Since 1946 Urbana has been a meeting place for those interested in learning more about missions. Every year it seems that attendance is ever more diverse and far-reaching. There is no better place to observe the diversity of the conference than in the group worship sessions and exhibit hall. During the week we were encouraged to ask ourselves: “Whose story will you tell?” We were directed to learn from and experience the diverse context of the Body of Christ and to recognize our own tiny part in its story.
Led by Erna Hackett we engaged in worship through story and song in a number of forms. Aiming to avoid cultural appropriation and promote understanding we were treated to songs in the context of their stories and singers.
In the exhibit hall, five of us staffed the South America Mission booth during the week. We were privileged to speak with students from all walks of life. Some came with impressive credentials: degrees in civil engineering, theological studies, nursing certifications, a pilots’ license, or a life of experience growing up overseas. Others came with wisps of passion and shreds of vision for what God might be calling them into. Still others arrived admitting their own ignorance about Latin America’s people and culture, seeking to learn more about our mission and the people we serve.
One thing that struck us during the week was the amount of students and adults from the countries we served who, after studies or careers in the US, desired to take the Gospel back to their birthplaces. South America Mission has been growing in partnership and membership with Latino missionaries, enabling cultural insiders to speak in ways unique to them in places dear to us.
It was beautiful to meet people from the places we had served – cities in Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru – who articulated the desires we have for those places, but with a sense of urgent ownership. Others from Guyana, Paraguay, and Uruguay spoke to us of places we have been praying to move into.
One recognized through time in the US that though she had come from a loving church family, the church is so much larger and more dynamic than one building or denomination. She wants to return to her city with her theological and engineering studies to participate in God’s movement in the greater city.
Couples of mixed heritage sought to bring their diverse backgrounds to the mission field. As cross-cultural workers we daily walk in the holy tension of cultural differences and can benefit from the testimony such marriages bring to the conversation.
A few students wandered, overwhelmed by emotion, from one booth to the next, seeking to make sense of their newly awakened convictions in regards to their birthplaces. We were able to pray with them and offer counsel in ways more personal than official. Our own stories of God’s provision and sovereign leadership acted as cups of cool water in the face of their whirling emotions.
It was challenging and humbling to try to encapsulate the collective personality of SAM in just a few minutes, to seek to encompass 100+ years and untold centuries of prayer and labor in a few words. The challenge was to move away from jargon and into truth, into personal connection. The challenge was to listen and discern what God was doing in the life of each person before us, encouraging them in pursuit of that mission whether that meant serving with SAM or one of the other hundreds of organizations represented at the conference.
God’s church is so much larger than our ethnic identity. His movement is greater than one continent. His Spirit is more powerful than our limitations and others’ words. It was exciting to share my own story and hear the stories of others. It was a privilege to share SAM’s story, and remarkably refreshing to experience how SAM’s story fits into God’s story. As each strand is braided together, something marvelous and harmonious is formed.
This is the Body of Christ.