One pastor’s journey from life on the streets to the head of pro-democracy protests
Here’s a New Year’s resolution for you: If you don’t already have a missionary for a friend, find one. I have the incredible blessing of being born into a missionary family, but I can never have enough missionary friends who remind me of God’s mission for us on earth: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
One of my missionary friends, Sarah, lives in an impoverished Inupiat village of 150 people in rural Alaska. I first met Sarah online—she’s a longtime WORLD reader who wrote me once, and we’ve been sending each other essay-length emails ever since. Three years ago I met her in person in Alaska while reporting on Alaska Natives, then she and her husband and five kids visited me in Los Angeles a year later.
Most parents would not want their little kids to experience the infamous homeless community of Los Angeles, but Sarah and her husband Luke intentionally joined me in LA’s Venice neighborhood to serve the homeless there. They wanted their kids to see the spiritual and material poverty of this world, wanted them to develop a burden and prayer for human souls who so desperately need healing and redemption. So instead of taking the kids to Disneyland, they walked streets of Venice, passing out hot burritos to people who hadn’t washed in days. On the drive back, Sarah texted me, gushing, “That was one of the best experiences the kids have ever had!”
This Christmas, Sarah sent me an email saying she had invited four people in her village to spend the holidays with her family. She chose these four individuals with care—all of them had no family, nowhere to go for Christmas, and no genuine understanding of what Christmas really means.
On Christmas day, Sarah waited, and none of them showed up. One said “no” at the last minute because he was afraid she would try to convert him. Another woman had said she’d come, but never did. When Sarah later walked by her house, she saw that woman sitting alone in her house drinking and staring at the TV. “It is so sad,” Sarah wrote me. “People just love their own destruction, and yet hate it as well.”
On New Year’s Day, Sarah wrote to me again. I had asked about her prayers for the new year, and she said one of her prayers is for her husband’s family. “I long to share Christ more with them,” she wrote. Then she added an observation that struck me: “People without Christ are dying. No, I don’t mean getting in their coffins, though that will happen too, but they are settling into their death, becoming more dead, and more OK with it. Living death is just life to them, they don’t even seem to mind it so much anymore.”
What Sarah said pierced my conscience before God. How true, how devastatingly, horrifyingly true her statement is! And how devastating is it that we who call ourselves Christians—followers of Christ, people who belong to Christ—so easily forget this reality? Too often I see Christians seeking first the comforts of this world—or do so myself.
Even our Christian-coated interests can be so self-contained: Among fellow believers, we rage about abortion and LGBT activism and infringement on our religious freedoms, but avoid hanging out with those “sinners” and turn quiet when speaking out might cost us our job and friendships. Our church life revolves around fun activities with other Christian families. Our study of God’s Word can become focused on self and gaining whatever encouragement and comfort we can get for ourselves—a good thing, but when that pursuit isn’t channeled toward our mission as messengers of Christ, we miss out on the fullness and richness of our Christian life.
I felt this conviction a while ago during a weekend trip to Santa Cruz with several girlfriends. Out of this group of eight, I was the only professing Christian. We gathered because our dear friend was going through an extremely hard time after a breakup with her fiancé, and we wanted to surround her with love and sisterhood. Again, a noble goal, but I joined the trip completely forgetting I would be the only Christian witness in the group.
One evening we were having dinner at an Italian restaurant when one of the girls began talking about her frequent drug use. She couldn’t enjoy a music festival without being high on psychedelics, she proclaimed. Then the conversation progressed to sex. I won’t disclose the explicit details, but I learned things I didn’t ever need to know. I also learned that experimenting with an “open relationship”—an intimate relationship in which both partners agree to have sexual relationships with other people—is quickly becoming a popular trend, particularly in wealthy, highly educated areas such as Silicon Valley.
At the time, all I did was listen, half horrified and half curious. But the next morning on my drive back to the airport, I thought about the conversation again and a deep sadness and regret weighed on my heart.
Half of the women in our group were CEOs of successful tech companies in Silicon Valley. They earn more money than they know how to use, their resumés gleam with achievements, and they’re young and beautiful. By any objective standard, they are society’s elites, with a bright future before them. Yet I sensed in them the same condition Sarah had described: a living deadness. Something is deeply unsatisfying in their seemingly full lives. They scream their unmet yearnings in silence and try to liven the deadness by overstimulating their senses with drugs and sex. And I, a Christian with the Good News, had failed to speak into those sacred longings at that opportune moment.
The problem was that I had gone into that scenario wholly unprepared. I had not even prayed for them before meeting them. At some point during my many years of friendship with these women, I had given up on their salvation. I had invited them to church and shared my faith with them numerous times, but after constantly meeting passive disinterest from them, I let discouragement take over. I just couldn’t imagine such dull hearts ever opening up to the Spirit of God.
Sometimes, Sarah too expresses such discouragement in her emails. Out in the Alaska bush, her ministry to Alaska Natives is long and hard and sometimes seemingly unfruitful. Kids who once eagerly lapped up Bible studies in her kitchen gradually get sucked into unhealthy relationships and the alcoholism that runs in their families. Her hours of conversations with her neighbors seem to barely make a dent on their hardened hearts. Sometimes she weeps from heartbreak and exhaustion. But somehow she always comes back refreshed, ready to keep preaching, praying, loving. And I think it has to do with the fact that for Sarah, her mission to proclaim Christ is not just a job or one aspect of her life, but the very rhythm of her lifestyle. It is incorporated into her daily worship and enjoyment of God.
Evangelism is supposed to be the easiest thing for a Christian to do, because the Spirit does all the heavy work: All we need to do is proclaim in word and deed the truth we daily enjoy. So what excuse do we have? Oh Lord, I repent of my lack of faith and worship of You. May our daily worship of You define and fuel our action, thoughts, and speech.