We were in Mississippi a few months before Hurricane Katrina hit. There was a big group of us led by a friend of mine, with our trip commissioned by Campus Ministry at GVSU. We had been doing work in a neighborhood in a small city, painting houses and shingling roofs and laying tile floor for some nice, poor folks. One day, a few of us drove far away from the freeway to a small farmhouse where an elderly couple lived. A car or two that had lost a battle with nature were sitting in their yard, along with a few bags filled with thousands of beer cans. There were steps without a railing leading up to the porch, which was lined with a tattered screen with several holes that let the bugs in. Inside the house, a wood-burning stove filled the air with smoke and lined the walls with soot. It looked like the sort of house you picture people living in during the 30s, in the Great Depression. They had closets with dirt in the bottom where a floor used to be. In their living room was a small TV and an ancient couch, and propped up in the corner was a musket that stood at least half a foot taller than me. When the owner wasn't looking, we took pictures with it.
We did what we could in a few hours. We put a railing up on the steps and patched the screen around the porch. We put a floor in the closet and put boards over gaping holes in the side of their house. When we were finished, we drove back through the countryside, to the freeway, to the city of Jackson and back the camp where we were staying. Along the way, we rolled through some beautiful suburbs and stopped for groceries at the world's largest Walmart. There were neighborhoods like any other back home, people of the same social standing, the same religious conviction, much the same as me. (Except they call pop Coke.)
I wondered how it was that people could live in such strange, desperate poverty near people just like me, how people who lived so close to each other could have such glaring differences. I wondered why we had to drive across the country to help them when there were people right nearby who were fully capable of helping out.
Naturally, I thought about West Michigan where I lived. I wondered if there were people living in poverty like that near my home. I know there are. I know there are kids in West Michigan who sleep without blankets on cold nights.
I went on Spring break trips each of my four years at Grand Valley. And I'm pretty sure that on each one, we all went home swearing up and down that we were going to get involved and be missionaries back home, too. Some of us made really good efforts at it. Some of us didn't. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't. I've learned and forgotten the importance of being a missionary at home several times.
One of the best ideas I ever heard was when a friend of mine took his youth group on a mission trip from Hudsonville, Michigan all the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Round-trip, it's about 20 miles. I can't say I would have been very excited about it had I been in the youth group. Actually, I'm certain I wouldn't have been. In college when I chose my Spring break trip destination, the order of preference was: 1: Warm; 2: Big crazy city on my bucket list; 3: Wherever my friends were going.
Our generation dreams big. We want to fix the world. We love the causes with the most buzz and the ones that, hopefully, no one else has heard of yet. We'd love to get out and go somewhere far away and exotic and just serve – they don't have to pay us! Seriously, Just get us somewhere far away from boring old here and we'll do whatever they want!
There's nothing wrong with wanting to help people in far away places. But I wonder sometimes if the reason that the world stays the crappy, broken place that it is might be because we're all too busy dreaming about fixing someplace else. We all want to fix hunger and save souls and bottle-feed orphans someplace else, even though there are hungry, lost, and hurting people at home too. While we dream about finding a way to make a difference someplace else, we neglect to find our mission field at home.
The irony of me saying this from thousands of miles from my home isn't lost on me. I'm glad I'm here in Puerto Rico. I'll do my best to serve around what is, for now, my home. But if nothing else, I hope that when I go home, I'll be a better missionary there, too.