Many of my good friends are over in Zambia, a place I love and a place where I feel called to serve for my lifetime. They are planting trees and working on community gardens together with friends from the Zambian church. Here's a post from Brandon Hatmaker, pastor of Austin New Church and co-founder of Restore Communities. It summarizes my own journey in some very clear ways, and how I've gotten to this place in my life...and where I still need to go...
A few years ago I boarded a 737 with a small and diverse team of global leaders headed for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was a mixed team of corporate CEO’s, COO’s, VP’s, a denominational leader, a mega-church pastor, and a missional church planter. I was the church planter. The leader of our crew was the founder and CEO of the Eden Reforestation Projects, Stephen Fitch, a veteran to Ethiopian Airlines who has invested his life into the hope of being good news to the people spread across a handful of third world countries.
Over the years the Eden Projects have planted tens of millions of trees and provided thousands of jobs for the indigenous people in areas devastated by de-forestation. The resulting erosion and stripping of nutrients from the land has impacted more than just the wildlife and ability to farm. In a land where crops and livestock are the only currency, entire communities are being displaced as environmental refugees, with no place to go, no land to own, and no skills for creating income. In a land of extreme poverty, add to it environmental issues, and hope seems like an unlikely commodity.
Our plan was to fly in to Addis, load into a caravan to head down the rift valley towards the community of Awassa, and visit the nursery and planting sites for Eden on the Udu escarpment and eventually the Sodoma Highlands.
Since Jen and I had already started the long journey of adopting from Ethiopia, I put in my request, more than once, to visit some orphanages along the way. I knew Stephen’s hope for each of us was to see the projects firsthand, see how great the need really is, and gain a new appreciation for what they were accomplishing.
But here’s my confession: Although I had discovered a newly found appreciation for serving the least and seeking to be good news, at the time, I still didn’t quite get it. I knew that what Eden was doing was good, but I was struggling a bit seeing how trees could impact eternity. I was having a hard time connecting the dots. And I realized that out of spiritual self-preservation, my personal focus on the trip had been mentally hijacked from the Eden Projects to my adoption journey. It seemed more noble, more worthy, and more justifiable to my conservative upbringing and imagined critics.
I came to realize that I was subconsciously trying to rescue my reasoning for going. I had grown up knowing a church that did very little in the area of social justice. I can’t remember once being taught to engage need other than spiritual. In fact, although I grew up in church, I can’t remember ever serving the poor until I took a group of youth on a mission trip to Mexico as a young youth pastor.
So when other pastors and friends asked me why I was going to Ethiopia… and the truth was to plant trees… I was a bit embarrassed. I was afraid I’d be labeled. I was afraid they’d think it would be a waste of time and money. I was selfishly having a hard time connecting the dots between planting trees to help these environmental refugees and the Gospel. Although I recognized that I truly had some church baggage about being socially active, my issue was a matter of ministry validation. My struggle was really about seeking the approval of man versus the approval of God. The objections to social action were flooding my mind.
The problem was me. Not my church. Not my culture. It was me.
So I paused for a moment to pray and ask God to connect the dots between planting trees and healing lives. I asked for confidence and clarity for how it was good news.
This prayer was bigger than just this trip. Doubt had seeped in, and I was in need of a reminder why we were called to serve the poor and to engage social need. As a pastor, I was asking God for an injection of confidence that compassion ministry and social action (the heartbeat of what became Austin New Church) was just as important to him as a healthy small group or women’s Bible study event.
I ended my prayer feeling a bit optimistic. Instantly I felt the confidence that throughout the trip God would give me clarity. But nothing could prepare me for what would happen next.
Within seconds of closing my prayer an Ethiopian man sitting in the row behind me asked me why we were flying to his home country. My mind flipped through the options for the most concise answer to a personally complicated question.
“We’re planting trees.”
I don’t know why I landed on such a simple answer. Especially one that was exactly opposite to how I might have normally answered.
Following my answer an elderly woman sitting next to him asked in her native language what I said. When he told her… she began to wail. I don’t mean cry a bit. I mean wail. Like in biblical proportions. He began to explain what she was saying through her tears: “She says that she has been praying for 38 years for God to forgive them for stripping their land and to please send someone to undo the destruction and plant trees.”
Before I could reply she put her hand on me and started praying – out loud – through her wailing and tears… for about 15 minutes.
We don’t understand need as the world understands need. We typically serve how and where we want based on our wants, not the wants of those being served. Our offering of hope is riddled with agenda.
In a moment I had gained a new appreciation for what it meant to offer hope through engaging need. And I was incredibly humbled. Embarrassed a little. Many people have come before me to help with this need. Reforestation in Africa was obviously not starting with me. To this point, I had done nothing outside of some financial support to the organization through our church. But it made no difference to this woman. No way around it. Anyone planting trees in Ethiopia was good news to her.
I saw it even more on the ground. I saw a tree planted, jobs created, schools funded, and churches starting. And more than anything… communities renewed with the hope of the Gospel.
I’ve learned a lot since then. The biggest is that while planting a tree was certainly a necessary beginning, it was just a beginning.
We’ve experienced the same journey in serving the homeless. Just yesterday I was invited to lead a dedication service for a beautiful plot of land set aside to become a village for the chronically homeless of Austin. In the not too distant future, it will become home for hundreds of people who need more than a house… they need community. Something that began as a vision to simply feed our homeless brothers and sisters has become a holistic effort to offer true biblical community.
The same has happened on our journey of learning to care for the orphan. As an adoptive dad of two beautiful children from Ethiopia… I know that adoption will not solve the world’s orphan crisis. There is more… much more to be done.
Human Care is a journey we must travel together. One that can drain, frustrate, stump, and is as full of roadblocks as it is encouraging, fulfilling, and beautiful. Each effort typically starts with something simple… opens new doors… and exposes deeper opportunities. There are so many stories out there. We need to learn from each other.