Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons learned in twelve years of running a transitional house for furloughed inmates and ten years as an adolescent substance abuse counselor in Hawaii. This is certainly due in part to my having encountered so many members of visiting mission teams who are considering doing something similar and have asked for advice. Perhaps a more significant reason is that despite my expectations that I would be doing something vastly different here in Honduras we are frequently called upon to help deal with some of the very same issues. At any rate here are two hard yet indispensable truths and one paradox that are vital to those experiencing a call to backyard missions like running a transitional home.
If you follow our blog you may have noticed that I am a fan of etymology. I love to drill down into the original meanings of certain words. Ironically it only took me twelve years to look up the word “transition” which is from the 15th-century Latin “transitionem” “a going across or over”. In my mind “going across or over” implies traversing some challenge or obstacle and not necessarily an immediate metamorphoses or change. It also suggests the idea of a bridge. Bridges get walked on, driven on, rained on, jumped on, sometimes urinated on… People don’t thank a bridge, stop to have a picnic on a bridge or set up sales, information booths or churches on a bridge. In fact, most people are only concerned with what lies on the other side. People typically only pay attention to bridges when they fail or appear to be at risk of failing.
Which brings me to the first hard truth that I’d like to impart.
Counselors, missionaries and transitional houses are bridges. Most of the positive change that you will see in people if you see any at all will likely happen after they leave you behind. This can be discouraging particularly if you are confused about your identity and relationship with God such that pride takes root in your soul. Our job is not to fix, change or save people. Our job is to be a bridge from certain destruction to some greater semblance of hope which for some might be yet another bridge. The principle also applies when helping orphans or counseling substance abuse clients. Many of us pay lip service to this truth only to suffer burn out due to unmet expectations and or we assume too much responsibility for long-term outcomes. We need to remind ourselves and each other that we are bridges that some will refuse to cross regardless of how much or how hard we pray. Others will never fully appreciate our efforts until years later when they look back and realize what was provided for them and that they could never have made it across without our help. However, the likely hood that we will be around to hear their gratitude is slim at best. Still, there are others who will jump, fall off or otherwise fail to make it to the other side. In this case, you can be sure that you will be blamed by someone and perhaps investigated or sued. Keep in mind that Jesus described Himself among other things as the Way. A student is not above his master or a servant above his Lord. What they did to him they will probably do to you.
Hard truth number two is that we plant seed, and we water seed in faith. Many seeds are “Storm Seeds”.
Our transitional home was in Hawaii, and we always had a garden of some sort. One year I planted squash which normally grows like a weed and for whatever reason, nothing would grow. So, I planted again, but still, nothing would grow. I had pretty much given up when a massive storm and days of torrential rains hit us. Everything was washed out. It was about a week later when I noticed a new squash plant growing about fifty feet from where I had planted it. Sometimes a big enough storm is required to make the seed you plant grow. I never questioned the seeds I planted in soil or in people after that. We plant seed and we water seed in faith. We do not make things change or grow. That is God’s job. The challenge is not to give up planting and watering when the fruit we desire fails to appear at the time of our choosing.
Enantiodromia is a term first coined by Heraclitus and often attributed to Carl Jung describing the tendency of things to change into their opposites. Sort of the way a pendulum swing exhausts its momentum in one direction and swings the other way. The distance it swings in one direction determines how far it goes in the other. While Jung seems to get most of the credit, I think it was Jesus who described it first. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” and “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”. People in transition be they orphans or inmates are not the final versions of themselves. They are in a process of dying to themselves and their old way of life. This process can be extremely messy. Another problem is that people in transition have a unique way of making others want to quit helping them and sometimes even throw them over the side of the proverbial bridge. Never the less, as in the case of a pendulum swing, sometimes the change begins at the very peak of a person’s so-called badness.
Jake (not his real name) was one of many seemingly incorrigible inmates that the warden of our local jail sent to us through the years. Unsalvageable was the term he used. Jake was a shot caller in the Hawaii gang known as the USOs (pronounced ooso). He was a collector and a strong arm which means he’d probably killed people or at least came very close to it. He engaged in pornography production with young women and even impregnated one of my former Teen Care clients. The drugs he sold went to local kids and also probably contributed to some of my other clients who died. There was absolutely nothing good about Jake when he came to live with us. Not only did he do nothing to help anyone with anything ever but he also helped himself to everyone else’s possessions and food. The other inmates would never complain because they were terrified of him. Never the less Jake heard the gospel, watched our walk and listened to myriad apologetic lectures regarding the abundant, clean and sober, crime-free lifestyle. As expected Jake immediately began dealing drugs, was caught and returned to jail. The last conversation I’d had was via text and amounted to a string of profanity insulting my intelligence and manhood which I printed and sent to the warden who posted it in the prison for everyone to see. Sometimes love doesn’t look all that loving in this realm. But that’s a topic for a future blog should there be enough interest in this one. Even so, I wasn’t angry or being vindictive. It says in Proverbs that a rebuke from a friend is sweeter than kisses from an enemy. I was merely doing what I could to facilitate the process that I had come to understand so well. It wasn’t long before Jake ‘s nineteen-year-old son joined him in prison and they became cellmates. Ironically, Jake ‘s own father had been murdered in that very same prison. Then something happened. Jake’s pendulum swing reached its peak as he came face to face with the reality of who and what he had become.
It was several years later and right before we were due to leave for the Harvest School of Missions in Pemba Mozambique that the doorbell rang. “Cathy?” I heard as I came around the corner. “Who the heck is this?” I thought. “Oh my gosh its Jake ” I yelled! “Come on in!” I said greeting him like a celebrity. Long story short it soon became clear that Jake was completely transformed. He’d gotten born again in prison and become a worship leader. He was completely repentant, and all he wanted to do was to make amends for what he did in our home. He laughed as he explained how he used to tell people that “Brian is boring! Christianity is boring!” He took full responsibility for all the wrongs he ever did, lead us in worship and prayed the most anointed prayer we’d heard in a very long time. Naturally, we invited him to move back in, and he became a manager and the spiritual covering for the house the entire time we were in Africa.
We have other comparable stories to reflect upon even if they pale in number to those who have not made it – yet. Even so throughout the years, the one thing that kept us going was the absolute and undeniable understanding that good, bad, ugly, or beautiful, God had placed His desires in our hearts and called us to love the unlovable. There were times when I – we so wanted to quit and even prayed to God asking Him to release us. Many times, we would ask ourselves “what if all of this was just for one or two people? Would we still do it?” To which one of us would invariably reply “how much is one life worth?”
Now we are missionaries. We continue to feed the poor in the dump, save and raise children. We counsel and clothe, support and serve and strive to be a voice for the voiceless. These are things people honor most and love to hear about. Yet I was hit with the most profound revelation at breakfast the other day. I realized that my perception of the poor dump people I once pitied from my prior, presumptuously, prideful place of material superiority had changed. I realized that I have come to see them as equals, people who were no different and perhaps even superior in some ways to me. I can’t explain it or provide any rational or apologetic argument for it because it was a deeply spiritual experience. Perhaps I am getting closer to understanding Mother Teresa when she said, “we serve the poor knowing that they will rule over us.” And that she always saw Jesus in the eyes of the poor and dying. I know I have already written similar things. I guess we are still in the midst of another “crossing over”. Our expectations are greater than ever now. Enantiodromia.
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