And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
— Matthew 28:18-20,
the so-called “Great Commission of Jesus”
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“The world is my parish.”
— John Wesley
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“Charity begins at home.”
Why go to a foreign country to help people? Why not stay home and help Americans?
I was asked that challenging question by other Christians many times when I went on mission trips to the far-flung slums of Juarez, Mexico, where volunteer teams from my home church (Sun Creek UMC in Allen, TX), build cinder-block houses for big families living literally in cardboard-box homes.
I was asked it when I went with mission teams to be in ministry with struggling Methodist Churches and orphanages in Moscow and Tomsk, Siberia.
And I was asked the question by an American tourist I met here in San Ignacio the other day, when I told him I moved to Belize largely to be in ministry with the poor and to live close to the millions of poor in Central America.
He and I and his wife were talking over coffee–they were a really nice couple from frigid Nebraska–and the talk led to that question, from the man, that I’ve been asked so many times before:
“Why not stay home and take care of needy Americans? I’ve always believed in taking care of our own first.”
I told him that I always appreciate that question, which I’ve heard so many times before, and can certainly understand the sentiment behind it. God knows there’s never going to be a shortage of Americans in need of Christian outreach.
But my first response to the tourist–who happened to be a fellow United Methodist (and who sheepishly noted that “We’re not really very good churchgoers”)–was this:
“First of all, you suggested that I could stay home and ‘take care’ of needy Americans in our own country. And my response to that is that it’s not my job as a minister or my role as a Christian to ‘take care’ of American people, or to take care of Central Americans in need. If I tried to take care of all the people who need some kind of care in America or anywhere else in the world, I’d drop dead of exhaustion before sundown today. Even Jesus didn’t stay in one place and take care for the rest of his life of every needy person he encountered. He moved on to spread the good news and the good news took on a life of its own wherever he preached it and practiced it and showed others how to live it out.”
I told my tourist friend, whom I met in passing at a local coffee shop, that I’ve been asked the same question he raised about American Christians taking care of “their own” no less that a kazillion times now. I told him–trying not to be defensive about my ministry–that I’ve been in ministry with people in need all over the U.S. and other countries too, because I don’t think there’s any such thing as an “American Christian.”
I always point out to Americans who question mission outside the U.S. that Christ didn’t say in his “Great Commission,” “Go therefore into your American town or city neighborhood and take care other Americans.” Jesus said to go into the world. And my tourist friend’s reaction was the same reaction I always get in lifting up the Commission of Christ: “I never thought about that.”
I hope he and others keep thinking about the good news, which Jesus didn’t limit to the United States of America. And think about the obvious fact that Christianity exited long before the United States was even founded, and founded with the displacement of native people who occupied it long before we Americans staked claim to it, btw.
John Wesley, who was an Anglican priest till the day he died at the end of a long and fruitful life of creating a Christian movement called Methodist, famously said:
“The world is my parish.”
It happens to be mine as well, and I happen to believe, strongly, that “the world” is every Christian’s mission field. Just because “charity begins at home,” as the wisdom of American folk theology has it, does not mean that Christian outreach is to be limited to a church’s neighborhood or town or state, or country or continent.