Giving a window into our lives of doing cross-cultural mission here within the US border is often hard to describe. We have been sending missionaries to other countries for centuries and the globalization and urbanization of our world has seemingly caught the Church off guard. While geographically close to International Teams headquarters outside Chicago, our neighborhood and the folks we work with are culturally, experientially, and often linguistically very far from the majority in our own city.
So I sit down with a family I have never met this week and within moments they found out exactly how much money we paid for our house, why I can’t see, that my mom died of a heart attack, as well as very personal struggles we’ve faced in our extended families over the years. This is Nepali culture at its finest. You often cut to the chase and figure out what these people are all about. I didn’t flinch and responded cordially as this particular family responded to the conversation discussing how they had moved from Washington state to Pittsburgh. Within the hour or so that I was at the apartment with our pastor, there must have been 15 or so people that came in and out of the apartment. Neighbors, friends, relatives. . . this is life in an event oriented culture being squeezed hard by the IPhone calendar and time is money new America that they are growing to love.
Being good neighbors means you often don’t get to plan for it
We rarely if ever announce when we will be popping in. This is simply life in the ethnic enclave in which we live. People drop everything and host. If they feel like they can’t give enough attention to guest, they call down the hall and get a neighbor to step inside and show more welcome. We would call this being inconvenienced on a regular basis. Our neighbors call it being neighbors.
Visits to our home are very frequent. Almost daily someone stops by. One of our neighbors (I will call him Hem) has pretty much been flying solo since he arrived in the US at the age of 15 in 2011. He arrived with limited English and lived in a very strained family situation. Once he got to legal adult age, he moved out and moved across the country here to Pittsburgh. Still in high school, he moved in with some relatives that he was somewhat close to and is about to graduate. It is hard for me to imagine moving to an entire new country at age 15 where almost everything is the reverse of what you know. It has undoubtedly been terrifying and hellish for our neighbor but he plows on. Hem comes over several days a week staying for a couple hours at a time. We discuss life, faith, English, Nepali, and everything in between. I never expect him to come when he comes. But he comes. . . and we open the door and do all we can to welcome.
Playing with Home Field Disadvantage
Several years ago I heard former prof and church planter, Earl Creps, use the term “playing with home field disadvantage”. He used this term in reference to mission and how we have to get really good at getting off of our turf and rolling in the nooks and crannies of our community where people live. We often are pretty good at playing well when on our own turf – church building, scheduled programs, or inviting someone over at 6pm on Friday night. Each community and context is different, but in our world it is the home. I think in 7 ½ years of working with Nepalis I have met someone at a place other than my home or their home about 2 or 3 times. Life happens in the living room and kitchen and there is rarely any proposed plan to it all.
None of this is a complaint (at least not today) as this is simply life in our urban village. But we continually learn that we can’t put a whole lot of stock into big ministry programs, large church gatherings, and making sure someone shows up for a small group meeting. Life just doesn’t happen like that around here. We show up and sometimes there is a lot of work to get done relationally, missiologically, and pastorally. Sometimes there isn’t. But ministry and life happens so quickly in these moments.
I’m a super prompt guy and I would prefer to structure my days with office hours, coffee shop meetings, a very structured, controlled environment to teach about Jesus, and on and on. I’m not sure that exists for folks in our position. But it is sort of hilarious that I’m probably more wired to do that than to do this. The former is called America and this is urban Little Bhutan-Nepal Pittsburgh. So we, as any good missionaries would do, try to stop whining about having the same ministry conditions as our suburban pastor friends and embrace this fun, unpredictable dance that we do.
Staying Spiritually Alert
Undoubtedly a much more ministry program, structured environment will come one day. For now, we ebb and flow with whatever. Just a few days ago I had the thought that this home stuff (People coming over all the time and us being in homes all the time) must be combined with very deliberate mission. Though we don’t get to plan when a person comes over or vice versa, we have full control over being spiritually alert, ready, and deliberate in what the Lord is asking us to do. Maybe it is community research. Maybe it is sharing a parable. Maybe it is gathering with a few friends to pray. Whatever it is spiritual alertness is so critical. God reminded me of this a couple days ago and it really has changed the landscape completely. I have noticed that I’m not trying to squeeze culture realities into my expectations but just let life happen as it happens, focusing centrally on Jesus and His mission.
Tonight we went across the street to our neighbors place and it was straight chaotic in there. Kids running around everywhere, mom talking through Skype with relatives as she prepared food in the kitchen, and a 15 year old girl engaging us in a deep conversation. She didn’t waste any time by making small talk. She told me she was sort of stuck between the traditional Nepali ethnic church and wondering what American churches are like. We talked about how many American youth groups screw around way too much but then no one who visits her hard core ethnic youth bible study ever come back because it is so serious and adult-ish. She was really troubled and wrestling wanting the Gospel to really be Good News to her Hindu friends from school.
After our son had gotten done terrorizing the place we came back home and made supper. 10 minutes later we got a knock at our door. Hem was here. He too began to talk about being stuck between cultures. He wants to learn English so badly. I was able to share with him a really critical piece of my own discipleship that God has shown me this year, honoring Jesus with our obedience. Then Hem wanted me to tell him the parable of the seeds/soil. He mentioned that he is experiencing his faith going deep down into the soil and springing to life. I made him give me very real practical examples of why that is true. 
The conversation was everywhere. Sitcoms, impersonating people, planning to study a Christian book together, talking about unity in the Nepali and American church. . . . he even stopped at one point, placed his hand on my leg (very Nepali. . . take it easy guys) and told me how thankful he was that we moved into his neighborhood. He said he was being challenged and motivated in so many ways. He spoke into my heart about God using struggles such as blindness and him coming to America to make us stronger and a bolder example for Christ.
Laying Your Life Down
In our neighborhood I guess I’m trying to say that so much of life and ministry is displayed by dropping what you’re doing and caring for each other. That moment, whether it is 5 minutes or 3 hours, makes all the difference in the world. And God in His sovereign plan has seen fit that we be able to switch back and forth between English and Nepali as we engage our community. So there is the window. It took me a while to get it out in words tonight, but there you have it. We don’t get to plan this life. .. but honestly do we in any culture or circumstance? Life happens and we stay spiritually alert. A Psalm that I can’t get out of my heart the last few weeks. Want to carry it into what will probably be another extremely spontaneous day tomorrow.
Whom have I in heaven but you? There is nothing on earth I desire besides you. My heart and my strength may fail, but God you are the strength of my heart and my portion forever. – Psalm 72