'Why Foreign Missions?'
From time to time, I’ve heard someone ask, ‘Why go overseas to minister to people when there are so many needs right here?’ This question is well worth considering, and I propose to do so in several parts.
1. The Needs at Our Gate
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores…. (Lk. 16.19-21, NRSV).
When I lived in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, I asked myself a version of the same question: ‘Why go anywhere else to help people when the needs are so great right where I am?’ A sanitary engineer told me that over 70% of the population had no access to toilets and running water. People lived and slept in the streets, huddling under shelters made from scraps of plastic, metal, or wood whenever it rained or the sun beat down relentlessly. We had seven shelters right outside of our gate, and many more on the adjoining street. Down the street, two women begged for a little money each day to feed their children. A couple of streets over, I met a leper with only stubs for fingers and part of his face missing. The nearly daily wails coming from the hospital across the street told me when someone died. I didn’t hear the screams inside, where surgeries were carried out without anesthesia. One day, I watched a fight break out over bread that someone was handing out to the hungry.
I was simply overwhelmed in Ethiopia with the extent of human needs. We would buy meal tickets to hand out to the needy so that they used them on food, not something else. An eleven year old girl with a bright smile and her little brother lived just outside the wall of my compound. When she would see me on the street, she would come skipping over and gratefully received a few meal tickets. My heart broke for this little girl, knowing that others like her regularly gave themselves to prostitution so that they could feed their stomachs for just one more day.
I asked myself how we could minister to a city with so many needs. How could we feed the widows and orphans, the cripples, and the sick? No matter where I walked—and I took long walks—I would see the same human suffering. A cripple using a pole as a crutch as he walked to cars idling at one of the still running stoplights, someone suffering from elephantiasis lying outside the church yard, someone scooting along on his fists because he had no legs…. Where does one start to meet such needs?
I decided that I would try to help the little girl with a bright smile and her brother. They lived right outside of my compound, like Lazarus begging outside the rich man’s gate in Lk. 16. While we cannot help everybody, we might at the very least try to help those sitting at our gate.
Foreign mission work is not an excuse to ignore the needs right where we are. Even if needs are greater far away, we need to realize that the needs outside our gate are ones that we can address. The first answer to our question, ‘Why foreign missions?’ is simply this: Let us not ignore the needs at our own gate.