Ever since I was a little girl, I have been intrigued by missionaries. I remember walking the halls of my church, staring at the bright colorful pictures of dark-skinned people dancing with spears, wearing animal skins that covered only what was necessary, seeing women who wore earrings so heavy they practically stretched their ears down to their necks.
I really had no idea what a missionary did. Maybe I was told their job was to tell others that God loves them, but I’m not sure I even knew that. All I knew was this: I was fascinated by the fact that they were different from me. Different colored skin. Different clothes. Different language. Different food. Different country. Growing up in small town Texas, I had not been exposed to very many people who were different from me. But something in me wanted to know them: what they were like, what they ate, how they lived. I guess, in a sense, I wanted to see life through their eyes, to step into their shoes.
That curiosity, that intrigue and that desire has never gone away.
I was raised in a Christian home. Of course I was – I lived in the Bible belt. We went to church as a family, I learned all the major Bible stories, I even participated in Bible drill (a class that teaches you the books of the Bible and how to quickly find them. I LOVED it because it was like a race – who could be the first one to flip to the book or passage of the Bible that the judge called out. I think I won second overall, which really bugged me).
But did I know Jesus? I don’t think so. Maybe in a cognitive way. But not deep down, in my soul, in an intimate relational way.
It wasn’t until college when I experienced Him. I was doing the typical party-like-a-sorority-girl lifestyle, just having fun, when I was put in a number of situations, interacting with a number of people that pointed me to Him. And oh, I ignored Him for awhile. But He kept pursuing. I couldn’t deny it. So one night, after a Christian conference that my roommate dragged me to, I had a little heart to heart with him outside the door of my hotel room, on the floor (because my roommate had the key and she was nowhere to be found). And we talked. It wasn’t anything eloquent. Just honest. “Okay, God. You win. I give up. I know that you’re not going to stop bugging me until I give in. Fine. Here’s my heart, here’s my life. Take it. Do what you want with. Only…please don’t make me give up drinking.” (I find this request particularly funny because I don’t believe drinking is wrong, neither do many Christians. But it was the thing I was clinging to, the thing I was afraid He’d make me let go of. Because often times, when we first place our faith in Jesus, there is fear involved. Mistrust. Loss of control. Doubt. Grasping for security. I was afraid of what I would have to give up. And I was afraid of what I would become. Some crazy fuddy-duddy Christian. Who wants to be around someone like that? Helloooo…I was a sorority girl. It was SO not cool to be a Christian in my sorority).
But I gave Him my heart and from that day forward, I identified myself as a Christian. I had a new heart, a new purpose, a new identity. Note: I now faithfully drink a glass of Chardonnay at 5pm everyday, the witching hour with kids. Soon after, that same intrigue of people from other countries pulled at me. I knew I had to go. Somewhere. And tell people about Jesus. I know, sounds judgmental and preachy and very non-politically correct to some. And honestly, I was quite judgmental and arrogant about my faith in the beginning (and probably still am to some degree).
I chose Ecuador. It had everything that I dreamed of: jungle, beach, and mountains. I found some random missionary organization online (note: don’t do that!) and signed up. My mom freaked. My friends were like: what happened to her? I’m sure they thought I had joined a cult.
I committed to serving a year in Ecuador, teaching English and working as a missionary. I loved every minute of it. From the moment I landed and walked through that dark and dingy airport in Guayaquil, the heat and humidity hitting me like a truck, surrounded by dark-skinned people who were a foot shorter than me. I stuck out like a sore thumb. But I didn’t care. I fell in love with the country and its people.
Long story short, I quickly merged into the lifestyle of Guayaquilenos (I don’t know how to do the Spanish tilde over the ‘n’ with this keyboard and that bugs). Pretty soon, I was dreaming in Spanish. I loved getting to know my students, being invited into their home, learning how to make empanadas and arroz con pollo. Going to the beach with them. Riding the local buses with them (although they were concerned for us gringas as there were often robberies on the buses. But I wanted to do as the locals do, even though it was obvious I was NOT a local).
I loved my job. Teaching English to college students and young professionals. They were spunky. They were fun. They were kind and gracious and welcoming. I’ll never forget that one afternoon when the light bulb hanging from the ceiling of my classroom started swinging back and forth, back and forth. And the metal table, chairs and windows started rattling. I had no idea what was going on, but they did. My students yelled “Meez! Meez A-MAHN-da! Get under DEE table!” And that was my first experience with an earthquake in Ecuador. And not the last.
Enter: A Boy
I met Juan Carlos early on. But I didn’t really pay much attention to him. I was focused on my job as an English teacher and my ministry as a missionary. My goal was to pray for people’s hearts to be open to hearing about Jesus and what He did on the cross for us, to save us from our sins and reconcile us to God. Man, was I disciplined. I prayed faithfully over the names of my students every day. I prayed for the missionaries and their various ministries as I went for my morning run through the streets of Guayaquil (which just felt weird because nobody runs there!). I spent hours poring over my Bible, talking to God. I was a hungry, new, young, eager Christian.
But then, I got lonely. I started going to the internet café nearby on a regular basis. I wrote long emails to friends and family, sending them updates, trying to make my days sound as exotic and adventurous as possible. Because that’s what you do when you’re far away and you’re lonely. You want people to think you’re having a blast. You want to impress them. And maybe even make them a little envious of your exciting life.
It was there that Juan Carlos began to pursue me. He started coming into the email café to chat. We were just friends. (Note: there was a strict rule within our missionary organization: no dating the locals. I understood the rule – it confuses things, it can get messy. Of course, after your committed time with the mission was over, you could pursue a relationship with a local. Many missionaries did just that and ended up marrying locals and serving as missionaries together).
I knew it was against the rules. And I didn’t care. At least, at first. I loved the attention. I loved hearing how Spanish rolled off his tongue, I loved that he wrote songs and poems for me (I know, cheesy, but sounds wonderful in another language!). I loved the thrill and rebellion and excitement that came with being a gringa missionary who was secretly being pursued by a cute Ecuadorian boy.
Pretty soon, we became more than friends. There was a chispa, a spark, that was hard to ignore once ignited. He was a good kid. Attended the local church. We weren’t doing anything crazy. Just occasional secret walks through the neighborhood late at night. A couple of kisses here and there. Nothing big. But I was beginning to feel guilty. My conscience was pricking: you are breaking the rules. A good missionary doesn’t do that! The longer our relationship went on, the more guilt and condemnation I felt. I was failing. I was not doing what I was supposed to, I was not serving the people I had come to serve, I wasn’t even praying for them anymore. I was so caught up in this fling that I couldn’t think about anything else. I felt like a total hypocrite .
One night, the shit hit the fan (can a former missionary even say that???). I came home from the internet café, strolling down the alleyway hand-in-hand with Juanca. We enjoyed a lingering goodnight kiss, then said our goodbyes, and he waited around the corner to make sure I got in okay because he that kind of guy. The neighborhood we lived in was wealthy (which bothered me because of the message it sent to the locals, but that’s another blog post), so the houses were surrounded by high, concrete walls with barbed wire and shards of glass across the top. Robbery was common.
The Breaking Point
It was an hour past my curfew. I never had any problems getting in late. The missionaries went to bed early and their building was separate from ours (I lived with two girls – one from Northern Ireland, one from England).
I tried the key. It turned in the lock, but the door wouldn’t open. Something was barring it shut.
I remembered a discussion in our missionary meeting earlier that day about the door not locking properly so they would have to secure it with a piece of wood. I had totally forgotten about that. Awesome. For a moment, I panicked. I was caught, this was it.
The Wall of Shame
But then, I had a brilliant idea, as so many of my ideas are. I could climb over the wall. No one would notice. And that was totally do-able. I mean, it was just a concrete 10 foot wall. No problem.
There was a guard seated in a chair one house down with a very large gun (I have no idea what kind but it was BIG) lying in his lap. Luckily, he was asleep. But I knew I had to be very, very quiet.
I found a section of the wall that had large enough divets in the concrete to hold my feet. I threw my dressy black teacher heels over first because there was no way I was climbing in those babies. Then I started my ascent. Juan Carlos quickly came running up behind me, whispering fiercely, “Amanda, que haces? Estas loca?” To which I replied: No Juanca, I’m not crazy. But I have to climb over. The door is barred shut.
He proceeded to assist me. This was a little bit awkward, since I was wearing a skirt and was now five feet above him. Confession: I hate uncomfortable, sexy underwear. My preference for ropa interior is a good, ole’ cotton pair of granny panties. So that’s what I was wearing. Here I was, scaling a ten foot concrete wall, with my boyfriend giving me a boost with his hand on my ass, wearing, I think what I remember to be bright yellow granny panties. I bet he was impressed. Hopefully he just thought it was another weird gringa missionary thing.
The climb to the top was not that bad. Luckily, the section of wall I was climbing did not have barbed wire, only shards of glass. Only. I was able to position my bare feet on a tiny section of the ledge where there was no glass. I couldn’t balance very long there, so I knew I had to jump. As I lunged, I felt the edge of my skirt catch on the glass and rip right through as I hurled myself down, falling on the grass of the missionary property. My landing stung just a little, but I think the adrenaline prevented me from feeling much pain. I whispered to Juan Carlos through a hole in the wall that I had made it. At just that moment, I heard a man yell: Que haces, joven? It was the security guard. He was yelling at Juan Carlos. I heard Juanca take off running down the street as the man yelled after him, but didn’t pursue him. That gun seemed pretty heavy to run with.
Shit. Shit. Shit. This was not good.
I ran into my apartment where Faith, my roommate who had become a very dear friend, was waiting up for me.
In her lilting northern Irish accent that I found so adorable, she said, “A-MAAAAAAAHN-DA! Where on Aaaay-jus have you been?”
I told her the whole story. She couldn’t stop laughing. “You eeeegit! You are insane, you little Texas vixen!” So I was.
The next morning at our missionary meeting, the director told us there was a break-in attempt on our property last night. I felt Faith kick me under the table. Apparently, the guard next door saw a young man trying to climb up our wall to get in. I felt such shame and guilt. It was eating away at my insides.
So, a few hours later, after praying and fretting and practicing my speech, I confessed everything to my boss. Well, not everything. I left out the climbing the wall part. It just seemed like an unnecessary detail. So to this day, they think somebody was trying to break in. Oops.
The director was solemn and sad. A little bit angry, but not for very long. He was such a gracious man. He turned to me and said, “Amanda, what do you want to do? Go back to Texas?”
I pleaded with him to let me stay. I didn’t want to leave this amazing country and amazing people. I had formed so many friendships. But I knew if I stayed in Guayaquil, it would be difficult for me to resist the advances of JC. Because he was pretty darn persistent.
The director gave me a way out: move to Quito and start a new ministry there. Teach English, meet locals, attend the neighborhood church. Away from the ‘distraction’ of JC.
So that’s what I did. I technically could have stayed in Guayaquil, but I knew it would be difficult to avoid JC because he was such a part of my daily life. And he didn’t seem to care about the missionary rules as much as I did!
I took an 8 hour bus ride through banana plantations, jungle and mountains to reach the lovely city of Quito, crisp and cool, surrounded by a stunning view of snow-capped mountains.
But I couldn’t really appreciate the scenery. I felt like a total failure. A complete disgrace. How humiliating to have to move in with the director and his wife who weren’t exactly thrilled by the circumstances. Plus, I had to leave my teaching position and have another woman fill in for me for the rest of the semester. I had to abandon the relationships I had developed with my students. I had to leave my dear friend and roommate, Faith. And yes, I had to make a painful separation from Juan Carolos. I knew it was best. But it hurt.
Encounter with Grace
One night, as I wallowed in shame, I had a conversation with a fellow missionary whom I deeply admired. I told her my story. She responded with grace and understanding, no judgment. Then, she told me something that changed the way I view the ‘good news’ of the gospel and my identity as a Christian.
“Amanda, all of us are failures. Even missionaries. Especially missionaries. The sad thing is, we are often the ones who think we’re good enough of our own accord, that we aren’t sinners in need of a Savior, that we can earn our salvation. That’s when God often intervenes, using our circumstances to show us our need, our utter brokenness without Him.”
I heard her words but they weren’t really sinking in.
Then she shared her story. She met her current husband in high school. He was a bad boy. Drove a motorcycle, wore leather, had tattoos. Her parents did not approve. She didn’t care. She was swept up in love. Then, she got pregnant. For her Christian parents in a small Texas town, this was devastating. She lived in a tremendous amount of shame for a long time. But she decided to have the baby. Eventually, they got married. And somewhere down the line, they both placed their faith in Jesus and soon after, were serving as missionaries together. Now, they are some of the most godly people I know. Her husband gets up at 5am every morning to pray. She has a thriving women’s ministry that would blow your mind. They even adopted a little girl that was left on their doorstep. People full of grace. Full of love. Full of forgiveness.
And they extended that to me.
It took years for me to change my perspective on that year in Ecuador. For a long time, despite my conversation with that gracious woman, I felt like a failure. I had screwed up. People had even donated money to support me. How humiliating. How wasteful.
But over time, God began to show me that perhaps my experience was a success. That perhaps, what God wanted me to know, more than anything, was that I didn’t have to be perfect. I didn’t have to perform for Him. I wasn’t capable of following all the rules. What I needed, more than anything, was His love, forgiveness and grace. I needed to realize that I was a broken person who needed mending. And that is something that I continue to need everyday. That is what He offers. Mending. My heart, our hearts, are gradually being shaped into people who reflect Jesus in our every action, word and thought. It’s a slow process, with lots of ‘failures’ and ‘mess-ups’ but those failures help us see our desperate need for Him. And that’s a good thing. Because without them, we think can earn his love, we can work our way into His good graces. And that kind of life is just exhausting. Let go. Let God. (I know it’s over-used, but I still love it!).
Help me, Jesus, to stop trying to perform for you and others. Help me just let You do Your work in me and stop trying to interfere. Thank You for loving me with a love that abounds, that never gives up, that never runs out, that is eternal, that changes me inside and out into the woman you have called me to be. Amen.