We were gathered into a room, dusty and darkly lit, but neat and orderly. White plastic tables were pushed to the side and the unmistakable shape of a gathering space, with computer hooked to projector, PowerPoint with lyrics, solo amp with wireless mic and a single guitar run through it, formed. In just a few hours, this space would convert back to its original intent, a restaurant space, serving tacos, enchiladas, and just about any of the faire you think of when it comes to food in Mexico.
After stepping off of a plane into a new country, walking across a tarmac before officially setting foot onto their soil, we traveled by car, spent the night, and woke to worship with complete strangers.
There in the small space, some people labored to prepare, but most dropped everything they were doing, including those in the slightly screened off kitchen preparing the meal for the day. They came to embrace us warmly and I fumbled with zero confidence with my spanish greetings. They looked on us lovingly, and suddenly the void built by different languages was bridged by love.
Going to a worship service done entirely in a language which is not your strong suit means that often times, you will find yourself grasping for any familiar word, finding one or two and trying to construct what it was that the person was speaking about. You pay much more attention to body language. It’s easier to tell when it’s time to pray because everyone begins to posture themselves the same way.
During that service, members were invited to praise God for whatever was going on in their lives. Each person who stood praised God for us.
And I just thought, “dude, we haven’t done anything except occupy your pastor’s time while he drove us, eat your food, and do some serious disservice to your language.”
Can I just say, the tacos here are incredible? I’m not ever going to be able to eat tacos in America again. They are now and forever ruined for me, eating them here. I don’t know if I’m doing it right half the time, but i haven’t seen a taco yet that I haven’t been ready to eat ten more of.
Can I just say our hosts are incredible? During one of our dinners, the girl who led Sunday worship, ran around managing children for VBS, worked hard to learn some of their worship songs in English to make us feel included, also worked tirelessly to serve us dinner and did not sit down with her own until she had served us seconds on our own meals.
We had just concluded a VBS where something like 15 kids showed up.
The next day we had about 40.
On day two, a group of young people arrived from all over the state where we are. They clumped just like young people do, in groups of people familiar, sizing up their American guests. Again, my Spanish, which was getting marginally better, got in the way of making a decent introduction. But we shared the same air.
That night we joined a worship service for which they gathered. They sang. Again, they included songs with verses in English and Spanish. The pastor gave a message about taking the initiative even in your youth.
I’m pretty sure that’s what his message was. If it wasn’t, the message I was preaching on his behalf in my head was some pretty fiery truth.
Then we stood up to play a game.
The guy who took charge of the game was going on VERY quickly in spanish so much so that I had no prayer of understanding what he was saying until I heard something like “groups of three.”
The guy who I sat next to during the whole service then threw his right arm around my shoulder and claimed me for his group.
I kinda hate doing games where students have to split into groups. It creates real time anxiety about how to find people or how to group with them. Seriously, it’s like choosing teams for sports, except instead of potentially two teams to be rejected by, you have an option of however many people are in the room.
I still do it, though, and will continue to because of what happened on night two of VBS week.
My buddy, Hernan, who i had write his name down so I could say the right name, gave me the impression that he was happy to make me part of his group. We played a game keeping a balloon between our group as we walked.
At dinner, I became distinctly uncomfortable with the idea that we were sitting in groups of Mexicans or groups of Americans.
So I went and sat down at Hernan’s table.
The slightly terrifying moment set upon me where no one really acknowledged I had sat with them. Had I breached protocol? Should I go back? How do you say, “I admire the living heck out of you guys for what you’re doing here,” when you can barely squeeze out, “I really like spicy food.”
Conversation started small, eventually. But we spoke of their homes and mine. We talked about the way they high five (slap hands and then fist bump). I talked about my kids and I asked about their studies. They asked me about my favorite food back home, and I told them about Texas barbecue.
The game of charades we had been keeping up was necessary because my Spanish is really really lacking. But when one of the students caught me trying to describe ribs, he objected, thinking i was describing where i needed to lose weight.
We laughed until we cried.
The next day, VBS had way more than 40 kids show up. That night, we spoke about leadership and how to lead your community to serve it. It’s weird speaking through a translator because you have to break your thoughts up into memorable bites for maximum accuracy. You have to wait for a joke to land. That’s a little anxiety.
I asked for questions, and one girl spoke about how grateful she was to be there. She spoke of her affection for her fellow students, and she spoke of gratitude for our ability to serve together that week. She spoke through tears of uproarious joy. A few others echoed her thoughts. We sang “How Great Thou Art” in English and Spanish.
How Great Thou Art
It Is Well
Because He Lives
Our host, the young girl who does so much work and leads so bravely, worked to learn those songs and others in English so we could sing together. At some point in time, I’ve begun to learn the Spanish verses, which are beautiful and poetic in their own rights.
After sharing these songs together, it suddenly dawned on me why people were so happy to greet us when we had done nothing to help their church or further their cause yet.
It’s the same reason Paul wanted to go visit his people in the churches he helped to found.
It’s easy to feel alone in hard work. It’s even easier to feel like you’re doing something about which no one really cares. But when someone flies hundreds of miles and drives a few more just to be with you and join in common cause with you over something which consumes your passion, it can’t be anything but encouraging. I’m not saying that the greatest work we did was in just showing up. I’m saying we started at a ten because of the journey to get to them.
In fighting through the language barrier…
In aiding the VBS they are doing, teaching willing children about the truth of the Gospel…
In seeing young people in their hardest times and loving them without condition…
We have been able to bless these people moment by moment, meal by meal, prayer by prayer, embrace by embrace.
In translating songs into our native language…
In throwing arms around our shoulders, claiming us…
In playing charades to understand us…
These people have blessed us immensely, filling our hearts to bursting.
Together, we have said “Adios,” to loneliness.
When I sing certain songs in church, I feel the close bonding of people with whom I have worshipped before.
As a worship leader it can be slightly debilitating because I find I can hear in the corner of my mind their drum rolls, guitar licks, harmony streams… I can see their arms wave through the air, and I can even see their eyes as we connect in funny moments of levity about wrong notes. It’s a forever thing. When we worship together, when we work together, when we play together, we grow affection for one another at the deep impenetrable place of the heart, only reachable by true love.
And so it is that my loneliness is cured by the forever company of my people from all of my days past as we sing the songs through which we’ve bonded.
So it will be now with those three songs.
My heart is even further dispersed than before.
Part of my heart is now in Mexico.
But it is connected through the heart of Christ toward which we are all being ultimately drawn.
What will worship be like in that day? I don’t know… but verses will be in a language we totally get, and through which we are built by His love, His heart, and His beauty.