In my very first short-term missions experience in 2001, I spent 10 days with a team staying at an orphanage for disabled children. This place (which is still there today) housed 500 kids – about 120 of whom were non-ambulatory – unable to get out of bed on their own at all. This place knew that their limit was 500 kids because when they’d taken in more than that, the children died more quickly.
These children knew of church, because almost all of them had been to an Orthodox Church at one time or another to bury one of the children in their orphanage group who had died. Many of these children had come from intense abuse in their homes, or at the hands of one of the under-trained, under-paid workers serving 24-hour shifts in the orphanage. Most of them were drugged continually, had bed sores. None of them would receive an education past a 5th grade level.
On one day, I was praying silently and walking through one of the several rooms of Building 4. Each room in this building contained 10-12 beds where non-ambulatory children spent their days lying on their backs, or rolled over onto their sides, moaning out or hitting themselves, while they stared at the ceiling or walls around them.
I came into the 4th or 5th room, and I walked beside the bed of one young girl, around 12 years old, who laid in the fetal position alone in the corner of a large crib, constantly drugged out of her mind and completely terrified. She wreaked of urine, and her teeth were black and falling out. Except for feedings and the bath she received about one time a week, she, like all of the children in this building, received almost no human contact at all.
I had this feeling that through her fear, she actually desired for me to stay with her. So, I pulled a chair up next to her crib, and just sat there, praying and singing Jesus Loves Me quietly while the kids around us in the room moaned or cried out, as they did constantly throughout every day.
After a few minutes, I noticed her glance at my hand, which was resting on the bed about a foot away from her. Every time she looked over at my hand, I saw that same desire through the fear that I had seen earlier. So I just left it there on the bed, never moved it closer or pulled it away.
In that moment, I was not called to preach, or to plan some elaborate missions agenda, or to plant any church. I was called to just sit there, and to muster any bit of true faith that I could on behalf of that little girl in prayer.
And I was completely in over my head. Even if I could have spoken Russian at that time, she wouldn’t have understood me. She was too terrified for me to lay hands on her and pray. None of the wisdom I had picked up from all of the books I’d read on missions was going to do her any good in that place.
All I could say was, “God, You have to be real. Jesus must be all that He said He was. Because if He is not, then I have absolutely nothing to offer this little girl. God, if You will not hear my prayers for her, who is of the purest of hearts, and bring her some bit of peace and comfort in this dark place, then there really is no hope for any one of us at all.”
After about 40 minutes of sitting, singing and praying, the little girl pulled her hand out from under her chin, slowly reached it out, and placed it on top of mine.
In all of my time thus far of study and contemplation of the scriptures and singing songs of praise and worship in a church building, nothing has brought me to my knees in the presence of the power and the love of God for His children like the feeling of her soft, fragile fingers on top of my hand.
In my brief experience in missions since that day, I have found that true faith, true passion for prayer and for knowing God and the truth of the authority and vastness of His grace and love has not come from the places I thought it would. The real deepening of my desire for and faith in God has come from the unexpected moments like these.
Time and again, God has gradually opened my eyes to the deeper and deeper depths of the suffering and darkness of His children in this world, so that each time I am left on my face, my faith shaken, as everything that I thought I knew about God has been broken into a million pieces blowing away in the wind. Each time I respond in anger, questioning God, screaming at Him, even questioning His existence at times.
And each time, in the midst of this battle, I have witnessed waves of His grace and mercy wash into the lives and circumstances around me that were no less that supernatural. Each time, my faith has been deepened.
If we ask God to reveal Himself to us, He will, but likely not in the ways we expect, especially coming out of the comfort and convenience of the lives to which so many of us are accustomed.
And we need to recognize that once we walk through such an encounter with our Creator God, we will be forever changed.
Some of these changes will be nice – like less fear, greater joy, etc. But some of these changes will actually bring about new, unexpected difficulties.
For example, we will find that a lot of our preconceived definitions will change – including how we define comfort, blessing, love, and church.
But perhaps the most painful change coming out of these experiences with God will be in our relationships. People who we consider close friends – especially friends who are also in the Church – will begin to distance themselves from us, for reasons neither they nor we can articulate. We will begin to feel like strangers in what used to be familiar Christian scenes, and many of us will begin to feel more comfortable outside the church building than within. In certain ways, loneliness can become a much deeper factor. And partially for this reason, we will find ourselves desiring the presence of God much more deeply than we did before.
I don’t know if all of this is right, necessarily. It is just what I perceive to be the experience of my journey so far.
Love and peace today.