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The whistling missionary

Missionaries have their own sense of time—and that’s a good thing

The whistling missionary

Tijuana, Mexico (Moises Castillo/AP)

Here’s something I’ve learned as a journalist over the course of my many interactions with missionaries: Don’t entrust your schedule to the hands of missionaries, unless you’re prepared to spend the whole day with them visiting all sorts of people and places.

You see, their ideas of time management and efficiency may differ from yours. For them, spending a three-hour lunch with someone, traveling long distances to visit a family in the middle of nowhere—all those long periods of seemingly doing “nothing” aren’t nothing, but mission work.

I experienced this sort of “missionary time” in Denver when I followed a missionary on his 12 home visits to Burmese refugees. In Thailand, I trailed various missionaries to minister to Pakistani refugees, visits that turned into whole-day affairs with lots of chai-sipping. In Burma, I trekked with a missionary family to visit persecuted ethnic minorities, hiking through a rural jungle mountain for four hours just to visit one woman. In Malaysia, I called a missionary to ask a question, expecting the conversation to last 15 minutes tops, but it dragged into a three-hour phone call.

And of course, I experienced this as a missionary’s kid—how many hours have I spent accompanying my father on his cultural expeditions and impromptu evangelism to random strangers? I still remember the night my family spent almost two hours waiting in the car, windows rolled down, while my father preached the gospel to a cashier at a grocery store in Singapore (she professed Christ, so we all rejoiced—a happy ending to a long night).

Last week I was once again reminded of how missionaries operate on a different time than us ordinary, earthly folks when I met a missionary in Tijuana for a story I’m reporting on the border crisis.

It was my third visit to Tijuana, and I gotta be honest, I didn’t look forward to it much. It’s a long, trafficky drive from Los Angeles. Crossing the border can be cumbersome, and the city is close enough that there’s little of that sense of novelty of visiting a foreign country. Tijuana also doesn’t have much landscaping, which means there aren’t planted trees to provide relief from the biting Mexico sun, and the streets smell funky. The last time I was in Tijuana, I had spent three hours loitering in a hilly neighborhood 7 miles south of the border, waiting for a local pastor who never showed up for a meeting. So on this third trip down to Mexico, I went with little enthusiasm, praying I wouldn’t get stood up again.

Thankfully, a church leader in Tijuana named Maggie picked me up at the border right around noon, as we had scheduled. Maggie is a Korean immigrant who doesn’t speak much English but speaks fluent Spanish thanks to her college years in Guadalajara. She and another Korean missionary, Stan, helped interpret for me that day. Before we went around town, Stan asked if I was in a time crunch to get back home. As soon as I said “No” and saw his smile broaden, I knew I was going to be in Tijuana for a long time. “We’ll try to get you back across the border before the sun sets,” Maggie said, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen.

It didn’t happen. I was in Tijuana for eight hours, driving from one colonia (neighborhood) to the next, spending more time than I wanted on the road. One trip, we spent 100 minutes jolting inch by inch in traffic to cross 14 miles. Another trip, Maggie got lost while tailing another pastor’s car, and it took us half an hour to find each other again. The next trip, officials manning the shelter for Central American migrants wouldn’t let us in, so we spent the next half-hour trying to convince them and listening to their reasons why we couldn’t enter. By our last trip, the sky was already pitch-black with nary a star, and we were woefully lost, wandering around the dusty hills, following GPS directions that were just as lost as we were.

I have a weak stomach, so I was quite miserable in the car. I was hot, but everyone else was cold, so they kept the windows up and blasted the heat. The hot dog I ate from a gas station lurched in my stomach with acidic juices while I silently groaned from the back seat. I could tell even Maggie was tired. But Stan the missionary? He was whistling and humming all throughout the drive, pausing only to talk about so-and-so’s spiritual progress and so-and-so’s resistance to the gospel. Twice our car sunk into a pothole so big that it knocked the wind out of us. Maggie let out a scream—but Stan? He laughed and exclaimed the Korean version of “Whoopsie Daisy!” and then continued driving and whistling.

Though I was still nauseous and heat-exhausted in the back seat, I felt a wash of appreciation for the cheerful missionary. Here he was, dedicating a whole day to help a journalist he’d just met, yet I didn’t hear a single complaint or disgruntled expression. Instead, he seemed to be at rest throughout the entire journey, even during the tedious moments and roadblocks.

Stan takes longer to leave a place because he gives all his attention to the people he meets and asks more questions than I do. He expresses genuine concern for the migrants stranded in Tijuana, but he’s no passive hand-wringer or angry activist—he simply goes out there and investigates the situation, whether through a random taxi driver or a local pastor, and figures out what God’s next step is for him with strategic thinking, collaboration, and infectious cheer.

That night, as I drove back home to LA, I thought of the Apostle Paul, the great first-century missionary who proclaimed the gospel to more than 50 cities around Asia Minor and the Mediterranean coasts. I imagine the logistics of Paul’s travels were a lot more challenging then our pothole-ridden drive through Tijuana with Google Maps. We learn about Paul’s love and ministry to the early churches through Acts and his letters, and we also learn that he got shipwrecked three times, spending a night and a day adrift at sea. He went on frequent journeys in danger of thrashing rivers, street robbers, the wilderness, storm, and starvation (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).

And yet this is the same guy who exhorted his fellow brothers in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). I’m confident Paul’s journeys weren’t just about getting from point A to point B to meet person X. I’ll bet Paul had three-hour meals with strangers he met while on the boat, on the ship, on donkeys, and on foot. I’ll bet he sometimes got lost but somehow found someone to bless or extra time to rest while wandering. And I’ll bet he whistled and hummed along the way.