We first met Sandra and Yuri while watching a soccer game at the Colegio Americano Menno soon after we arrived as mission workers in La Mesa, Colombia. We sat and talked with the students from this 12-grade Mennonite school, learning a bit about their lives.
If we had assumed school responsibilities immediately, we likely would not have gotten to know the girls. We would have been focused on preparing lessons and grading papers, with little time to sit around watching soccer games.
During our early months in our Mennonite Mission Network assignment, there wasn’t much to do. We busied ourselves with getting settled and meeting people from the Mennonite church and school. Then, the colegio celebrated its 50th anniversary, so we joined in the two weeks of intense activities.
Eventually, as November rolled around, we faced a dilemma. Our assignment was mostly with the school and the school year was drawing to a close. Classes wouldn’t begin again until the end of January. How should we fill our time?
We had come from a culture of work and productivity making it hard to feel very good about ourselves if we weren’t accomplishing much. The North American hospital and school environments in which we had worked only exacerbated our tendency to measure our worth by how we use our time and how much we get done.
Breaking this cycle required being transplanted to a situation where time is savored, not spent, and unfinished work is readily postponed till tomorrow.
Our definition of success had to change, too. A good day was no longer one in which we crossed off many things on our to-do list, but rather one in which we had meaningful conversations and made new friends.
In order to build relationships, we decided to focus on strengthening our language skills, even though we had come with a good base of Spanish. We also hung around at school, getting to know students, helping with odd jobs when the opportunity arose.
We talked to people at church and in the community, accepted every invitation to someone’s home, and tried to be hospitable ourselves.
In our many free moments, we tweaked our Web page, posted pictures of the places and people we encountered, and composed descriptive prayer letters.
We kept thinking how nice it would be when our “work” finally started.
Around Christmas, we began putting together a newsletter. In the process, we did some reflecting on the incarnation, on God sending Jesus to be one of us. Something dawned on us.
God in Jesus didn’t really do that much his first while here on earth.
Christ simply got to know us and our situation by being with us. We asked ourselves if that was perhaps what God wanted us to be doing during this time of transition. Or if that was even the model for how we should “do” mission, by focusing on being with people where they are rather than trying to get “something done.”
Were we just saying that to make ourselves feel better about not really doing anything? I don’t think so. Anything we want to accomplish later will have to be built on the foundation of relationships. Otherwise, the work is simply meaningless activity that assuages our productivity compulsion and does little of lasting value for those we were serving.
Being present and getting to know people is our work.
Our daughter, Abigail, celebrated her first birthday in November. For the party, we invited people from the church and school: the pastor and his family, some other members, a teacher and a few students.
After a couple hours of singing, eating, and looking at pictures, most of the guests left. Yuri and Sandra, our student friends, continued to hang around. Had we been thinking about a Sunday school lesson we had to teach the next morning at church, we probably would have sent them home.
Instead, we talked about school, their families, their dreams for the future. Eventually the topic of faith came up as we looked at Web sites about Mennonite service. They were interested in what we were doing and wanted to know what kinds of options there might be for young people like them.
All of the Mennonite exchange and service programs mentioned something about personal faith in Jesus and active membership in a congregation, preferably Mennonite. So we asked them about their own faith background. They came from traditionally Catholic families, but didn’t really attend church.
They had come to know about the Mennonite church from their years at Colegio Americano Menno, but had never been to a worship service. It seemed only natural to invite them to join us at church the next Sunday, and they eagerly accepted. Since then they have continued to attend faithfully, and are now taking baptism classes.
We rejoiced at the way a normal family-and-friends event led us to invite two teenagers to come and see what God was doing in the local Mennonite church. It’s hard to imagine that we would have had the same kind of opportunity if we’d been engaged in traditional work from the beginning of our term of service.
We were also delighted that this ministry event didn’t take us away from our family. So often it seems like mission work takes parents away from their children. We never want Abigail to feel like she’s secondary to our work.
Our official assignments began in January. I admit it felt good to have a regular schedule at school, with meetings, classes, lesson plans. But we continue to try to keep our focus on people, rather than on getting things done.
Being forced to change our focus from tasks to people in our first few months has made that possible, though not always easy. We still struggle with greeting everyone on the street when we’re in a hurry, or receiving surprise guests on a busy day. But we know that taking time to walk slowly, share a meal, or really listen reaps benefits far beyond what might have been done in the extra time those things require.
If we do nothing else in our few years here in Colombia, we hope people will say we were truly present.
Aaron and Laura Kauffman are members of Zion Mennonite Church, Broadway, Va., which supports them through a ministry support team. The Kauffmans also are supported by Mennonite Mission Network, the Colombian Mennonite Church and Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions. Aaron gives English language instruction to grades 6-10 at Colegio Americano Menno. Laura, a registered nurse, promotes health education and works with the parents' association at the school.