This story was going to be about street girls in Bolivia: their life and struggles, the pain caused by bad choices, made first by parents, then by the youngsters themselves. I’d planned to describe the ministry of a Bolivian Centre, Mosoj Yan, which works with these children and young women, encouraging them to make better decisions and move ahead in their lives. The original story might have mentioned my involvement in the beginnings of this project, the research before opening the Centre and my experience during the three years I worked there. Somewhere near the end I could have explained how I handed over project leadership to a local Christian, believing that the role of foreign missionaries is to initiate, then move over and move on. It would have been a inspirational story, sticking closely to the facts, without deviating from the truth, incomplete only by omission - the omission of certain personal elements, which blur the account of “successful ministry.”
Christians today have learned to be more transparent: we are less afraid to remove the masks and tell our stories. In general, this is a healthy shift – although some of the forced, “Do you have anything you’d like to share with us?” sessions can still make us run for the hills. Too often we, the “weaker brethren”, used to sit in our pews overcome with guilt, observing ecstatic faces around us, worshipping God, apparently without a care – or doubt – in the world.. By opening up to each other and telling our stories, that false guilt can be alleviated and we begin to encourage each other. But as Larry Crabb pointed out in his book, Finding God, there are different stories to tell. He refers to our ‘Personal Story’, our ‘Inside Story’ and our ‘Deepest Story.’ So, maybe I won’t tell you my deepest story – after all I don’t know you that well – but I will attempt to be more honest than I’d originally planned.
Because perhaps if I’d opened up, instead of maintaining my stiff-upper-lip missionary pose, I could have saved others and myself some pain. Not that life should be painless – nothing in the Bible indicates God’s intention that it should be – but some of our grief is self-inflicted.
After 12 years ‘on the mission field’, as they used to call it, the advice I dished out, the Bible studies I led and the texts I quoted – almost automatically – began to sound increasingly empty. Could I really say that I found his will to be ‘good, pleasing and perfect’? The Bible told me it was in a verse underlined and circled in various colours – perhaps highlighting the difficulty I was having convincing myself. I told others it was, but did I really believe it? After years of counselling people not to look at other Christians, but focus on Christ, I found it impossible to remove the magnifying glass from my fellow-Christians. Was this the fruit of the Spirit I was seeing? Could the unbending dogmatism, the unforgiving condemnation really be the result of Jesus carrying out the good work in their lives? If not, why not?
At this point I was working in Mosoj Yan – yes, I promised to tell you something about street children in Bolivia. After seven years working with a Christian student movement in Bolivian universities, the seeds of discontent had begun to take root. The initial excitement of living in a foreign land and the glamour – because there is a certain kudos in the Christian world attached to being a missionary – had worn thin. Here I was living in the poorest country in South America; the people around me suffered from poverty and injustice, while I counselled students through their romantic frustrations, impotent in the face of my own brand of loneliness. Year after year, the same stories were told, often with tears and I responded with tea and a fairly effective collection of Bible texts to counteract each specific situation. The students seemed to take one step forward, then five back, feeding the already kindled fire of doubt, which threatened to consume my faint faith.
“I know you chose the weak to shame the strong” I would mutter to God, “but with this lot you’ve outdone yourself.” I wanted the student group to take the university by storm – not only because students would have found Christ, but to confirm my own flagging faith in his power. After all, I argued, Jesus was attractive to people when he walked on Earth, surely we, as Christians, should also attract others to him. There seemed little hope of that. Nursing a very shaky faith in God’s will for my life, I decided I was involved in the wrong kind of ministry. I needed to make a difference. Touch broken lives. Witness God’s healing and renewing power.
So, in 1989, after some discussion with the mission I worked with, it was decided that I should take time to research the situation of street children in Bolivia. Find out if and where there was a need for a new project. Thus started an exciting period visiting and learning from already existing projects and reading about street children. I discovered that official sources estimate that there are 140 million street children in the world today, 20 million of whom live on the streets permanently without their family.
This was news to me, opening my eyes to the existence of two different populations of street kids: a large group who work on the streets, but continue to live with their families and a smaller – but significant – number who live on the streets. Visits to the projects revealed several different approaches to street kids. Some groups, usually government organisations, tend to round the children up and put them into homes – the institutional approach. Others provide services for the children in drop-in centres,where the children can have lunch, shower, watch films, play football and participate in activities with a view to encouraging them to return to their homes. Other projects have opted for organising activities in the children’s habitual hang-outs in the street, forming groups for educational or sports activities, all with a view to befriending the children and getting them back with their families.
By 1990, the way ahead seemed clear: A drop-in centre for street girls in Cochabamba, manned (or in this case womanned) by a team of Christians responding to God’s call to ‘defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed’ (Psalm 82:3). We would provide a place where they could get off the street for a few hours, learn new skills, go back to school, return to their homes. By making contact with parents or guardians, we would prevent children from being pulled out of school and being made to work for long hours on the street, two short-sighted survival policies which push the children into street life. In all the Centre’s activities, we would share our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, so that street girls and their families could also come to know Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
And that’s what Mosoj Yan has been doing for the past 10 years, growing to a point where it now has three centres: a drop-in centre for girls who work on the streets, but live at home; a second house, the Motivation Centre, also drop-in, for teenage girls who live on streets and a third residential home, the Restoration House, for girls who want to get off the streets, but need a kind of half-way house before taking that huge step into independent living.
Many have become Christians and those who have not have gone on to finish school and have a brighter future than they ever believed possible. God has changed –and is changing lives – and blesses the work of Mosoj Yan.
And me? I loved the work with the girls. At last, I was making the difference I longed to make. Every day brought a new challenge and the problems were real – human survival dramas, instead of the naval-gazing introversion I had found in the student scene. And yet … ah, yes, those fateful words ‘and yet.’ How to pinpoint where discontent begins? When human longing for something more breaks through the carefully constructed defence of learning to be ‘content whatever the circumstances’? At what moment does that tame mute, whose name is Doubt, recover its voice, roaring questions, which echo unanswered through the corridors of the mind?
Despite being involved in a fulfilling ministry. Making a mark on the world. Touching lives. Despite being a hero – I was profoundly unhappy. The daily quiet time and Sunday, Wednesday and Friday church meetings did nothing to relieve the inner sense of emptiness. The answers no longer satisfied.
The power of God absent. The formulas stubbornly failed to work. Schizophrenia. For years that’s what I felt I’d been suffering. I’d believed – and taught – the Biblical truth, while my eyes observed situations which denied that very truth. I knew God could heal, but I’d never seen him heal anyone close to me. I’d listened to too many lonely singles whose prayers for that ideal partner seemed to fall on deaf ears. I’d watched friends deny, struggle, pray and seek counselling over homosexual yearnings, only to discover that ‘liberation’ was not on offer.. Was this mid-life crisis?
At 38, I was about ripe for it. The first half of my life – strangely enough, even as I thought this, I had to say “God willing”– had been dedicated to God.
Now it was time to take charge. So I did.
Causing immense pain to family and friends, I left the church, the mission and the project. In the ensuing storm of criticism for endangering the faith of those who had seen me as a role model, I was deaf and blind to all responsibility. All my life, it seemed, had been dedicated to ‘doing the right thing,’ ‘thinking of others’ and now it was my turn. Conveniently forgetting the ‘stumbling block’ warning, I argued that I couldn’t be held responsible for others’ faith – they shouldn’t be looking at me anyway. I got married – there hadn’t been a time in my adult life when I hadn’t wanted to be married – ‘husband’ never failing to figure among the Top Ten in my prayer dairy. We had a child – God would have cheated me out of motherhood. I was calling the shots and making it happen. Or so it seemed.
I know you’re hoping for a happy ending. There is none – yet. I hope, oh yes, I hope – but do I believe? – that through all the wrong turnings and sharp descents I’m still on my journey. Maybe it would have taken a different route if I’d told my story. Now I think I had it all wrong. I understood Jesus’ promise of abundant life to mean easy life, with an abundance of good things and minimal suffering. I bought into the ‘happiness and prosperity’ line and when it didn’t work, I blamed God. It was my fault. I didn’t read my Bible carefully enough. And for Mosoj Yan? I don’t know much about happy endings, but I know that many street girls in Cochabamba are experiencing new beginnings as they learn about new options and better choices in Mosoj Yan’s three centres. God is blessing a ministry that was born with a small seed of faith and a large tree of doubt. For me, that tree blocked out the sun and brought darkness, but for Mosoj Yan, the seed has taken root and is producing its harvest. What does that tell us about God choosing the weak?