On a week-long mission trip just outside of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, Jesus showed up and shared a powerful ministry lesson with me and my team. Allow me to explain.
Our team gathered every morning for a brief devotional, then we walked to worksites and helped 1) mix cement, 2) build walls, and 3) sweat a lot. The Haitians we worked beside did an amazing job on the first two; I did the best on the last item.
On the fourth morning, the devotion time focused on Jesus' familiar words in Matthew 25 about the sheep and goats. Specifically, we focused on a frequently forgotten word.
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' (Matthew 25:37-40)
The forgotten word is "one," found in the last sentence: "whatever you did for one of the least of these …" This single word creates a sense of urgency. Or at least it should.
In ministries that directly serve people, such as the one I work for, the desire to "be Jesus" for people acts as a rallying cry. While this sounds good, did Jesus ever suggest we should pretend to be him? A better approach exists.
Jesus clearly says that when we serve someone marginalized or forgotten, we actually serve him. The Message translation stresses this concept: "Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me." (v. 40) So, our team agreed, it seemed like we should go out into the day and look for Jesus. He'd likely be found as someone with a simple, personal need that we could meet.
Certainly an intriguing challenge. Imagine how it felt the next day when Jesus unexpectedly showed up. Fortunately, I wasn't too distracted by cement work.
Day five featured a schedule change; a visit to an orphanage to share a short Bible lesson, work on crafts, and play a lot. Yes, I again led the way in sweating. But it was wildly worth it; the 50 Haitian children were equal parts beautiful and energetic. When we inflated several beach balls, the place erupted in exhilarating chaos.
Except for one little boy. Maybe two years old and not much taller than a beach ball, I noticed him go to a far corner of the wall and sit down. At that same moment, a thought flashed through my mind: Go over to him. Prompted by curiosity, I walked toward him and noticed his tears. After years in children's ministry, and experience as a parent, I knew that these were not tears caused by an injury, a fight, or being wronged in any way. This was sadness working its way from the inside out. In the midst of all the fun going on around him, what could make him feel so sad?
I speak no Haitian Creole, and he spoke no English, so I couldn't ask him. The only think I could do was to sit beside him. The longer we sat together, completely quiet, the sadder I felt. My thoughts focused on what it must feel like to be an orphan, especially at two years of age. The loneliness. The lack of affection. I tapped his tiny hand just once with my little finger, and he held onto my pinky. Soon I noticed the tears in my own eyes. Then he noticed, and squeezed harder.
Another minute or two went by, and then he started to squeeze my finger rapidly. We looked at one another; he smiled as he stood up, gave my neck a long hug, flashed me another big smile, then ran off to chase a beach ball.