Mission has become a buzzword in the first world evangelical Church. I was recently reading an article about how our churches have changed with the shifts in society. We have become more green. We are more involved in community. We are more eager to serve in humanitarian causes. We rescue women and children from sex trafficking. We build wells for communities without access to clean water. We set up orphanages in far-off lands for victims of Aids. We are doing good things.
We are teaching our kids to look outside of our own backyards, our own cities, our own countries. We are trying to make a difference. Sometimes it feels like we are succeeding. Sometimes we could wonder if all our efforts are amounting to naught. But still we prevail, believing that doing something positive for one person is good enough. We never know how helping one person might change the world.
But missions aren’t only a Christian thing. A couple of weeks ago there was an article in a local newspaper about a woman who is raising money for a family overseas who are in need of wheelchairs. I met this woman’s son at a very sad time in my life. Arlynne had just died and I was buying Karissa a gift for her 18th birthday. He was the sales associate who was helping me. As we talked, I learned his story. His 3 younger siblings had died in a house fire years before. He alone had survived. His mom had taken her grief and turned it into reaching out to others. It was beautiful to hear how she could do something positive in spite of her own personal pain.
My daughter, Arlynne, had sensed God’s call on her life regarding missions. First she went to Montreal with a group from her high school during the summer after grade 9. Then she attended a mission week during March Break of grade 10. But her last missions trip was the biggest one yet. She was supposed to spend 8 weeks of her summer up north teaching kids about God, telling them how much He loved them. Her summer only lasted 5 weeks. Then she was gone.
The night we found out that Arlynne had gone to Heaven was a crazy night. Our home was filled with family, friends and emergency personnel. In the middle of the chaos, the emotion, one thought kept coming to my mind, “Where was the mission?”. Their absence was glaring.
We heard from them the next day. One of the co-ordinators called me. We already knew each other from when I was a summer missionary, 25 years before. I guess they figured I should talk to someone familiar. His condolences were sincere. He answered my questions and assured me that he would be in touch.
I don’t hold the mission responsible for Arlynne’s death in any way. Job 14:5 says that “A person’s days are determined; You [God] have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.” I believe that with all my heart. God had chosen for Arlynne to go to Heaven that day. God had chosen that time. God had chosen that circumstance. He had it.
I am sad, though, about the way they handled it. It felt like they were on the defensive with us. It felt like they consulted their lawyers and insurance before they contacted us. It felt like we didn’t matter, like Arlynne’s death was not that important. But it was important. It was and is important to us.
The summer carried on for the mission pretty much as planned. A number of Arlynne’s friends from training came to the funeral. There were a couple of clubs up north that were postponed in the days immediately following Arlynne’s death but by the end of the week it was business as usual. The teens rallied. They were awesome.
I am proud of the missionaries that summer. They took a terrible circumstance and turned it into something good. I didn’t want it any other way. The man who had performed CPR on Arlynne as they waited for the ambulance led a boy named Austin to faith in Jesus a few days after she was gone. Austin was one of the last kids Arlynne spoke to on the day she died. I don’t know how it would have been different if Arlynne was still there but I am so happy he found faith in Jesus. Luke 15:10 says, “In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.“(NLT) I am sure Arlynne was rejoicing with the angels that day.
I could have spoken out about ATVs and safety. I could have made it my life calling. There are grieving parents who have become spokespeople for their own particular cause. I haven’t. I could have fought against those people that my daughter had been entrusted to for that summer. I haven’t. My desire is to speak out to missions who are called to spread His glory but need to review their policies, their priorities. I don’t want anyone to feel the way that we did when things went wrong. I want missions to examine the way they handle tragedy.
A mission, every Christian mission, needs to value their volunteers as much as they value the people they are trying to reach.
What does valuing look like?
- It means putting the person first, before the missional machine. Three weeks after Arlynne’s death, my dad intercepted a fund-raising letter from the mission addressed to Arlynne.
- It means being a servant, having a servant’s heart towards the volunteers and their families. The mission had sent flowers to the funeral home but I don’t ever recall a time when anyone ever called and asked if they could do something, anything, practical.
- It means asking, praying for God’s guidance before any decision or phone call is made. It means accepting what will come from their actions and praying that God will be able to handle it, without fear of repercussions.
- It means having a humble attitude. It means dropping all pretence and just being open, honest and full of God’s grace.
- It means being different than the world.
We have had people use Arlynne’s name to try to raise funds for other missions. I had one woman call me and tell me that I needed to serve in a mission’s program in our area because Arlynne had said she would and now she couldn’t. I have also had a high-ranking administrative in a mission act like Arlynne’s death was inconsequential. It may be inconsequential to him but it means a whole lot to me.
There were so many more things that happened that were just less than what they could have been. We are Christians and we were hurt. How would a non-Christian feel about being treated like this? Would the mission’s actions promote or demote the name of Jesus? And it isn’t only about actions, it is also about attitude. My perception of someone’s tone, whether right or wrong, can force me to make judgments that may or may not be true. I am not perfect but, as a follower of Jesus, I need to exude an attitude of grace to everyone I meet so that I don’t give Him a bad name. And missions need to be the same.
All that being said, Arlynne’s supervisor for the summer knew what it meant to be a servant. She made a commitment to send a birthday card to everyone in our family in the year following Arlynne’s death. She called regularly and just listened. She allowed me to pour out my frustration and I never felt like she was judging me. She continues to send Christmas cards and flowers for the anniversary of Arlynne’s death. She has taken her mission and made part of it about us. She also tried to implement changes to the guidelines for the summer missionaries that would keep them safe. I appreciate it so much.
I hope and pray this never happens to anyone else but that is not reality. People can die on missions trips. Missions need to be aware of how they need to change to be able to support everyone involved. It is about hoping for the best and planning for the worst. It is really just stepping back and imagining the unimaginable. And we need to ask those missions, those churches, who we are entrusting our kids to, the tough questions about their policies.
I have tried to be a woman of integrity. My word is all I have. This isn’t about sullying anyone’s name. Some of you may know the name of the mission that Arlynne was serving with. Maybe you have served with them also. I believe in their directive. I believe that they are committed to seeing children come to a relationship with Jesus. I am about that too. This message is for every mission, every church, every place that is trying to spread the message of Jesus. The world has proven that anyone can do humanitarian work. What needs to set us apart as Christians is approaching this responsibility just as Jesus would, being His hands and His feet, showing His love. Every organization that desires to introduce anyone to our Father God has a greater calling, a higher standard, a truly divine purpose.
They need to do it better than the world.
And I need to do it better too.