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What I Learned From a Mission Trip in Puerto Rico

February 2, 2020 Sermon
“What I Learned in a Mission Trip to Puerto Rico”

1st Scripture Reading – Matthew 25:37-40

37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

2nd Scripture Reading – Luke 19:1-5

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

“What I learned on a Mission trip to Puerto Rico”

On January 17, 2020, I woke up very early in the morning.  I was too excited to sleep; I was driving to Denver that day to begin my week-plus long journey on a mission trip to Puerto Rico.  I was beginning what I hoped would be a 10-day long journey of living out our scripture reading from Matthew 25, doing for the least of these who are members of God’s family what they needed done.

I’ve got to tell you, it was the roughest start to a mission trip I’ve ever experienced…which led me to wonder what was to come.  Let me explain:

  • About 2-½ days before I was set to drive to Denver, I received an e-mail telling me one of the members of the mission team had become too ill to travel.  Could I find someone to take his place? A day later, the replacement was set…the replacement was my son Cole…which meant I had about a day and a half to find someone to watch our family dog, I had to get Cole packed, and I had 5 people on the road trip to Denver instead of four.
  • When we set out for Denver, it was snowing.  And it kept snowing, and snowing, and snowing in the mountains.  Visibility was almost non-existent atop Vail Pass. About an hour after we drove through that stretch of road, it was closed.  Had we departed an hour later, 5 of us would have missed the flight to Puerto Rico the next morning.
  • Once we arrived in Denver, I received a message that the flight of our team member coming from Casper, Wyoming had been canceled due to weather.  There were no more flights from Casper to Denver until AFTER our flight left for Puerto Rico. I spent much of the evening working on that snafu.
  • Once we arrived in Puerto Rico, we decided to drive up the mountain to the Barranquitas area before having dinner.  As we passed overcrowded restaurant after overcrowded restaurant, already VERY hungry, we wondered if we would ever find a place to eat.  Finally, we arrived at a place with room for us. About three hours later, some members of our party STILL had not been served.
  • Finally, we got to Camp Morton, our home for the week.  It was late. We were tired. It was raining. One of our team members literally fell out of the van upon arrival and had to be patched up.  At least we were at Camp Morton. Breakfast would be served bright and early the next morning. No more waiting for food. Except…when we got up for breakfast the next morning, the kitchen was empty.  No staff. No food. No COFFEE. Road trip to Burger King.

I suppose that start to our mission trip would have been rough enough if I had been a member of the mission team, along for the ride.  But I was one of the two leaders, which made each little bump that much more intense. My anxiety level was soaring sky high. But, here’s the thing.  So much MORE happened during that week in Puerto Rico that I wouldn’t have even remembered any of the events I just related to you had I not written them down to help me remember.  So much MORE happened than some initial bumps in the road. And I want to tell you about the more; I want to tell you what I learned on a mission trip to Puerto Rico.

Learning Number 1 – God’s creation is a lot bigger than what we experience every day.

I doubt that very many of you have spent your whole life in the Grand Valley, without ever visiting other places.  Even so, when you see the same thing, experience the same little part of God’s creation, day after day after day, it’s easy to forget how BIG and DIVERSE God’s creation is.  Here in Grand Junction, I experience the same kinds of things day after day: the kinds of things you’d expect to find in a high desert valley populated by predominantly English-speaking people.  But in Puerto Rico, almost EVERYTHING was different than what I’m used to:

  • The people looked and sounded different; they predominantly spoke a dialect of Spanish specific to the island;
  • It was warm, very warm…in January;
  • From the moment we arrived, it rained…and rained…and rained…for days;
  • There’s so much rain in the mountains of Puerto Rico that one of their biggest natural disaster issues is mudslides…in fact, during Hurricane Maria, damage totalling in the millions of dollars was done by mudslides to Camp Morton, where we stayed for the week;
  • There are plants that you will not find ANYWHERE around here…giant leaves that appeared to be almost the size of my body;
  • And red bananas;
  • And all manner of fruits and vegetables that are similar to but also slightly different from what we have here;
  • And little frogs called coquis that make noises all night long;
  • And huntsmen spiders and magnificent iguanas;
  • Oh…and of course, there’s the ocean.  Puerto Rico is about 110 miles long by 35 miles wide, surrounded by water, lots and lots of ocean water.

All of these things, they were constant reminders that God’s creation is bigger than what we see when we spend most days in one place.  It’s probably a good idea to get out and see more of God’s creation once in a while to help us better appreciate how big and awesome God’s creation is.

Learning Number 2 – There is power, mighty power, in the Body of Christ, also known as the Church.

I can’t tell you how many times I saw the power of the body of Christ demonstrated during one week in Puerto Rico.

There was Sunday after worship at an ICDC congregation.  I talked with many folks in the congregation, hearing story after story of how the members of that congregation had traveled to the southern part of the island to help calm the anxiety of the residents of Guanica, the town hit hardest by the recent earthquakes.

There was Monday morning, when it was pouring down rain so we had to do work indoors.  There was a bunkhouse building on the Camp Morton grounds that was being repaired and refurbished following damage from Hurricane María.  It was near completion, but still needed to be cleaned and painted. It had leaks in the roof that needed repairing. And we needed to erect beds to house people.  Well, when we walked into the first floor of the building, it was a mess! Previous work crews had left all kinds of debris everywhere. When we were told we needed to clean the building, I thought it would take all day.  Boy, did I underestimate the power of the Body of Christ! When 30 people descend upon a project like that, transformation happens FAST! In less than an hour, both the upstairs and downstairs were so clean they were ready to be painted, and those of us who weren’t painting were moved to other jobs.  Y’all, 30 people working together is an absolute sight to see. I felt like I was watching a movie in fast-forward mode. It was amazing!  

Indeed, this Body of Christ worked so fast that our hosts didn’t quite know what to do with us.  Our hosts had never had a group this large before and had not adequately anticipated how much we could accomplish in one week.  The Body of Christ is an amazing thing!

There was Thursday afternoon when we saw part of an ICDC church building that had been transformed into a missionary kitchen to feed hundreds of people each week who were left without power after the hurricanes and then the earthquakes.

And then there was Friday morning, when we visited the ICDC headquarters and saw a video of the members of the ICDC congregations performing all manner of relief work following the Hurricane.  Y’all, it was amazing! The people of the 106 Disciples congregations in Puerto Rico had POWER in them following María, and they used that power to change lives, to improve lives…in a hurry.

Learning Number 3 – Living 24/7 for God, even for a week, is DIFFERENT than what we’re used to.

As followers of Christ, we say, we even sing, that we’re “living for Jesus”.  And, we are. But when you spend an entire week completely focused on following God’s lead to help the people in front of you and worshipping twice a day, with your purpose for every minute of every day very directly having to do with God, it feels different enough to get you to realize – at least different enough for ME to realize – that you’re not REALLY living 24/7 for God most of the time.  Which means we’ve got to change some things, do some things differently than we’re currently doing them, if we really want our Christian identities to be our primary identities ALL…THE..TIME.

  • I don’t know how many of you have spent as long as a week doing something completely God-focused.  
  • I don’t know how many of you have spent a prolonged period of time in intentional Christian community, living with other Christians, talking almost exclusively about Christian stuff, all day every day.  
  • I don’t know how many of you have spent a prolonged period of time worshipping twice daily instead of once or twice a week.  
  • I don’t know how many of you have spent a prolonged period of time conversing every night about how you’ve witnessed God’s presence in and throughout your day.

But I have.  And I can tell you some things about doing this.  I can tell you that worshipping twice a day is awesome!  I can tell you that – even as an introvert – spending time in intentional Christian community is worthwhile.  I can tell you that when you return from such an experience, you’re likely to realize just how much of our daily lives are focused on something other than God, focused on some other ways than the ways of Christ.  Which means, if we REALLY want to be Christ-focused people, we’re going to have to make some changes that rock the very core of the structure and pattern of our daily living.

Learning Number 4 – Your way, even our way, isn’t necessarily the BEST way or even the right way.

My friends, this is without a doubt the most difficult lesson I discovered from a mission trip with 30 people.  Even as living among 30 Christ-focused people is awesome, it is also revealing of the challenge of trying to accomplish anything with a group of people.  Anytime you’ve got more than 1 person trying to get something done – whether it be trying to feed a hungry person or trying to make a bunk bed without adequate instructions or tools or even trying to calm the anxiety of an island full of people who’ve come to feel as if creation itself is out to destroy them – anytime you’ve got more than one person trying to do the work of following Jesus, you’ve got more than one idea about how to get things done.

  • We had a handful of people trying to get tiles from the ground floor of a building to the second floor without the benefit of stairs or an elevator…and so there were many ideas about how to get it done.
  • We had more than a dozen people working together to build 20-25 bunk beds with minimal tools…and so there were many ideas about how to get it done.
  • We had to transport 30 people around an island in traffic and weather and driving rules that would drive many mainland Americans absolutely crazy…and so at least in the van in which I traveled there were half a dozen non-drivers telling the driver how to best get us from point A to point B.
  • We had worship services and meals and ice-breaker games and all manner of things to navigate, and most of the time the leaders were left to make a decision that would alienate all but one of the competing voices that demanded a different course of action.

And yet, somehow, we got it done.  And THAT’S the learning. Somehow, some way, God led us to accomplish everything we were supposed to accomplish, even though every single decision made was met with disapproval by some among us.  That’s an important lesson, my friends. If we focus on God, somehow, even if we don’t get our way, God’s way can and will get done.

Learning Number 5 – Church matters.  In this case, by “Church”, I mean the Church that is bigger than congregation.  I mean the aggregation of all the efforts, no matter how small, to follow Jesus, to BE the body of Christ.  When we watched a video about the aftermath of Hurricane María at the ICDC Headquarters, something stood out to me that others may have missed.  One of the General Units of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), called the Board of Church Extension and known alternately as the Disciples Church Extension Fund, granted a zero interest $1 million line of credit to the ICDC.  That line of credit allowed the 90 ICDC congregations that had been impacted by the hurricane to continue being church. That line of credit allowed ministry to keep happening. That line of credit allowed the people of those congregations to go and find other hurting, hungry, thirsty Puerto Ricans in need of shelter to go and help.  And folks, here’s the thing, YOU, WE, all of us in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) made that line of credit possible. But that’s not all. Through your giving to Week of Compassion, things like emergency generators (which were necessary because the electrical grid was down for many months), water filters, food and hygiene packs, and more were supplied. 

My friends, Church always matters, but it’s easier to see in concrete ways when disaster strikes.  Following the disaster of Hurricane María, YOU made a difference. Without you even knowing it, your participation in Church very likely saved lives.

Learning Number 6 – Presence Matters.

I saved this learning for last because it was, for me, the primary learning from the mission trip to Puerto Rico.  At least once a day, we heard from others that our presence mattered.

The General Minister of the ICDC, the Disciples in Puerto Rico, gathered all 30 of us in his office on Friday.  He told us that was the most people that had ever been in his office at one time; he referred to our presence in his office as an historic moment multiple times.  As we were huddled together in that relatively small space – for 30 people, anyway – he shared with us the story of what happened after the hurricane. For the first year, he said the Puerto Ricans were told, “help is coming.”  Then, after a year had passed, when it came time for the help to come, the Puerto Ricans felt like people outside the island stopped caring, had moved onto other things. Then, suddenly, 30 people from the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) showed up and said with our presence, “people still care.”

Rev. Morales wasn’t alone in this assessment.  Everywhere we went, this group of 30 people stuck out.  We looked different; we sounded different; and there were 30 of us.  Everywhere we went, people came up to us and asked what we were doing.  Many assumed we came because of the earthquakes. Many expressed shock when we said we came to help repair from the hurricanes two-plus years ago.  ALL were incredibly grateful. They told us how much our presence meant to them. Even if they hadn’t said it with their words, we could see it in their eyes, their expressions.  And so I’m here to tell you, even if we hadn’t power washed a single roof, painted a single room, fixed a single leaking roof, built a single bunkbed…even if we hadn’t prayed with a single National Guardsmen or shot hoops with a teen in a refugee camp or given a Bible to and prayed over a parking lot attendant…we would have made a HUGE difference for the kingdom of God…because presence matters!  Jesus’ presence to Zaccheus mattered. We don’t know what, if anything, Jesus said to or taught Zaccheus while at dinner. Luke didn’t seem to think that mattered enough to tell us. What mattered was Jesus’ presence: “I must stay at your house today.” Folks, just like Jesus’ presence mattered, our presence as followers of Jesus matters! 

Which brings me back to the story I read during our Meditation Time this morning.  We see God, we see Christ, in other people. And they see God, they see Christ, in us, especially when we act, when we live, doing the kinds of things Jesus did…meeting the needs of people, whatever those needs may be.  Amen.