and sheer, unadulterated joy. Many of these people had deep, profound relationships with Jesus.
They didn’t feel overlooked or abandoned by him. That’s what got me the most. In the face of such terrible living conditions and such chronic suffering, they had levels of faith that humbled me. There I was, the rich gringo who was there to help them, and yet I was the one who felt poor. I was the one who didn’t seem to get it. From an earthly, material standpoint, I had everything and they had nothing. But from the standpoint of God’s kingdom, they had something I envied and desperately needed. They were the ones who were rich. That’s when I began my journey toward enough.