The Slumdog Missionary

Eating breakfast alone in the Caf one September morning, I noticed an old friend at the table in front of mine. We started a friendly chat. The conversation rolled around to our plans for the year, and she told me she was going on a January missions trip to India.

“Wow,” I said casually. “That’s cool.”
“Yeah!” she replied. “Wanna come?”
I wasn’t expecting that question, but it didn’t seem odd. “Send me the info!” I said. What harm could it do?

Lots, it turns out. An informal email led to an informational meeting. Then there were weekly planning meetings, training and fundraising. Before I knew it, I was about to cross 12- and-a-half time zones with my Bible, malaria pills and a vague sense of mission.

In the pitch-dark hours of janitors and jetlag, the I-5 was dead. As my dad’s BMW coasted down the freeway, it sunk in that I was about to fly to Mumbai—with a bunch of people I only slightly knew—for a week of intensive missions work in the city’s slums.

Leaving Los Angeles where the average house costs $1.7 million to visit a slum where the entire population of Montana is crammed into one square mile, I could hardly have been less prepared. I had no clue what sharing the gospel all day, every day, for a week would look like. I had little experience conversing with people of other cultures. What the heck am I doing? I wondered, heart thumping.

The first few days in India didn’t demand much of me; it was mostly orientation. After that, though, I was overwhelmed. Should I lead the conversation when we were welcomed into people’s one-room shanties? Was I going to commit some egregious cultural taboo? Could I keep a smile on my face while talking to the parents of a dying child? Why was it so hard to walk up to strangers and talk to them? Why were people confused or indifferent when I mentioned Christ?

With little time to adjust, I was thrown into a position I’d never had to occupy: urgently needed leadership amid total unfamiliarity. My job was to lead a four-person team into the Mumbai slums each morning. I went with my translator and two Indian Christians. I was supposed to train my teammates in evangelism, but, as a slow thinker and even slower decision- maker, I was drowning. I thought I would be ministering the way I did in southern California— and in a sense I was; both involved following the Great Commission—but ministry in Mumbai was a whole new cricket game. I was bogged down and bewildered, in over my head deeper than the city’s streets were strewn with refuse and excrement.

I got assigned to a room at a hotel that hadn’t been completely built yet, and met my roommate for the week, John, a pre-med senior at Houston Baptist University. About halfway through the week, when I was feeling discouraged and ineffectual, John restored my flagging motivation: “We’re just supposed to be faithful to our call and tell them about Jesus. Jesus does the saving.”

I mulled his words over and found myself thinking about the ministry differently. I realized that I didn’t have to see tangible results. I was just spreading seeds. It was a relief. Maybe I’d been hesitant because I had been worried about not seeing results. Maybe I’d subconsciously assumed that God’s job had fallen on my shoulders, that it was my duty to make people respond rightly to the gospel. Maybe I hadn’t been trusting God to take care of saving souls. I’m not sure exactly, but I realized I could be bold, holding nothing back from the ministry.

From that point on, the week got better: I didn’t feel as anxious or nearly as afraid of walking up to people on the street. Some of the Indians I talked with even started responding. One family asked us back for a Bible study, where they invited their neighbors. Another woman invited us back, and I got a chance to share my beliefs with her Catholic husband who spoke English. God was working. And not just on them—he had worked on me. On the last day of ministering in the slums I felt reluctant to leave: I might never know what God made of our week, but we’d shared the gospel, and we trusted him to do the rest.


Photo by (Flickr CC) Adam Cohn