It turns out that the eclectic way God decided to stitch my psyche together was exactly what I needed to minister to youth. Couple my juvenile idiosyncrasies with the confident, loving and disarming style of my wife, and you have a semi-dynamic duo of youth communicators.
We were rebooted as Youth 2.0. We were young but adult. We were parental but cool. We fit in well. Young adults trusted us and looked to us for guidance.
It was while volunteering as youth helpers that we first entered the lunatic world of cross-cultural ministry. Across the street from our church was a low-income trailer park. It was filled with mobile homes just teeming with immigrants of questionable documentation. True enough some were legal residents but all were equally forgotten by the church and society-at-large.
The need was great among the “Mexicans.” It goes without saying that all of them were not of Mexican descent, but that is the label bestowed by the ignorant masses upon any immigrant speaking Spanish. We thought we could kill two spiritual birds with one stone by planning an event to bring together the youth of our church and those forgotten ones, the Mexicans.
I remember having this special event in the front yard of one of the unrented mobile matchboxes. We set up a generator and had live music. We had also amassed a substantial stack of used clothing to give away. Keep in mind that this was before thrift-store chic was sweeping the nation. Fashion standards of the day dictated that these clothes were $1 surprise box quality at the mini warehouse liquidation auction. That was okay. It was what we had.
We set up several tables, stacked the clothes yard-sale style and hung signs proudly proclaiming “GRATIS”. Free clothes or not, our target audience really took some coaxing before they would even pass by in a car, much less on foot.
In retrospect, I think it may have been the fault of the 15 passenger van we came in. White, unlettered with dark tint; it had more than a passing resemblance to the deportation mobiles used by local immigration officers. Nothing says “Jesus loves you” like an all-expense-paid trip back to your motherland.
Once the “barrio” observed us for a while, they sent in a few covert operatives in the form of kids and pregnant mothers. These stealthy spies gave us the thumbs-up and the crowd slowly picked up. We tossed out as many Spanish words as we knew, most salvaged from too many trips to Taco Bell. We summoned our inner Mexican and made some truly awkward attempts at inviting our new friends to church.
You can’t imagine our excitement when three amigos from our mobile home ministry showed up bright and early for service. We never really processed the idea of what to do if someone from our venture actually came to service. There was no Spanish service. There was no translation. There were no subtitles for the singing or sermon. We had coaxed these poor monolingual Latinos to a ritual-filled religious exhibition without so much as an “Hola” in the order of service.
To be completely honest we did have a fellow in our church that married a lady from Puerto Rico and they had three kids. They didn’t count though. She and their kids all spoke perfect southern English, if there is such a thang. They didn’t seem remotely Mexican (if you don’t get it, this is a joke.)
The folks at our church were friendly. They greeted these visitors and gave a big smile which tends to cross language barriers. Our dear Puerto Rican friend chatted with the guys a little and tried to make them feel comfortable. Even so, to be in a totally foreign country, hearing a totally foreign language, watching a totally foreign religious service caused our trailer park trinity to flounder in a corner as a group near the escape route. Clearly they recognized the word EXIT.
This further made a spectacle of them as if they were on display. The routine was greet your friends and make a lunch plan, awkwardly smile at the Mexicans, shake the pastor’s hand and leave. There was a palpable tension in the air. No one really knew what to do next. It was kinda like that moment when you and your girlfriend simultaneously realize you just called her by another girl’s name.
That day ended in a mix of elation and terror. We were elated and they were terrified. I think they understood we were trying to befriend them. The chicos made one or two more attempts at visiting with us before tossing in the sombrero. It wasn’t what we would have called a rousing success but that mission seed in our soul was nourished by it.
Have you ever done outreach in your community? How’d that go?