As soon as Christmas was over, I started out on my walk in the desert. We had just gone through yet another very painful church experience, and my family and I decided that we needed to set off into the desert to have some space… to have a season of quiet.
We set off into the desert for many reasons. Certainly, knowing that being alone in the desert would protect our hearts from any additional relationship trauma was a large pull.
Mostly, I just really needed a break from church. So, after having a very public break-up with American Evangelicalism, I set off…
As firm and unwavering believers in the importance of the local church, we knew our departure wouldn’t be permanent– but it was certainly indefinite. We needed rest and healing. We needed time to ourselves. We needed our lives to be absent from any church drama, church trauma, church whatever.
We just wanted to be alone.
God however, had different plans. Like an episode of Big Brother, I’ve learned that as long as I’m walking the path in an attempt to follow Jesus, the only thing I can expect is to “expect the unexpected”.
One of the things I was most looking forward to was getting a subscription to the Sunday paper and spending my Sunday mornings sitting in bed with a coffee and local news.
That plan, lasted all of one week.
As we opened up the Sunday paper, we read a story that immediately tugged at our hearts; it was a story of a local church who wasn’t exactly being welcomed by our local community. Little did we know, that two miles down the road from us, was an entire church congregation (about 100) comprised completely of African asylum seekers– mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Angola. These asylum seekers had fled their home countries for a variety of reasons- mostly because their lives were in danger- and landed here, in the middle of no where.
So, they formed a church. Not a church in the way you and I think of one where “church” is a Sunday morning worship service, but a church– in that, they formed a holistic community to love and support one another in every aspect of life where Sunday worship is just one, small aspect.
Life as an asylum seeker is hard- it can take a long time to adjudicate a case, and you are legally banned from working for six months. These are professionals who want to work, but can’t. Funding to help them is very limited, so they rely on a close community– they rely on church as it was meant to be.
The article we read that day was in part about this community of asylum seekers, but was also about the community response– namely, the mayor. Let’s just say, the mayor isn’t a fan and said that all the asylum seekers are frauds, and that the pastor of the congregation (a Congolese medical doctor) was just trying to build a church on the back of the community.
According to the article, they were getting ready to celebrate a public service to celebrate the official launch of their church that weekend, so my wife and I decided to go to the celebration. My daughter loved their worship– she said “Daddy, this doesn’t feel like church, it feels like a party”, and it did. After the service I went to the pastor and apologized for how the community had treated them, and he was very receptive of the apology. He invited me to come back to a regular service, which we did the next week.
I had quickly come to realize that the needs of the “other” trumped my need for a break from church.
And so, I accidentally became a missionary to a community of asylum seekers. A job I don’t get paid for, but a job that I absolutely love.
It became apparent that there were many needs among the community that simply wouldn’t be met, or would have the satisfaction of those needs delayed, if a cultural insider didn’t come along and walk with them.
How do we access healthcare for our children? Where can you go to get food?
So many questions, so many needs.
I had to laugh at the irony of the situation– I am a missiologist in the middle of an area where I never expected to actually practice cross-cultural missiology. I pursued a doctorate in missiology for the reasons I’m using it now, only I had said a hundred times that “I’ll probably never have the chance to practice the type of missiology I’d like to in Maine”.
“Perhaps God sent us back here for this exact reason” my wife observed.
And so, I’ve come alongside the pastor and am helping him help the community. Helping him develop indigenous leadership from within the community to shoulder the leadership burden with him. Helping children with medical conditions access healthcare. Putting together English as a Second Language programming… helping them to navigate this new culture where they’ve found themselves… serving in any way that seems good, right, or useful with the hopes that after a season, our roles will be replaced by someone trained from within the asylese community itself.
We are slowly getting used to the new culture we’ve found ourselves in, and are loving the process. Congolese food is fantastic. Worshiping in French I am finding is a moving experience, and we’re even getting used to the fact that they call my wife “Momma Benjamin” or “Momma Pastor”– a sign of respect that took some getting used to for these egalitarians.
Yes, I set off into the desert wanting to take a break from church… and found that God is doing some really cool stuff in the desert.
I am learning that sometimes we just have to have the courage to set off over the sand dunes on the horizon to see what’s happening on the other side. Sometimes, we have to walk in the wilderness where there isn’t already a trail and instead rely on the quiet voice of God to mark one.
I’m also learning that showing solidarity with outsiders will often mean you yourself will become the outsider…
But that being an outsider is often a great place to be.
If God is calling you out into the wilderness, embrace it– because he often invites us to do some really cool stuff while we’re out here.