Wealthy Americans Came and Lived in Tents: Responding to Disaster in Mission
by Donny Cole
The following is a first person account very worth reading. On April 25, 2015, a major earthquake between 7.8 and 8.1 in magnitude struck the country of Nepal. Sadly, more than 9,000 perished and 23,000 were injured. By June 1, our BCNE Disaster Relief office learned of an opening for a volunteer to join with one of the first volunteer Baptist Global Response teams being formed from our Region 1 Virginia Disaster Relief organization. By June 6, a volunteer who had been trained through our Disaster Relief New England organization by the name of Donny Cole responded. Donny volunteers in leading a Bible study group connected Maine Collegiate Ministry. Dramatic doors of opportunity opened in which he would be able to go to Nepal July 10-25 to do relief work in a village some miles from Katmandu with the team after some preparation. Donny works as a surgical technologist at Maine Medical Center in Portland, ME. He had tremendous support from his employer and was able to fundraise all that was needed to go.
The organization Voice of the Martyrs has a list of ten ways you can pray for the persecuted church. If you ever read the list you will notice something strange about it: there is no mention of health. Ten ways to pray for persecuted Christians and no mention of health? And only one indirect mention of safety? Don’t these people know anything about prayer? I believe they do; in fact I think they know more about prayer than most of us. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with praying for safety or health, it’s just that they aren’t ultimate. In fact, when compared to ultimate things they become rather insignificant.
Without a shred of exaggeration, the trip to Nepal was paradigm shifting for me, but before I get carried away I suppose I should start with the simple details. A couple years ago God began to teach me a very important lesson: In the same way that God says he gets pleasure in choosing those who are weak and foolish, God is also pleased to show himself in the small, mundane, simple activities of life. I had done several overseas mission trips but what God wanted me to know was that he had no use for a man who couldn’t be a part of The Work in his hometown, which lead to volunteering with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief in some very small ways. It was through this simple act of obedience that the opportunity in Nepal came knocking. Personally I had already decided I would not be seeking any overseas trips this year, but it is often when the will is unclenched that God works most clearly. The time between hearing about the trip’s existence and buying the ticket was five days, during which opportunities became available, the unplanned time-off from work in the busy month of July was secured, bank accounts were frustratingly put on hold ultimately leading to cheaper plane tickets than imagined and which matched up perfectly with the Virginia teams’ flights in Istanbul. Don’t get me wrong. The planning was not without its headaches, but in all of this, God was shown in my heart to be very kind to an overly self-centered man.
After close to forty hours of planes, trains, and automobiles (though not in that order), I arrived with the team in Kathmandu. We arrived around 7:00 am and dragged ourselves around the city, purposefully avoiding sleep so that we might adjust our internal clocks as quickly as possible. The fight between the excitement of a new place and near exhaustion was neck and neck, but exhaustion finally won early that evening. We spent one night in a guesthouse in the city before packing up two trucks for the four-hour drive to the village. On the way out of the city we picked up our cook, a young local who specializes in cooking for trekkers. This being his off-season, he is more than happy to pick up the extra work.
The arrival can be a fairly solemn time; not because of devastation, per se, but because your mind is replacing all its pictures of expectation with the reality, and, as we all know, the two can be very different. Whether one is better or worse can be irrelevant; it’s the adjustment you’re making room for. We unpacked the trucks and carried the bags, shovels, picks, wheelbarrows, and supplies up the small, slippery path to one of the condemned school buildings which would serve as our dining room and kitchen for the next week and a half. The sleeping arrangement was actually much better than I expected. The locals had taken pity on the first team, having seen the tents sitting out in the open. To help they decided to erect a bamboo shelter over the row of tents which the team covered with tarps. At least this way we wouldn’t have to scramble through the rain to get into bed. And it also provided a nice covering to hang clothes under; even if the humidity only made them more damp by hanging there.
One of the first things we did was to walk up the hill just behind the temporary school buildings to take a look at the job site. Our task was to continue the deconstruction begun four weeks earlier on one of the damaged school buildings, freeing the villagers up to do their normal work, much of which consists of working the fields since they were in the beginning of their rice season. The sight was nothing to behold, consisting of rubble separated by what used to be rooms and surrounded by what used to be walls. A growing pile of large stones lay on the side. One volunteer, who remained present for all six weeks of the deconstruction, told us the goal was to clear three of the five remaining rooms. To be honest, I was not particularly hopeful. I don’t recall setting any limit on what we would accomplish, but if I described the team standing there and the tools at hand you may decide not to fault me for my doubt. We consisted of two retired men around age seventy, one female nurse in her mid-fifties, another nurse, a math teacher, and a translator in their mid to late twenties, and myself, just a tall skinny white boy. We had cheap wheelbarrows, picks, and shovels to move dirt, gravel, and large stones in the hot, humid, rainy monsoon season of Nepal. My doubts aside, the next day would set the precedent.
As would become our routine over the following eleven days, we woke between 5:30 and 6:00 am. The cook would have hot water for coffee or chia (the Nepali version of chai tea) ready for any who wanted it. We worked for a couple hours before eating breakfast at 8:00, usually consisting of eggs and some version of a pancake or crepe. We would follow breakfast with a short devotion before heading back to work for three more hours, then break for lunch. Early afternoon was a common time for rain, and that being the hottest part of the day we took this time to fellowship, explore, read, or visit with others in the village. In the evening we would work from 3:00 to 6:00, eat dinner, and relax before heading to bed, which was an increasingly earlier event every evening. This was the routine. Picking away at the rubble and little by little watching the mess get smaller and the pile of large stones grow. In three days the group had cleared the three rooms and my view of our little team had widened immensely. By noon on the last day of work the site was entirely cleared, with the exception of one waste-high corner wall they wanted to keep and one substantial pile of stone as our measure of success.
For Christians in Nepal, Saturday is the chosen day for rest and worship. . Attending a church service in the Lower Himalayas is as humbling a church experience as I have ever had. It’s a simple 45 minute walk from the village to the church. We traveled up the gravel road, occasionally crossing a patch of cobblestone, to the main paved road, down the hill a short distance through the Hindu places of worship, off the road on a small pathway between houses and rubble, and on one of the small terraces that paint the landscape everywhere you look, next to a small stable for goats and water buffalo lay a simple metal shack not much bigger than 120 square feet (that’s about the size of the smallest bedroom in an average American home). Attached to it as a sort of entrance is a small Quonset shelter about eight feet long.This is where thirty to fifty people gather to worship. Beyond discovering my inability to sit Indian style as I once could, this was a much needed picture of the church. All across the New Testament the church is about Christ, his people, and their fellowship in all things, especially in suffering. It’s not about coffee, bands, lights, chairs, projectors, or sound bites, all of which greatly distract us. Church membership is about belonging to Christ, belonging to his people, and becoming a servant to all. In my opinion, these people were freer to be the church than I have ever been.
I have not had the pleasure of working with a finer group of individuals than in Nepal. I don’t mind confessing that I am not terribly fond of the Southern stereotype, so as a Yankee speaking mostly about Southerners that is quite a statement. The precedent this group set on day one was not only a pattern for the week but will remain a model for much of my foreseeable future. One of the greatest joys I experienced was that for two weeks I got to watch a small, mixed team from Virginia diligently work hard as they kept low expectations for standards of living and never complained. But I dare not stop there. This team was more than a group of Stoics, plugging along without complaint. I do not recall one moment when they were not happy to be doing it. Is this not the call, to rejoice always and in everything give thanks?
The stories about the way Christians have been treated in this village in the past range from heartbreaking to gut wrenching. One afternoon we all sat listening to a story from a Christian about a murdered pastor of a church some years before. As he was telling us the story, the current pastor of that particular church stopped by. For what, I’m not sure. He was only there a few moments, but just seeing him brought the story to life. The one thing glaringly clear from the story was the difficulty that being a Christian in that part of the world brought with it. After finishing his story, however, he continued to share with us how he believed God was using the earthquake to change his village. In the eyes of the villagers, wealthy Christian Americans came and lived in tents, a standard which is viewed as being lower than their own, in order to perform the simple task of moving rocks; and they were happy to do it. The team was told several times, both by villagers and others that they really don’t know the impact they have had. The reason for this should not surprise us, but it should make us rejoice. We are exhorted time and again to take up our cross and follow Christ, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but for the joy set before him emptied himself, became a servant and endured the cross. Rich Americans who left their homes living in tents serving people they don’t know for no obvious gain to themselves…this is only a microcosm of something much bigger, but it does display in a very real way the gospel we profess.
So why all that talk about prayer at the beginning? It is this. Amazing things are being done in Nepal. If our prayers are focused on the relief of suffering and pain over the glory of God, the joy of his people, and the spreading of the gospel then we may find ourselves fighting against the mission of God. God showed his own glory and love to us most clearly in the suffering and death of his Son. We should not expect to show or reflect that glory and love to the world without a little pain and discomfort on our part. It is, in fact, that pain and discomfort which proves to the world that what we have to say is true and valuable.To my knowledge, no one on this particular team gave the gospel to anyone. Don’t misunderstand me; the gospel is nothing if it is not spoken. But our lives reflect the reality of what we speak. There is much work still to be done. Almost all the people in the village are still living in corrugated metal shacks next to something that used to be their home. There are Christians who live there now, and if we will not go back others will. On top of all this the people who are there long-term are not just looking for good deeds to be done. They are doing the long, hard job of working with the people for their long-term benefit and health. If they are not reading the best and most thorough books on mission then they could be writing them.Seeds are being planted, water is being supplied, and God will provide the growth. I ask you to join in praising God for what has been done, and praying for that growth.
In his book “Life Together” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
“According to God’s will Christendom is a scattered people, scattered like seed into all the kingdoms of the earth. That is its curse and its promise. God’s people must dwell in far countries among the unbelievers, but it will be the seed of the Kingdom of God in all the world…the fellowship acknowledges that all earthly gifts are given to it only for Christ’s sake, as this whole world is sustained only for the sake of Jesus Christ, his Word, and his message. He is the true bread of life. He is not only the giver but the gift itself, for whose sake all earthly gifts exist. Only because the message concerning Jesus Christ must still go forth and find believers, and because our task is not yet perfected, does God in his patience continue to sustain us with his good gifts.”
If this is true then we must all ask ourselves if we are a part of it, or if we are on the outside looking in. Do I live like God’s name being known among the nations is the only reason for my next breath? Whether we are those who go or those who send, let this be the goal of missions and, therefore, the aim of prayer: that we would be a Spirit-filled, Christ-exalting, joyful, humble, servant people, satisfied in God alone, ready to give the reason everywhere, at any time, and at any cost.
Thank you again for all your prayers and support, they have done more than you know; but the Work is not done. I ask only that your prayers continue and indeed increase.