When we think of missionaries, most of us conjure up images of dedicated individuals living their faith by helping those in extreme need in foreign and often inhospitable regions of the world. Most of us called to be missionaries long for the adventure end experience of living the foreign experience. We want to help the people living in those harsh and distant third world countries that daily face the most dire physical needs – lack of food, medicines, decent shelter, and medical care. We are drawn to the mystical and mysterious people and cultures of lands far from our homes.
So why do we neglect those in need living in our own back yards? Most of us can find people within ten miles of our homes living in poverty and neglect. Certainly it’s not the same type of physical poverty found in third world countries, yet it is poverty and neglect just the same. In our back yards we can find spiritual and moral poverty and a neglect of love and kindness as dire as anywhere else in the world.
What about the home mission? It doesn’t quite have the same ring as a mission to Africa or Latin America, now does it? It doesn’t have the same appeal as learning a foreign language and culture, eh? Hmmmm, a mission to Alabama – it just doesn’t bring those pictures of adventure, and excitement, and the bragging rites of a couple of years of living in the jungle, or the desert, or China. But wait. Isn’t there something more to being a missionary? What about the spirit of giving, the spirit of selflessness, the spirit of doing something for someone else and thinking about someone else’s needs before your own? And what about that good old American spirit of patriotism and helping our own? I’m talking about our Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and other brothers and sisters right here in the U.S.
You may have guessed by now that I work at a home mission. And at one time I had all of those images of foreign missions dancing in my head, and my heart was set on traveling to that far distant land. I had no inclination to volunteer my time domestically. I never ever considered it. When searching for an organization to give my time to, I immediately crossed off the ones on the list that had only domestic locations and zeroed in on the foreign ones. I’ve come to know many other missionaries (including would-be missionaries) and most of them, too, have looked solely at the foreign missions. When talking about going to a mission, we all talked about the land, the adventure and the people living in the Andes mountains, but these are my fellow countrymen I’m talking about.
There is one aspect of this mission that has completely fulfilled my early conceptions of what going on a mission is all about. Talk about adventure, about testing your courage, about finding out how strong your faith is — live across the street from a city housing project in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s all there in your own backyard.