A friend of mine asked me if I would be willing to serve as a mentor or resource for one of her friends who is coming back to the US after being an extended time of mission work overseas.
Yes, I would be delighted. And it’s given me a chance to revisit in my mind, some of the best 8 week missions assignments of my life.
Though I was only in Baja California, Mexico for 8 weeks at a time during my summers in grad school, my dream since the age of 15 was to do mission work in Baja.
To live there, love the people, and eat all the things. To have a clay cottage with tile floors, and a front porch overrun with terra cotta pots filled with flowers that create unspeakable blooms in the nitrogen-rich soil.
To stand over a wash basin atop a homemade rustic plywood table, where I would wash my clothes with the bar soap that smells like The City of Children, and then hang the clothes to dry on the line behind my quaint little residence in the mild Mexican sun that smells like redemption, peace, and God’s undying love.
To wash the floors each week with lavender scented Fabuloso cleaner. And to eat breakfasts of scrambled eggs with beans and a fresh flour tortilla; coffee with milk, and a piece of fresh fruit.
When I got even just a taste of this dream fulfilled, it made my life.
The best night’s sleeps I’ve ever had in my life have happened three times. All on the first night of my Baja summer after arriving in San Diego and bussing across the border to Ensenada.
I would spend some time walking around downtown Ensenada after putting all of my stuff in the hotel room at the Villa Marina, go see my friend at the pottery store and buy another piece of pottery for my home, and then go back to the hotel to shower off Atlanta and embrace all the goodness of Latino America.
Lulled to sleep by the sounds of downtown Ensenada, I would know in my heart and in my soul and in my actual body, that I was home, truly at home in my self, my own skin, my purpose, my joy.
The days working there with the mission teams were spent knocking on doors, delivering meal bags consisting of olive oil, rice, beans, spaghetti, tomato sauce, cans of tuna, tortilla mix, and diapers for the kids.
When I wasn’t on visiting duty, I would assist with the medical clinic acting as a translator either with the doctors or the pharmacy.
When there was an optometry clinic, I always got to translate for the optometrist, by specific request of Dr Nicholls. That became kind of my niche, and everybody knew it.
On the best days, those twice in a lifetime days, when you know that God has you in a specific place for a specific purpose and is gifting you the opportunity to use your gifts in the way that they were meant to be used, in the place where they were meant to thrive the most,
I got to set up a little counseling booth so that the men and women of Baja who had been oppressed and repressed by life could come and talk to someone who would listen to them.
Someone who would help them look for the meaning in their suffering, to help them look for the purpose in their chaos.
Someone who could look at them through the eyes of Jesus and allow them to see, even for a moment, what hope looks like.
Horrific abuses plagued some of the women, and worries about how to provide for the children tormented a lot of the dads.
And I got to be a part of it. Somehow, they let me in, they trusted me to carry their stories with reverence and care.
To hold their stories up to God in one hand and their questions of “why” and “when will this be over” in another;
each of us prayerfully coexisting with all of the existential angst of the moment juxtaposed with all of the futuristic hope of eternity.
After that first summer, after making lifelong friends, and doing things I never thought I’d be able to do, I came back home to Atlanta, Georgia.
While everyone around me was moving at light speed, I was stuck in place. Numb to the realities of time and obligation, I longed for a reprieve from the fast-paced way of life, a tortilla, and an amazing cup of coffee.
What I found helpful in my journey of reentry was the doing of things that delighted my Latina soul.
There is a big part of me that is and has always been descended of Latin culture: biologically, in the way that I was raised on the Brazilian mission field, musically, hip – ly, theologically (looking at you, anyone who has Justo Gonzales’s or Gabriel Salguero’s autograph in a book somewhere and wants to share).
To nurture my Latina soul, sometimes I will take MARTA for no apparent reason other than it makes me feel good inside, to wherever I am going.
I grew up taking public transit, after all.
I jump on the bus at the bus stop right outside my apartment complex, I take it to the Northsprings station and hop on the train there, change trains later, and MARTA all the way into Decatur, and then back home at the end of the day.
During the World Cup or the Copa America, back in the days when Brazil would stay in long enough for me to have a ritual, before a match,
I would go to my favorite Brazilian store down the street from my apartment and get a Brazilian salty pastry treat filled with chicken then breaded and deep fried; and a Brazillian soda.
On the drive to the match viewing, I would blare the National Anthem of Brazil on full blast, on repeat, while singing along.
A couple of Easters ago, my friend Julie, whose family is Mexican, invited me to their great big Easter bash.
It is a lunch to end all lunches. We had carne asada fresh from the grill, grilled chicken, potato salad, other salads, and an array of traditional Mexican desserts. We ate, we salsa’d, we were a community.
Many times, a few weeks after returning home from Baja, I would have to get Mexican food. NOT TexMex, NOT upscale Mexican, NO trendy duck confit tacos with mango salsa.
I would go straight to Buford Highway, to the most rundown looking at taqueria I could find, and eat my little heart out on steak tacos, shrimp tacos, chicken tacos and a nice big glass of horchata.
One of the best days of my life was when I discovered that A Cappella, my favorite recording artists of all time when I was younger (and let’s be honest, to this day), had a new album called Voces (Spanish for voices) in Spanish.
When I got my hands on it, it revolutionized the way that I do worship, the way that I think about and pray for Baja, the way that I nurture my Latina soul on my commute to and from work, or when I’m feeling especially overwhelmed, stressed, sad, or scared.
Getting in touch with my feelings in Spanish, and especially through music has been a good way for me to stay grounded in the fact that I had all these amazing opportunities, and that I don’t think God, Baja and I are done yet.
And, to any of you who might need a culturally savvy buddy who has adventurous tastes; who knows what it’s like to only want to eat the foods of your heartland, and speak only in your heart language, lettuce meet for lunch! Yes pun intended.
In the meantime, here are the practical re-entry tips, from experience, which have served me well:
-be gentle with yourself, allowing yourself time to grieve. The loss of a mission field, is a loss. You will need to mourn and grieve.
– that said, try not to wallow. Do something small every day that makes you feel alive.
– eat the food you miss: find a restaurant that serves the food from the country that you are missing. Take a friend with you, and tell them how in the actual place where the food is from, it’s cooked this way. Rail against the Americanization of all of your favorite things. But, don’t do this for very long. It’s annoying.
– have friends over, share pictures and mission trip stories, and have a meal together. Maybe one of the ladies from the church you worked with taught you how to make her signature dish. Make it for your friends, and let them enjoy that part of your life as they listen to your stories and look at your pictures.
– be thankful. Give thanks to God for opportunities to serve, for the partners who served with you through prayer and sometimes financial assistance.
– Be thankful for every blessing you have; and be careful not to turn up your nose at those who have many physical blessings just because you have friends who live in cardboard box. And don’t give away all but 7 outfits in the name of solidarity for your new friends. That’s not solidarity. It’s probably narcissism.
– let God use you wherever you are right now. Don’t keep praying for a mission field when there maybe one right in front of you, waiting to be graced with your unique gifts. Let God work in you and through you, always.