The Missionary

August 1, 2005

Published as: “The Missionary”    Seek Magazine.  August 2005

By Perry P. Perkins

High up on the plateau overlooking the Sahara desert in Nigeria is the city of Jos.  During the dry season it’s a baking arid tabletop, prone to violent dust storms and merciless droughts.  For a boy from the cool wet climes of the Pacific Northwest is was as far from home as I could be.

I had arrived at Lagos International Airport in January, suffering from a severe sinus infection and punchy from lack of sleep. My first adventure, being forced to leave the airport before my host showed up, was luckily brief and ended happily when I was discovered wandering aimlessly in the lobby of a nearby hotel.

In the three months that had passed since then, I had discovered what it meant to be in the mission field alone.  Previous evangelistic excursions to Mexico and Europe had been in groups of ten to twenty of my best friends, sort of a ministry holiday. To be sure, we worked hard, but the end of each day there was the camaraderie of friends to look forward to.  In the desert I was surrounded by strangers.  The work as a tutor was difficult, much more so that the physical labor of clearing land and building houses.  I spent my days walking a fine line between the teachers that I worked with, who desired my assistance is maintaining discipline, and the parents of the children that I tutored, and lived with, who were determined that the issues at hand were the fault of the teachers.  This, combined with severe homesickness and a terrifying bout of malaria had left me nearly despondent, convinced that I had failed myself, my church, and my God.

One Saturday, I rose early, hoping to avoid the heat of the day, and taking a bottle of water and my pocket Bible, I walked to the outskirts of town and began to follow a long rusty railroad track out into the desert.  I walked for an hour or two, humming a worship song and looking for a likely spot to stop and read.  Alone with only my thoughts, I began, again, to question the whole trip.  What was I accomplishing? Who what I helping? How was I ever going to explain this to the body of believers who had sent me out, with their money and their prayers, to make a difference halfway around the world?

The temperature began to rise, and I stopped to sip from my water bottle.  Far ahead, across the flat, barren sands of the plateau, I could see a small dot, through the rippling heat waves.  From where I stood it looked like a person, someone walking towards me, following the same tracks back toward the city that had brought me out into the wasteland.  Soon I could see him plainly, a man, dark and thin, carrying a bundle of kindling on his shoulder, dressed it faded jeans and a tattered white dress shirt. Shambling toward me, his feet were protected from the burning desert floor by thin, weathered sandals. 

My first reaction was fear; this is how low my faith had come to be. 

As the man grew closer I could see that he was elderly, at least seventy, though the years of depravation and harsh surroundings made him look much older by the standards of my own pampered country.

As he approached me, he raised a hand in greeting and I suddenly smiled and did the same.  At my smile, the stranger broke into a long flowing monolog in his native tongue, none of which I was familiar with. His broad white teeth gleamed in the desert sun as he gestured to himself and then to the desert behind him.  I shook my head, still smiling, and used the handful of Yoruba that I knew to try to explain that I couldn’t speak his language.  His smile grew even broader and he continued to chatter happily. 

Reaching for my water bottle I unscrewed the plastic cap and offered it to the stranger, whose grin became even wider as he took it and drank. Then, pulling on a leather cord that hung across his neck and down his back, he retrieved a battered skin water bag and offered it to me.  I undid the wooden stopper and sipped the warm dusty water, it tasted of tanned leather.

We watched each other for a moment, unable to make ourselves understood. Then the old man reached into the breast pocket of his worn shirt and pulled out a scrap of paper, which he offered to me.  He pressed the page into my hand, tapping my chest and pointing skyward. Then, touching his fingertips to his forehead, he continued his trek towards town.  I stood there a moment, feeling the sun burning through the back of my shirt and sweat trickling down my face. 

I opened my hand and found a small, much folded track, written in English, which outlined the plan of salvation.  The page showed in simple pictures man’s sin, Christ on the cross, and his bridging the gap between God and us.  I knew the track well; I had handed out hundreds like it in other far off countries.   Looking at the dusty, timeworn, track, I felt tears coming to my eyes. 

This was it. 

This is what I had forgotten.

In all of the meetings, and lesson plans, and disagreements, and fear, I had forgotten what had put me on a plane, my arm still bruised and sore from a battery of inoculations, and brought me to this completely unfamiliar place.  I had forgotten why I had left my family and friends, my home and livelihood.  It was all laid out for me again on the scrap of paper.  

This man, this missionary, that I had met by chance along the railroad tracks in the desert; he understood what I had forgotten, that the message is what’s most important.  Finding the opportunity to share the plan of salvation, regardless of race, position, or even language, was what mattered.  I turned to thank him, to see if I could help him with his load of sticks…but he was gone. 

Across the wide, empty, expanse of desert that lay between myself and the edge of the city, there was nothing but the dusty railroad tracks and blowing white sand.  I retuned to Jos that afternoon with a new sense of purpose. 

I may not be able to do what I had been sent to do, I might even fail miserably at tutoring the children of the American missionaries, but I could take advantage of every opportunity to share the message through my words and my actions.

Looking back on the months I spent in Nigeria, I think of all the things that I learned.  What true poverty looks like, what real perseverance is and what it can accomplish, and how our God, in his infinite love and wisdom, can use any opportunity, overcome any barrier to remind us how simple his calling really is.

The missionary did not speak my language, he did not know me or my calling, he had no plan of salvation to walk me through. But he changed my life, he was Jesus to a young man who had lost his way, and he did it with only a smile, a wrinkled piece of paper, and a willing heart.

God, grant me the same.



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