The Least of These

And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it one of the least of these brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

I wasn’t prepared for what happened in Monterrey, Mexico during the week of Thanksgiving 2015.

It was there that Team Janning joined 13 wonderful souls from Traders Point Christian Church to spend a week serving at an orphanage run by the Christian ministry Back2Back.

I’d never been on a short-term mission trip before. That choice was intentional. It was also borne out of my foolish pride.

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You see, for most of my life, I had been very skeptical of the need and efficacy of these trips.

I’d viewed them in the most cynical way possible: as a way for reasonably well-off middle-class Americans to make a big deal out of leaving the safety of Suburbia to do seemingly important things far away for a few days so they could come home and collect a few “Jesus Freak” points from friends, bask in a self-righteous glow for a week or two, then consign the whole experience (along with the team t-shirts commemorating the event) to a dusty corner of their trophy case and keep on living the same self-absorbed life they left.

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An ugly attitude, to be sure.

So when Karla first suggested that we not only make Monterrey our first short-term mission trip, but that we do it over Thanksgiving and take our daughters with us, I had no shortage of excuses: “We’ll miss out on holiday time with family”, “It’s too much money to raise,” “It’s not safe down there,” “I don’t know if I should be away from work that long,” “I’m not doing this for the right reasons,” and on and on and on.

Thank the Lord that He loves me even when I’m being this narrow-minded. Over time, He broke down many of the walls I had around my heart.

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He surrounded us with a team of humble, gracious, energetic, and hilarious servant-leaders from all corners of TPCC, and we would meet regularly to prepare for and discuss our goals while on site. Our immediate families were completely supportive of our time away from them over Thanksgiving. Financial support from dear friends offset most of the $5200 necessary to send all four of us south of the border. And Back2Back’s quarter-century of experience with preparing short-term missionaries gave us the confidence to know that our spiritual and physical health would be in good hands.

Even with all these preparations, though, the final barrier I’d erected against this trip had as its foundation what I thought our group would be doing.

Since we would serve at an orphanage, I’d assumed that this would be just a week-long playdate with a few kids. What would we do, I wondered, after the novelty of the first few hours wore off and there were no more games to play or puzzles to do or ropes to jump? I’d asked this question during our team meetings, but no one had a definitive answer. “We’ll just have to wait and see when we get down there” became an oft-repeated chorus.

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This was of particular concern to me because TPCC had asked me to take pictures and video of the entire trip, to document it in a way that encouraged others to step out into the mission field, support this mission and others like it, and live out the Great Commission. Would I have enough footage and photos to satisfy this need?

Oh, most certainly yes.

Within a few hours hour after landing in Monterrey, we learned that our days wouldn’t be a featureless blur of play but rather of genuinely hard work.

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We’d serve and eat breakfast as a group around 8am, break into small group Bible study, then ride for an hour on paved city streets that morphed into the pock-marked dirt road leading to the Imperio de Amor (Empire of Love) orphanage. Mornings at Imperio had our 17-member group spread out amongst at least 50 kids and teens to play soccer, jump rope, play board games, make crafts, and weave colorful threads into the hair of the young ladies staying there.

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Because the kids went to school in the afternoon, we spent the rest of the day at Imperio lending our collective hands to a variety of work projects: painting stair railings, painting ceilings, painting playground equipment, painting a whole church. Basically, if it could be painted, we painted it.

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Not every day was like that, though.

For one day, we headed to another Back2Back mission site and spread 25,000 pounds of dirt over a 1-acre patch of ground.

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On Thanksgiving Day, our team helped prepare a full traditional Thanksgiving feast for nearly 200 Back2Back staff members, their families, and program participants.

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On our final full day, we met the kids from Imperio at a local park and helped them play as if they didn’t have a care in the world. And for the all-too-brief time we had with them that week, they didn’t.

But we knew better.

Many had been witnesses to, and victims of, the worst forms of abuse and neglect that can be heaped upon their small shoulders. Nearly all carried deep psychological scars that would cloud their faces between the smiles and squeals of laughter.

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These precious souls have been through hell. Back2Back was trying to lead them out.

Consequently, in addition to breakfast and Bible study every morning, Back2Back staff taught us the basics of Trauma Competent Care. We learned the full extent of the emotional, mental, and physical burdens the kids bore because of the turbulent homes in which they’d been raised. We learned how to properly speak and play with them in a way that would support their ongoing healing.

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This softened us even more to the daily challenges they faced, driving the full weight of their plight so deeply into our hearts that every one of us left Monterrey changed in some fundamental way.

Many of us in our group decided to provide direct financial sponsorship and prayer support to specific kids we met at Imperio. Virtually all of us are already making plans to return next Thanksgiving.

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We also became quite fond of the Back2Back missionaries living there full time. People like Jed Zayner, a world-class professional soccer player who left that life behind to begin a new one in Monterrey with his wife Katie and their three young sons.

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People like Sammy Mathews, our group’s facilitator for the week who has devoted herself to improving the lives of orphans instead of pursuing the comfortable life that awaited her after college in Dayton, Ohio.

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Servants like the patient and tireless women who oversee the dorms in which the children sleep and eat every day, whose humble devotion has earned the eternal applause of Heaven.

I praise Jesus for placing us on this specific mission team:

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  • For the organizational skill, persistence, graciousness, and energy shown by Taranza Brown and Angie Hough, our group’s leaders who lit a fire in all of us for mission that may never go out,
  • For Kate Miller, who told the story of our group every day on TPCC’s mission blog
  • For Louise Frasure, whose joy, perspective, wit, and wisdom encouraged all of us exactly when we needed it
  • For Erin East, Elly Frasure, Rachel Henrichsen, and Lydia Groat, four teenage young women whose humility, passion, and servant’s heart have inspired my daughters to follow their lead
  • For the spot-on translation skills of Nicole Bozell, a fluent Spanish speaker who, along with Erin, helped each of us bridge the language barrier and meaningfully connect with the orphans and their caregivers
  • For Laura Mobley, whose passion for loving orphans has moved her into the mission field, motivated her and her husband Jason to adopt a child from China, and opened their home to provide short-term care to families in crisis. She is an inspiration.
  • For the “Beards on Mission”: Michael Bozell, Nate Miller, and Jason Mobley, who became my newest brothers in Christ and three guys I’m proud to call friends
  • And finally, for my wife Karla and our daughters, whose hearts broke numerous times as they selflessly served and humbly learned about the challenges faced in Monterrey. Thank you, honey, for pushing our family to take its first steps into the world to live out the Great Commission.

I’m not the same person who left for Monterrey on 11/22/15.

I now see short-term missions as vital work for the Kingdom that should destroy, rather than inflate, my ego. They should shove my soft, decadent idols violently from the altar of my heart to make room for only, simply, eternally Jesus.

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If these trips don’t take something essential from you and leave room for something even greater, you never should’ve gone in the first place and your poverty can only be weighed on an eternal scale.

I now see these children as mine in a new and vital way. What were all-too-brief interactions for adults will be life-altering connections for these kids. They have faces, names, needs, tears, hopes…and a future, thanks to Back2Back. I owe it to them to care for them.

I now see my world differently. It is darker than I hoped. That darkness is closer than I dared admit. It preys on souls too small to fight back. But I can on their behalf when I pray, study, go, give, and serve.

I now see the mission field as essential, rather than optional. I may never live my whole life on it like Jed and Sammy and countless others.

Some of the best parts of my life, however, will be found there.

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