A friend was involved for years in a week­ly ser­vice intend­ed to reach out to inner-city kids, the major­i­ty of whom had lit­tle church expe­ri­ence and no acknowl­edged rela­tion­ship with Jesus.

If it had been up to me, I would have made those events seek­er-friend­ly.” I’d have focused on build­ing rela­tion­ships, avoid­ing any­thing too reli­gious or high pres­sure. But my friend went a dif­fer­ent way. Every week, he led wor­ship, one song after anoth­er, always unabashed­ly about — or to — Jesus.

I’m sure some of the kids walked away and nev­er looked back. But hun­dreds stayed. Many made deci­sions to fol­low Christ.

Some min­istry lead­ers were con­cerned that teens who didn’t know Jesus were being asked to par­tic­i­pate in wor­ship. My friend would reply, How else are they sup­posed to get to know him?”

It’s a good ques­tion. Peo­ple come to the Chris­t­ian faith via many dif­fer­ent high­ways, but the even­tu­al cross­road is always an encounter with Jesus. I won­der if my attempts to keep my wit­ness non­threat­en­ing and acces­si­ble some­times end up shield­ing the unchurched peo­ple around me from their own cross­road. Jesus can cer­tain­ly meet them with­out my assis­tance. But I would rather be a help than a hindrance.

I was def­i­nite­ly a hin­drance in Mexico. 

My hus­band, Mark, is a pub­lic high school coun­selor. A few years ago, a group of 11th graders asked him to coor­di­nate a human­i­tar­i­an trip. He con­tact­ed one of our favorite Chris­t­ian orga­ni­za­tions, and they agreed to facil­i­tate an excur­sion to Mex­i­co to build a play­ground in an impov­er­ished area. Mark was care­ful to explain that the stu­dents par­tic­i­pat­ing were unchurched; should there be even a whiff of pros­e­ly­tiz­ing, par­ents — and the school board — would feel betrayed.

There were 24 stu­dents and 4 teach­ers; my kids and I tagged along. Upon arrival, we dis­cov­ered that the arranged accom­mo­da­tions at a local Rotary Club house had fall­en through. Instead, we would be sleep­ing on the cement floor of a church base­ment in down­town Juârez, one of the most dan­ger­ous cities in Mex­i­co. Mark could already imag­ine the par­ent phone calls he’d receive when word trick­led home. Weary from a long day of trav­el, we set up sleep­ing bags and tried to ignore the exposed wiring, hole-rid­den walls, and scur­ry of cockroaches.

In the morn­ing, we drove to the site of our project. Jaws dropped and eyes welled as we observed the abject pover­ty around us. But we also expe­ri­enced the sweet rush of doing some­thing worth­while. At the end of the day, we returned to our cement floor feel­ing good.

All was well until the nau­sea hit. Some­time around 3 A.M., the first wave of stu­dents became ill; by morn­ing, there were clus­ters of mis­er­able peo­ple draped on every avail­able garbage can. Mark held his head and imag­ined a new wave of par­ent phone calls. Most­ly he threw up.

Around 9 A.M., the two local women who were prepar­ing our food arrived on the scene and sur­veyed the car­nage. Despite the lan­guage bar­ri­er, their dis­tress and con­cern were unmis­tak­able. They had fol­lowed all the guide­lines for cook­ing for for­eign­ers, and we were still sick. Even­tu­al­ly, one of the women approached the only teacher who could speak Span­ish and asked for per­mis­sion to pray for us. Too ill to object, the teacher nod­ded yes.

As soon as the woman began to pray, I knew we were in trou­ble. I thought, Maybe every­one is so ill they won’t mind the pray­ing. But my hopes for a low-impact prayer fad­ed quick­ly as the woman became increas­ing­ly emo­tion­al. She prayed for five min­utes. Ten. Maybe more.

Gra­cias Padre, Gra­cias Jesús, Gra­cias Espíritu San­to, she wept, over and over. I began a prayer of my own. Please make her stop. I don’t want Mark to get fired. I don’t want these kids to be put off of religion.

When she was final­ly done, I took a deep breath and forced myself to raise my flushed face, dread­ing the reac­tions I knew were inevitable.

Things were not as I expected.

There was not a dry eye in the room. Stu­dents were hushed, vis­i­bly moved. That was beau­ti­ful,” whis­pered one teacher. Sev­er­al peo­ple nod­ded. To them, the prayer had been not unwel­come pros­e­ly­tiz­ing, but a heart cry — pas­sion­ate, des­per­ate, and utter­ly authentic.

I was ashamed, of course, and hum­bled. The Holy Spir­it had been mov­ing, and I, one of the few mature believ­ers in the room, had missed it.

I wish I had prayed dif­fer­ent prayers in Mex­i­co. These days, in increas­ing mea­sure, I do. When faced with poten­tial encoun­ters with the liv­ing God, even among the unini­ti­at­ed, I am learn­ing to pray Yes and Thank you rather than Stop. After all, how else are any of us sup­posed to get to know him?

Hid­ing What They Seek” orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Chris­tian­i­ty Today (March 2009) and is now avail­able in Carolyn’s ebook: The­ol­o­gy in Aisle Sev­en.

Originally published March 2009

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