Going across to the other side

A church planter learns 3 important lessons

I recently read an article based on Mark 4:35–41. It’s the story of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, where he says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” The article –“Crossing to the Other Side,” which appears in a collection of Canadian writing called Northern Lights – flooded my mind with memories of the years my wife Erika and I spent as church planters with MB Mission.

The “other side” symbolizes cultures beyond Israel, says James Loney in his Northern Lights article. It can be a “country, an ethnicity, a gender or sexual orientation, a skin colour, a religion – even a bowling team.”

Loney reflects on his experience of crossing to the other side as a volunteer with the Catholic agency Via Veritas. He goes to a northern Cree community, God’s Lake Narrows, Man., thinking to help impoverished native people. Instead, he receives an extraordinary gift: “Everywhere is home, and everyone is a brother or sister created by God to laugh and play together in a great cosmic game of soccer, and the only rule is an invitation: come and be yourself.”

Loney observes that, as we cross to the other side in the storm, we realize that our inner self is not enough – it must die so our more mature self can emerge. Erika and I learned this, and other lessons, as we left Canada to become church planters with MB Mission.

1. Accepting limitations

I arrived in Costa Rica with no knowledge of Spanish; Erica knew the language because she had lived in Paraguay and Uruguay as a child. I quickly learned what it means to not be able to communicate due to language barriers.

“Mommy, Mommy!” one of the neighbours’ kids blurted out during our visit. “Why can’t that man talk?” Everyone laughed, but I was embarrassed and frustrated.

A few months later, we went to the eastern coast to spend some time at a pristine beach, not far from where the science fiction Jurassic Park was filmed. There, for the first time in my life, I contracted a serious infection and lost about 25 pounds. I was learning that my body wasn’t indestructible.

2. Making space for other perspectives

John Wall, who later became an administrator with MB Mission, was a classmate at language school. One day, an older student commented to him in alarm: “Do you realize there are Mennonites at this school?” He was referring to some young volunteers with long hair and “hippy” style clothes. Clean-cut John replied: “Do you realize I’m a Mennonite?” The man was speechless.

At language school, I not only learned Spanish, I also learned that many people hold on tightly to their own worldviews – to the detriment of fellowship. This jolted me more than the cultural shock.

3. Achieving success through failure

After a few years of being mentored by Ebner and Martha Friesen in their church plant in Bogota, Colombia, Erika and I optimistically struck out on our own, with two promising young men from the church, to start anew in a huge barrio. The church plant went nowhere; we took down the sign from the storefront rental two years later, and returned to help in the original plant.

We were embarrassed to talk about it, but a visiting pastor surprised us by saying: “Oh no, you’re not failures! Now you have depth and God can use you.” This was the first of many times we would experience brokenness in our 23 years with MB Mission.

As more and more people from other cultures come to our country, the challenge is: How do we obey the great commission? Are we willing to die to self so we can connect with people different from ourselves for the sake of the gospel? Are we willing to become broken so others can become whole?

Will we obey when Jesus says: “Let us go over to the other side”?

—Bob Sukkau is a member of South Abbotsford (B.C.) Church.

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